Spotlight of the Month – @AllergyPenPals

Allergy Pen Pals is run by an incredible allergy mumma Michelle Barnett. Michelle has started up her own company of allergy badges to help children like her son Bertie make more people aware of their allergies at school!

1. What inspired you to start up your business ‘Allergy PenPals’?

My 2-year-old son Bertie is allergic to eggs, tree nuts and peanuts. When he was diagnosed, I was completely naive about what it would mean and how it would change our life. He was first diagnosed with an egg allergy but it wasn’t until he had an anaphylaxis reaction to nuts at about 14 months old that it really hit me how serious food allergies can be. I didn’t know any other child with allergies, and it felt very isolating, especially during the covid pandemic. Bertie was due to start nursery and I had to put my trust in somebody else to look after him. It was very unnerving and I’m sure all parents feel the same when they leave their child for the first time so adding the worry of food allergies was stressful, to say the least. I was getting his backpack ready and I started looking for something to put on his bag to make the nursery workers and other people more aware of his allergies. I didn’t have much luck so I decided to create my own allergy alerts. This started with stickers, but I now have keyrings, badges, and a luggage tag. I wanted to make them fun and kid-friendly so that children were proud and happy to wear them at parties or to put on their bags. I hope to help keep children safe and put parents’ minds at rest a little when they have to leave them. 

2. What is your best piece of advice for parents out there that also have children with allergies?

When you first find out about your child having food allergies, it really is quite daunting and you probably have found out after them suffering with ongoing symptoms or a scary first allergic reaction. Many allergy parents feel worried and anxious trying to manage it and it does change your life. However, the best thing I did was join the amazing allergy community that I have found on Instagram. I speak to many of my followers on a daily basis and it is really nice to share worries, ask questions and realise that you are not alone. Allergy parents just get it and I feel like you share a special bond. There are many resources out there that can help including: 

‘Dr Helen Allergy’ an allergy mum and allergy doctor who has a free Facebook page where she answers any queries and she has recently set up an allergy help course for parents with a wealth of knowledgeable information that can help you manage your child’s allergies. I have recently done the course and I have learnt so much, feel less anxious and more empowered. 

‘The Allergy Team’ are a great resource to help families in many ways and even host monthly meet ups. 

‘The Allergy Badge’ do training for families, nurseries and schools and will give you the confidence on how to keep your child safe. 

Do some research in your local area and see if there are any local allergy meet ups / playgroups. At Easter earlier in the year, I hosted my first Playgroup for allergy families and it was a great success. I met other allergy parents and we all shared our experiences and it was lovely to see our children having fun and playing safely. A final piece of advice is to get a list of allergy friendly treats for your child and keep a batch at home. Always carry a couple in your bag for those times at parties, playgroups, playdates, days out where there is nothing readily available so you always have something ensuring your child doesn’t miss out. It really does take an army to raise a child with allergies but your love, support and care is all they need.

3. How did you teach your son to understand his allergies?

Bertie is 3 in September so we are in the process of teaching him about his allergies. We started earlier in the year and he has really started to understand that he cannot eat eggs and nuts. I talk to him in general terms when we are out and make sure he is there when I am talking to the waiter and include him as much as possible. There was a birthday party at nursery the other day and the chef baked Bertie his own cupcake so he wasn’t left out. When I picked him up, we talked about how it didn’t have any eggs or nuts in and how it was a special cake for Bertie. We talked about how eggs and nuts make his tummy poorly. I have also bought a couple of allergy books that are suited to children – we always read books before bed so we have started to read those. I am also planning to involve Bertie in reading food labels making it a fun activity. As he gets older, we will make sure he always asks an adult before he eats anything and ensure he understands that he doesn’t leave the house without his EpiPens. I want to make sure Bertie feels empowered by his allergies and to try and make it as positive as possible – he definitely is an allergy superhero and I want him to know that. It is just a hard balance as a parent to try and ensure your child understands the severity without making them anxious about it but I am sure we will find our own way as he grows older. 

4. Where would you like Pen Pals to be as a business in 5 years?

It still sounds strange when the word business is mentioned as I still don’t see it as a business even though it is a successful Etsy shop now with over 250 5 star reviews and 1300 sales. I love the feeling that I am helping other allergy families and I want to use my platform to continue to raise awareness and share our journey. I have had several messages from others thanking me for what I have talked about or posted as it has helped them and I love the feeling of helping others. Selling fun and kid-friendly allergy alerts is a bonus. I would like to expand the range and I have dreams on what the range will look like but finding the time as a mother of 2 small children is hard at the moment. I have read and spoken to a lot of parents who say their child’s mental health is or has been affected and this breaks my heart to think that just because of the food they cannot eat, it results in poor mental health, anxiety and bullying. I would like to try and expand on this and work on ways to improve their mental health and bring a positive outlook to having allergies and this is something I would like to try and focus on in the future. 

5. What is your favourite product in the range and why?

I think it must be the allergy bag tag. I have received so many great reviews and feedback from customers. It is a luggage tag that explains that the child has a food allergy with the fun food characters and on the back, it has space to write the child’s name, allergies, emergency contact details, and any medication. If ever the worst-case scenario happens and a child has an allergic reaction without their parents present, I hope this tag would alert someone and give the vital information to help keep the child safe in an emergency. 

If you would like to check out Michelle’s business and get your children some of these amazing badges, visit her page over on Etsy here: