Taking good care of our children’s nutrition is one of the most important ways we can ensure their health and wellbeing. Since the growing babies already start storing vitamins and minerals in their bodies while they are still in their mother's womb, a balanced and wholesome nutrition during pregnancy is very important.
In the first 6 months after birth, breast milk or formula will provide most babies with all the nutrients they need to grow and thrive, but in some cases the pediatrician might recommend a dietary supplement:
- Vitamin D drops are routinely prescribed for breast-fed babies in North America. Vitamin D is essential for an infant's healthy development and to build strong teeth and bones. It can be created by our body through exposure to sunlight, but changes in our diet and more time spent indoors, living in big cities as well as the tendency to protect our babies from harmful UV rays by staying in the shade and using high SPF sunscreen, have led to an increase in vitamin D deficiency.
- Additionally, a Vitamin B12 supplement may be recommended for breastfed babies if the mother's own Vitamin B12 levels are low.
- For babies who are born very prematurely, your pediatrician may prescribe additional supplements such as iron or vitamin E, since the shorter time in the uterus might not have ensured sufficient levels in the baby's body at birth.
At about 6 months of age, breast milk or formula still continues to provide the majority of nutrients for your baby, but milk alone will not be able to meet the baby's growing nutritional requirements any more at this stage. Now it is time to introduce solid foods to your baby's diet! While a baby's stomach is still tiny and they are just learning how to eat, selecting the right foods and ingredients to supply all the nutrients they need can be a challenge!
The following list of vitamins and minerals will give you some guidelines which nutrients to focus on and some suggestions for foods they can be found in. When giving any food to your baby, always make sure it is offered in a way that is appropriate for your baby's age, level of development and eating skills.
- Iron: Iron is an important mineral that the baby needs for creating blood, cells and transporting oxygen through the body. An iron deficiency can cause serious problems. The body's iron storage that a baby is born with lasts for about 6 months, so it is important to include iron-rich foods in your baby's diet right from the start. Because iron is such a critical nutrient, most infant cereals in the US are fortified with iron.
You can also find other iron fortified products such as bread and pasta made with enriched flour, or some juices. Natural food sources for iron include red meat, liver, green leafy vegetables, oats and legumes. Vitamin C helps to absorb iron into the body, which is why it is recommended to include vitamin C in the form of fruit or a little squirt of juice with a meal that is rich in iron. Your pediatrician will likely do a blood test during your baby's second year of life to check the iron levels and determine if an iron supplement should be given.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C is essential for a healthy immune system; it is a powerful antioxidant that helps in the building, protection and regeneration of tissue and cells. Vitamin C can be found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, such as citrus fruits, berries, tropical fruits, peppers, broccoli and more. A supplementation with vitamin C is generally not necessary since it is relatively easy to meet the recommended daily intake amount with a balanced diet.
- Zinc: Zinc is a mineral that is needed for the body's immune system, the reproductive system and to ensure healthy growth and functioning. The body does not store zinc, so it is important to include it in a regular diet. Zinc can be found in meat, seafood and cheese, but also in nuts, seeds and legumes. If your child eats few or no animal products, your pediatrician might recommend a zinc supplement.
- Vitamin A: Vitamin A is important for the immune system, proper growth of cells and bones, as well as the eyes and vision. Great sources of vitamin A include carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, mangoes and cantaloupe. All of these foods make wonderful first foods for babies, and a supplementation with vitamin A is usually not needed.
- Vitamin D: Once your baby is eating more grown-up foods, check with your pediatrician if you should continue the vitamin D supplements. In foods this vitamin can be found in sources like fatty fish, beef liver, eggs and fortified dairy products.
- Calcium: Calcium helps to build strong bones and teeth and aids in the function of muscles, nerves and heart. Milk, yogurt and cheese are a great source of calcium. For babies with a dairy intolerance it can be harder to find calcium rich foods and you could ask your pediatrician about using a calcium supplement. There are non-dairy sources such as soy, Leafy greens, legumes and some seafood that can help to ensure an adequate supply in Calcium.
- Iodine: Iodine is necessary for a healthy thyroid function and metabolism. Iodized salt is one of the main sources of iodine for us. However, adding too much salt to baby foods is not recommended. You can choose foods naturally rich in iodine such as sea fish, seaweed, yogurt and dairy, eggs and whole grains. If you are concerned about meeting your child's iodine intake requirements, it might be a good idea to bring it up at your next pediatrician’s visit.
- Fats: Fats are an important part of your baby’s diet. They are necessary for growth and development. While it is not recommended to restrict your baby’s fat intake during the first 2 years of life, there are some sources of fat that are healthier for your baby than others. Essential fatty acids are those that cannot be produced by the body and therefore need to be consumed with food, like Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Avocados, nut butters, and fatty fish are a great way to incorporate those essential fats into your baby’s diet. You can also add a few drops of olive oil or flaxseed oil to otherwise fat-free dishes like vegetable puree, which will help with the absorption of fat- soluble vitamins. Try to avoid the less healthy saturated fats and trans fats found in many processed or deep fried foods, which are thought to have a negative impact on our health.
- Carbohydrates: The nutritional needs for infants and growing children are different from those of adults. So while many grown-ups have begun to follow certain low-carb diet trends, carbohydrates are still considered the most important energy source for your child’s growing brain and muscles. However, the types of carbohydrates you choose matters. Instead of refined sugars, choose whole grains and brown rice, peas and beans, fruits and vegetables. Besides carbohydrates and calories these foods also include fiber and are packed with other nutrients.
- Protein: Protein is a vital building component for our bodies, muscles, skin and bones. Most children in the United States consume enough protein, which should preferably come from dairy products, eggs, lean meats and fish, and plant- based sources such as grains and legumes. Even though protein supplements have become increasingly popular, for example as protein bars, protein powder or shakes, adding extra protein to a child’s diet is not recommended unless advised to do so by a pediatrician.
- Water: Because of their surface (skin) area relative to their size, babies are at a higher risk of dehydration than grown-ups. As more and more milk feedings are being replaced by solid foods in your baby’s meal schedule, it is important to ensure an adequate fluid intake. The best choices here are plain water or water with a splash of fruit juice. Instead of giving your child undiluted juices or sweet sodas, try infusing water with berries, other fruits, mint or cucumber to make it taste a little more interesting. Most babies also like a diluted fruit or chamomile tea, but be aware that some herbal teas or caffeinated beverages are not suitable for infants.
Overall calories: Just like with water, the exact amount of calories your baby needs depends on a number of different factors, such as their age, weight, size, activity level and more. Let your baby’s appetite guide you when it comes to the amount you are feeding them. Restricting their portion sizes when they still want to eat, or forcing them to eat more when they have lost interest in their food, will discourage their natural response to hunger and satiation.
*Disclaimer: The above is only an example and not a complete list of all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals needed in a child’s diet. It is intended to help you guide your child’s diet but is not a replacement for medical advice. Please always check with your pediatrician before making any changes to your child’s diet and never give your child supplements without consulting his or her doctor. Ask a healthcare professional if you have any concerns about your child’s nutrient intake and development *