Every parent wants to raise a healthy and happy child. But babies' needs can be mysterious and the world's advice can be confusing. Find out what you can do to ensure that your daughter or son gets off to the best nutritional start.
Until you became a parent, that mushy stuff is the last thing on your mind.
But now that you're responsible for a budding life, it seems as if everybody and his second cousin has an opinion on what, when, and exactly how much you should feed your kid.
Worse, a lot of this advice is contradictory.
What does all that spit-up mean? Should you introduce solids at six months, or earlier? Or maybe later? Do you feed your child nuts to prevent allergies, or should you stay away from nuts to prevent allergies? What foods will build strong bones and teeth?
It's enough to make your head spin. Especially if you're feeling a little sleep-deprived.
At Precision Nutrition, we like to simplify.
Sadly, I can't guarantee you a free pass on future orthodontic bills. But I can help you reduce the chance of cavities.
More importantly, I can offer a map through the confusing maze of conflicting nutritional advice.
Here are six straightforward tips to ensure your child gets a healthy start.
If you can, breastfeed for the first six months of the infant's life.
Breast milk is basically magic. It's free, it doesn't come with excess packaging, and it's nutritionally perfect for baby.
Bursting with antibodies, antimicrobial factors, enzymes, and anti-inflammatory factors, it also contains brain-boosting fatty acids essential to development during the first six months of life.
Breastfeeding keeps your baby developing and growing properly and helps her fight off disease, such as gastrointestinal and respiratory infections. It may even ensure that she grows up to prefer healthy food!
Having said all that, sometimes breastfeeding isn't possible. Illness, medications, or other issues can make it risky or difficult. And there's no reason to feel guilty if that's true for you.
While breast milk is ideal, most formula fed babies will do very well. And there are many other things you can do to ensure your baby gets a healthy start. Just be sure to talk to your doctor about the best type of formula to use, and avoid soy-based products.
At around six months, offer some solid foods.
Take your time introducing new foods. Don't try to rush things. Earlier than six months is not generally a good idea, but each baby is different.
At first, offer solids in addition to breast milk or formula, not instead of it. Also, the earliest "solids" should be fairly "liquid" in texture.
Parents are often advised to start solids with rice cereal. Rice is fortified with iron, hypoallergenic, and easily tolerated. Or so the theory goes.
Yet there's no strong evidence that rice is better than any other whole grain. So if you're feeding iron-enriched foods, rice or otherwise, baby will be getting all the iron she needs.
In general, try grains and vegetables before fruits and higher protein foods. You don't want to start with fruits because baby might expect all foods to taste as sweet.
Choose whole foods
Infants are intuitive eaters. They know how much they need.
But there's a catch - the conditions have to be right. Force-feeding and/or introducing processed foods (such as juice or jam) before whole foods can interfere with this delicate self-regulation.
Follow your baby's hunger levels and food preferences, while seeking to gently expand their repertoire with high-quality, nutrient-rich choices.
By 12 months, baby might be eating mashed:
- tree nuts
- string beans
- asparagus or other green vegetables
- puréed fresh fruit
- egg yolk (note: iron from egg yolks isn't well absorbed)
- mashed lentils/beans (make sure these are adequately cooked)
- meat, chicken, or mild-tasting fish.
When it comes to hydration, stick with breast milk, water, or possibly cooled herbal tea. Some parents give fruit juice, believing it is "healthy." But, in fact, too much juice will establish a "sweet tooth." Too much sugar now can lead to cavities, excess body fat, and sweet cravings later.
Make it yourself
Making your own baby food is easy and inexpensive. All you need is a food processor or small blender such as a Magic Bullet. (Or a bit of elbow grease and a fork for mashing.)
Early on, your baby's food choices will be limited, but over time you can mash, chop, and/or purée most of the foods you happen to be eating. This makes food prep simple. More importantly, you know exactly what your baby's getting.
Make sure you blend/mash the food well, and avoid any foods that might cause choking. Chunks/clumps of any food, hot dogs, candy, nuts, grapes, nut butter, and popcorn all tend to cause problems.
Of course, follow the basic rules of food safety. Wash your hands, refrigerate or heat food appropriately, discard uneaten food promptly, etc.
Follow your baby's signals
Often kids will need to try foods a few times before they develop the taste for them. In other words, "picky eating" is pretty normal at this age, and nothing to worry about.
But if you do want to expand your baby's repertoire, it's not hard to do.
- First, when introducing new foods, use timing to your advantage. When is your baby hungriest? That's the time to offer something new and unexpected.
But in the meantime, rest assured: if you structure mealtimes, make a variety of foods available, and stay as relaxed as possible, you'll be raising a healthy eater.
Do your best (and no better)
Your best is good enough.
There. I said it. Aren't you relieved?
Parenting is hard work. Every child is unique. Sometimes even the best advice is bad advice. And when everybody's making it complicated, it's easy to fear you'll never do anything right.
Trying to get it perfect will only tie you up in knots. So relax.
If you're feeling overwhelmed, increase structure.
Incorporate some simple food preparation routines for the whole family. They might feel awkward at first, but eventually, they'll become second nature.
Better yet, they will free up some time for blowing kisses (or maybe raspberries) with the newest member of your family.
Because that's what parenting is all about.
Want help finding the best exercise, eating, and lifestyle advice for yourself too? Download these free starter kits for men and women:
About the author
John Berardi, Ph.D. is a founder of Precision Nutrition, the world's largest online nutrition coaching company. He also sits on the health and performance advisory boards of Nike, Titleist and Equinox.
Dr. Berardi was recently selected as one of the 20 smartest coaches in the world by livestrong.com, the internet's most popular fitness site.
In the last five years, Dr. Berardi and his team have personally helped over 30,000 people improve their eating, lose weight, and boost their health through their renowned Precision Nutrition Coaching program.
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