Infant & Early Childhood Nutrition
March is National Nutrition Month®, a great time to focus on the special nutritional needs of infants and toddlers.
For the first time, the latest edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released at the end of last year, includes dietary recommendations for infants and toddlers up to age 2. Recognizing the critical role of this period for growth, development, and the formation of healthy eating patterns, the guidelines emphasize the importance of infants and toddlers consuming foods and beverages that have optimal nutritional value.
Read on to learn more about the key recommendations for infants and toddlers in the 2020–2025 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and check out some of our Childbirth Graphics breastfeeding and parenting education materials that can help parents understand their young children’s special nutritional needs.
Breastmilk Exclusively for the First 6 Months
The guidelines reinforce what has long been known: Breastmilk is best for babies. Breastmilk offers the most complete form of infant nutrition, contains antibodies that help protect babies from illness, and provides substances that are essential for optimal brain development. It even adapts naturally to meet a growing baby’s needs. For the first 6 months of life, the guidelines recommend that a baby receive only breastmilk along with supplementation of vitamin D. Parents of breastfed infants should consult their healthcare professional to discuss any other specific nutritional needs while breastfeeding. In situations where breastmilk is unavailable, infants should be fed a commercially produced iron-fortified formula.
explains the importance of breastmilk as a baby’s first food.
Childbirth Graphics has a dedicated line of breastfeeding education materials that explain the many benefits of breastfeeding and provide information to help ensure successful breastfeeding. For example, our SpinSmart™ Breastfeeding Wheel is a fun activity that covers everything from the benefits of breastfeeding and breastfeeding positions to breastfeeding problem solving and support. Our Success With Breastfeeding Tear Pad and Why Should I Breastfeed My Baby? Tear Pad are great handouts that explain that it is recommended that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life and that breastfeeding continue as complementary foods are introduced until a baby is at least 1 year old.
Introduce Complementary Foods at About 6 Months
At about 6 months of age, babies should be introduced to complementary foods (nutrient-dense foods that complement breastmilk) that are appropriate for their age and level of development so that they do not pose a choking hazard. It is not recommended that complementary foods be introduced prior to the age of 4 months. Providing complementary foods helps provide babies ages 6 months and older with necessary nutrition and introduces new tastes and textures that help influence food preferences. Children 6 months and older should be introduced to foods from each of the food groups, including foods rich in iron and zinc. Cow milk and fortified soy beverages should not be given in place of breastmilk or infant formula in a baby’s first year. After babies are 12 months old, they may consume unsweetened whole milk or fortified soy beverages to help meet nutritional needs.
The guidelines also recommend introducing babies to foods that have the potential to cause allergies (such as peanuts and eggs) with other complementary foods. Infants who are at high risk for peanut allergies can be introduced to appropriate peanut-containing foods as early as 4 months of age. It is believed that introducing these foods to infants early can reduce their risk of food allergy. Parents and caregivers should consult their child’s healthcare professional for specific recommendations before introducing babies to foods that have the potential to cause allergies.
information about starting complementary foods.
New parents will appreciate our Your Baby’s First Year Booklet, which follows a baby’s developmental milestones during the first year of life, including information about starting complementary foods and avoiding choking hazards.
Avoid Added Sugars for Children Younger Than Age 2 and Limit Sodium
For children younger than 2 years of age, the guidelines recommend avoiding all added sugars. Added sugars are the sugars or syrups that are added to foods during processing or preparation. Added sugars are different from the natural sugars that occur naturally in unprocessed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, milk, and some grains. Foods with natural sugars tend to have a high nutritional value and are often good sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Added sugars, however, provide extra calories and sweet flavoring without enhancing a food’s nutritional content. Introducing young children to foods high in added sugars may encourage them to develop a preference for sweet foods, which can contribute to empty calorie intake and the potential for overweight and obesity as they get older.
Because infants and young children consume only small amounts of complementary foods and beverages, what they consume needs to provide optimal nutrition, not the empty calories that added sugars provide. Too many added sugars in the diet can displace the nutrient-dense foods young children need.
the risks of too much added sugar in a child’s diet.
Excess sugar can also damage and decay baby teeth, which can lead to pain, poor eating habits, and permanent dental problems. Our Baby Bottle Tooth Decay Model Set and Progression of Baby Bottle Tooth Decay Display highlight the dangers of putting a baby or small child to bed with a bottle containing liquids with added or natural sugars. Excess added sugars also pose risks to older children. Our Sippy Cup of Sugar™ Display features a sippy cup filled with decayed baby teeth engulfed in sugary goo to highlight the health problems posed by excess added sugars in young children’s diets, such as tooth decay and childhood obesity. The accompanying educational tent card discusses these risks and provides tips to help children avoid excess sugar consumption.
It is also recommended that children ages 6 through 11 months consume no more than 370 mg of sodium per day and children ages 12 through 23 months consume no more than 1,200 mg of sodium per day. Processed foods, such as some commercial toddler foods, processed meats, and salty snacks, may contain high amounts of sodium. Minimizing sodium intake can help prevent young children from developing taste preferences for salty foods. Sodium intake should be limited throughout the lifespan to reduce the risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems.
why children need nutrient-dense foods.
Discover More Great Educational Resources
For effective teaching materials that explain the many nutritional and other benefits of breastfeeding, visit our breastfeeding resources section, where you’ll find models, activities, charts, booklets, pamphlets, and more, that can help ensure breastfeeding success. Our parenting education section includes models and materials that highlight the importance of taking care of young children’s teeth and avoiding excess dietary sugars, as well as other resources that focus on early childhood nutrition. For example, our creative Stomach Size Wise™ Display compares stomach capacity of young children ages 2–6 to an adult-size stomach to emphasize the importance of appropriately sized, nutrient-dense meals and snacks throughout the day for young children to get proper nutrition.
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