Sharon Ní Chonchúir outlines the importance of a varied diet —and the right foods — for babies and toddlers.
Feeding a baby is a messy business. No matter how carefully you try to spoon the food into their mouth, most of it seems to end up smeared all over their face or on the floor.
It’s a vital task nevertheless.
Establishing a varied diet of nutritious food from an early age is what lays the foundations for lifelong good health.
Medical experts, including those at the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), recognise that the first 1,000 days of life — from conception up until the child’s second birthday — offer a unique opportunity to shape that child’s health in the future.
So much happens in a child’s body during this time, more than will happen at any other phase of their life cycle. An infant’s weight doubles by six months and triples by one year and by two years old; toddlers are approximately 75% longer than when they were born.
The right nutrition at this time can play a critical role in preventing chronic diseases. Research published by Israeli paediatric gastroenterologists Yigal Elenberg and Ron Shaoul in 2014 makes this point clearly. They found that exposure to a wide variety of foods from an early age can reduce the risk of allergies, atopic dermatitis, and asthma.
Early exposure to gluten can decrease the odds of coeliac disease and type 1 diabetes in infants with a family history of the conditions, and breastfeeding exclusively up to the age of four months may bring down the risk of obesity in later life.
“From nutrition in the womb to the first two years of life, we grow so rapidly,” says Aveen Bannon, a consultant dietitian at the Dublin Nutrition Centre. “Our brains develop and our immune system becomes stronger. The food a mother eats during pregnancy and the food that a baby is given to eat is vital.”
A mother’s nutrition during pregnancy has an impact on the development of the foetus and helps establish an adequate store of nutrients at birth.
Ruth Charles, the paediatric dietician behind NutriKids, has specific advice for pregnant women. “Mothers need to get lots of calcium, vitamin D, iron and omega 3 fats for themselves and the baby as well as enough calories to maintain healthy pregnancy weight gain,” she says.
“They should use the food pyramid as a healthy eating guide with a focus on seasonal and natural ingredients as opposed to processed foods.”
The foods to avoid are alcohol and foods that are high in fat, salt, and sugar, says Charles.
“There’s no need to avoid eating certain foods in the hope of preventing food allergies. There’s no evidence to support that. Pregnant mothers should eat as wide a variety of foods as possible, including nuts and seeds.”
Once babies are born, breastfeeding mothers need to continue eating well. “Breastmilk is custom made by each mother to meet her baby’s needs but it’s maintained at the expense of the mother’s nutrition.”
In order to meet both mother and baby’s needs, mothers should drink plenty of water and pay close attention to what they eat.
“It’s a good idea to drink a glass of water every time the baby feeds,” says Bannon. “Mothers need up to 500 extra calories a day and they should get these from as wide a variety of foods as possible. They should also take a vitamin D supplement and on occasion, I would recommend a multivitamin to ensure adequate nutrition in the diet.”
The FSAI’s best practice for infant feeding in Ireland guide offers practical advice on all aspects of food and nutrition from conception through the first year of life. It recommends mothers include at least one portion of oily fish in their weekly diet to help with the brain and eye development of their babies, and to consume at least three portions of calcium-rich foods every day.
Babies should also get a vitamin D supplement of their own. Vitamin D is essential for good bone health as it helps our bodies to absorb calcium. Low levels of the vitamin have also been linked with heart disease and diabetes. Currently, parents are advised to give 5ug to babies every day, no matter whether they are breastfed or formula fed.
By six months of age, breastmilk or formula is no longer enough for an infant’s nutritional needs. It’s time for solid food.
Some babies may benefit from a slightly earlier introduction to solid food. However, this should be no earlier than four months (17 weeks). A baby’s kidneys and digestive system are too immature until then and, according to the FSAI, being introduced to solids too early can increase the risk of coeliac disease, type 1 diabetes and wheat allergy in later life.
The FSAI has also found that some 20% of Irish six-month-olds are consuming foods that are too high in saturated fats, salt, and sugar. This could have a negative effect on their health in later life.
“Foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar are best avoided,” says Charles. “Even though they contain calories, there is usually minimal other nutrition and developing kidneys don’t need the extra challenge of high salt. These foods also contribute to childhood obesity and poor dental health in later life.”
So, what should they be eating?
“Irish parents tend to give puréed fruits, vegetables and rice as first foods,” says Charles. “But there’s no reason why puréed meat or lentils couldn’t be given too. Regular family foods made from good quality raw ingredients is preferred.”
Bannon recommends a varied diet. “The better variety you can give your child, the better in terms of future taste and health,” she says. “Introduce one new food at a time every two to three days and by the time the child reaches 12 months, they should have a similar diet to the rest of the family.”
Besides variety, parents should pay particular attention to certain nutrients, especially iron, zinc and fat-soluble vitamins A and D. “The baby is born with stores of these from its mother but by six months stores are running low,” she says.
“They now need to get these nutrients from foods they eat.” Omega 3 fats are another priority at this stage. Breastmilk and formula milk are high in these fats so parents need to make sure they make up the shortfall when baby starts to transition to solid food. They are found in oily fish such as salmon, trout, herring, mackerel, and sardines as well as leafy green vegetables and eggs.
Bannon cautions parents about fibre in the diet. “Too much fibre can fill a child up so that they don’t eat enough calories,” she says.
“The key things to remember for any baby or small child is that they have small stomachs but they require lots of energy to grow and develop. This means they need small servings, regular meals, regular healthy snacks and lots of variety, without too much of any one thing.”
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