Nutrition for Babies and Children

We all want the very best for our children and there is nothing more important we can give them than the basis of a lifetime of good health. We can do this by starting from the very first thing we feed our babies. Obviously breastfeeding is the best start any baby can have, but it is not always possible, and if it isn’t, nothing is helped by making the mother feel inadequate about her inability to feed. There are many excellent formulas on the market and a lot of help available to new mothers to assist with that choice.

Usually at around six months the baby starts to indicate he or she is hungry and it is time to introduce some solid food. When food is introduced to baby and in what order, is extremely important as it is possible to avoid a lot of the more common allergies by not introducing baby to the better known suspect foods until much later.

There is an excellent argument for cooking the food you feed your baby and children as opposed to buying it. Obviously by cooking the food yourself you avoid any additives and colours and preservatives, but there is an even more compelling reason. Babies do not have so much a sense of taste as a sense of texture. If you start them on commercial baby food they quickly become accustomed to the smooth gluey texture and turn up their noses at the more grainy texture of home cooked purees. This then starts a chain of problems that never seem to go away as you attempt to move from commercial food to the food the family is eating. Don’t be surprised when you first offer food to your baby if the most they eat is half a teaspoonful. It takes a lot longer that you would have thought to get the eating pattern established.

It is the easiest to buy a small packet of baby rice cereal (these are quite free of additives). Cook an apple or a pear in water and then blend to a puree with a blender or use a stick blender. (These make a good useful present for a new mother.) Of course you have way too much prepared. You don’t waste it, you freeze the remainder in an ice cube tray and each day you take one out to thaw out and to mix with your rice cereal. A couple of teaspoons of rice cereal is mixed with a small amount of breast milk or formula to a runny paste, and then the apple or pear added. Only add a teaspoonful at first. You will need to add a little more when your baby begins to accept food more readily. At this stage offer food twice a day until the baby eats the cereal and fruit. The next thing to offer is pureed vegetables. Cook a small combination of pumpkin, potato, beans, carrot, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potato. Choose two or three or more and cook and puree. This can be offered to baby for lunch and dinner, with the rice cereal and fruit offered for breakfast. As baby gets used to eating, the fruits offered can be increased to include banana and avocado. In fact both of these foods are as easy to carry around for meals away from home as commercial food. Natures convenience food!

It is important not to attempt to get babies or children to finish any food after they have indicated they have had enough. It is at this early stage that ideas about food begin to form, and you want your child to develop a healthy relationship with food. When the child says they have had enough, or the baby indicates they have had enough, clear away the food. A great deal of problems with overeating, undereating, anorexia and bulimia, originate in food becoming a battle ground. I know we were all told about the starving children elsewhere in the world in order to get us to clear our plates, but that is exactly what we don’t want to instil in a child, the idea that you only stop eating when the food is gone. It doesn’t take much imagination to see where that kind of thinking can lead.

When baby has teeth it is time to introduce a chewier texture. The food no longer needs to be pureed, but can be mashed with a fork and some pieces can be big enough for the baby to put in their mouth. As the baby gets a little older, 8 – 10 months, they will be trying to feed themselves, something that leads to very messy mealtimes. At this stage pasta (but not wheat pasta) and wheat free bread can be introduced. Small amounts of cooked meat can be blended in with the vegetables.

There are a few foods it is better to hold off introducing to babies until they are over 12 months old. These are the foods that cause the most common allergies and food intolerances.

When a new food is introduced it is a good idea to give it once only and then not give it again for at least three days in order to assess if there is any reaction. Reactions can take the form of rashes, sore red bottoms, diarrhoea, eczema, tummy pains. If you suspect your child reacted don’t offer the food again for a few months.

Cows milk is one of the biggest troublemakers. This of course includes cheese. Many mothers fear their child won’t be getting enough calcium if they don’t eat dairy products, but remember dairy products are not eaten by the majority of the world’s population and they manage to develop strong bones without it. Green vegetables contain calcium and broccoli is a rich source. Sheep’s yoghurt is easily digestible and delicious, as is goats, and there are plenty of cheeses made with both sheep and goat milk. These are a safer choice for your child in the early days. Nuts are another strong allergen. We have all heard of the awful results peanut allergies can bring, and therefore caution is needed when introducing peanuts, usually in the form of peanut butter. When this is given for the first time keep a close watch on your child for any reaction. If you have relatives with peanut allergies be especially careful. One way to see if there is going to be a reaction is to rub some of the substance on the inside of the child’s forearm, and if there is a red patch around it after ten minutes, then don’t offer the food.

Tree nuts such as almonds and hazelnuts and brazils can also be strong allergens and should be introduced with caution. Egg allergies are common, usually in the form of dermatitis and eczema and their introduction should be left till after the child is 12 months. Another big cause of trouble is wheat. This can to introduced in the same way as other potential allergens, giving some to baby one day and then watching for a reaction for the next two days. Weetbix is a good choice to try.

When a child is about two years old and they first discover the power of saying ‘no’, they tend to refuse a lot of foods offered. It is better not to ask them what they want, but to offer a selection of foods. At this stage it is common for a child to start to eat a very limited range of foods. Sometimes there will be as few as three things only they will eat. Hard as it is, it is better to just keep offering different foods and not commenting on their limited choices. Often the child will want to try something that the mother is eating, and this is a good way for new foods to be introduced.

Don’t keep foods such as lollies and biscuits and chocolates in the house so that a child isn’t used to eating them and therefore doesn’t ask for them. Don’t bargain with a child, e.g. if you eat all your dinner you can have icecream. This just impresses on the child how awful it is to have to eat meat and vegetables and what a reward, how desirable it is to eat icecream. Sweet drinks should not be offered. No cordial, definitely no fizzy drinks, not too much fruit juice. Fruit juice should be diluted 50/50 with water. The very best drink is water. If the child is okay with cows milk then no more than 500 mls per day should be given. Milk fills children up and they then will not eat their food as they are already full.

Tastes and food preferences are set early in life, and we like to eat what we are used to eating. Giving children the taste for good food will stay with them all their life, even if they go off the rails somewhat during their teenage years, they will come back to what they are used to and enjoy later.

Eating and enjoying healthy food is a lifelong pleasure and the very best gift you could possibly give your child.