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Giving Your Baby the Best Nutrition

As a new parent, you want the best for your child. And that includes the best nutrition.

But the proper nutrition for kids can seem baffling, given the latest health headlines. Americans are more overweight than ever, and the trend is spreading to youngsters. In fact, it is so prevalent that infant car-seat manufacturers are producing a line of oversized seats to accommodate the larger-than-average infants and toddlers.

Nutrition experts are seeing more and more children with weight problems. Even preschoolers are tipping the scales on the high end for their age group. And a recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) still found that most American children aren't meeting the daily minimums for recommended nutrients.

So how do you know your infant or toddler is getting what he needs in the food department?

Let's look at the question by age. The AAP recommends that infants be breast-fed for at least a year. If that's not possible, infant formula is an appropriate substitute. From age 6 months to a year, a child is introduced to solid foods, supplementing breast milk or formula with extra calories.

Nutrition in the first year

What a child definitely does not need in that first year is cow's milk, experts say. It is a poor source of iron and can cause gastrointestinal bleeding. The combination of those two factors can lead to iron deficiency. The potassium in cow's milk can also put a strain on infant kidneys. Whole cow’s milk is only appropriate for children after 12 months.

Children are given solid foods at around 4 to 6 months of age in part because they need to learn how to eat. If you wait too long to begin solid foods, the child may refuse to try them. Introduce them at too young an age—younger than 4 months, for instance—and your child may not gain enough weight. That's because breast milk (or formula) is more nutritionally dense than solid foods.

Experts also say that introducing solid foods too early, before four months of age, can promote allergies later in life. An infant's stomach is permeable in the first few months of life, and not able to digest all solid foods. Undigested proteins that remain in the digestive system longer can enter the circulation and can cause an allergic reaction and set the child up for allergies.

A child in his first year will triple his birth weight, so keeping track of weight gain during those 12 months will give you a yardstick to tell how well your child is doing nutritionally. During the second year, from 12 to 24 months, a child's growth slows. A toddler typically gains only four pounds during that time. Eating falls off noticeably.

Talk with your child's doctor if you are worried about what your child should be eating. If your child gets at least 20 ounces of milk or formula a day, he's getting enough calcium, but he needs protein, fruits, and vegetables, too.

Remember that a toddler's portion will be far different from what you put on your plate. American Dietetic Association guidelines say to use the child's age when figuring portion size: one tablespoon for every year of age.

Offer a variety of foods every day, and take a hands-off approach to eating. Allow your child to decide how much she wants to eat. If you try to put controls on her eating—"finish your plate" or "drink your glass"—she will lose her own "internal controls," and that may set her up for an increased risk for obesity.

Other nutrition tips for parents

  • Don't restrict fat intake for a child under the age of 2. A child that age is undergoing rapid growth and development, including brain development, which requires fat. After that, you can switch to low-fat varieties of milk and other good sources of calcium, including yogurt and cheese.

  • Do restrict the amount of soda or sweetened beverages your child drinks. Even pure juice isn't good in large quantities, because it provides lots of calories and not much nutrition. The AAP recommends no fruit juices until 6 months of age or later. Fruit juice also doesn't provide fiber that a whole fruit does. An AAP study found that children who drank at least 12 ounces of fruit juice a day were more likely to be obese and short. And any drink other than milk robs your child of the calcium he needs each day to build strong bones.

  • Don't worry about your toddler's fixation for a particular food. Some young children want the same food over and over, but experts say such "food jags" will pass and aren't harmful.

  • Vegetarian and other "special" diets are fine for young children, although you may need to seek out nutrition guidance if you're not sure how complete your diet is.

  • Some dietary supplements may be necessary. If your water supply is not fluoridated, or if your infant primarily receives breast milk or formula not prepared with tap water, you should give a fluoride supplement after 6 months of age. Most breast-fed babies may need a vitamin D supplement (most formulas contain vitamin D), and some may need an iron supplement. Check with your doctor for his or her recommendation.

  • Don’t buy snack foods, candy, or pastries. Early exposure to these sweet or fatty calorie-dense foods changes the toddler’s and young child’s preference for foods.

  • Remember, if you eat poorly, your children will do the same. Do them a favor; improve your own diet, preferably before your first child is born. Both you and your children will benefit.

Introducing solids

Here's a guideline for the typical order of foods given to an infant. Most pediatricians recommend introducing solids between 4 and 6 months of age, but check with your pediatrician for his or her preference. New foods should be introduced one at a time, at least a week apart, so that if the child develops a reaction, you can tell which food triggered it.

  • Cereals, fortified with iron, calcium, and zinc

  • Pureed vegetables, such as peas and carrots

  • Pureed fruits, such as applesauce and peaches

  • Protein, in the form of meat, poultry, or cooked dried beans and peas

  • Older infants should have a variety of whole-grain breads and crackers, as well as fortified cereals. No cow's milk until 1 year of age.

Source: American Dietetic Association