Birth to 2 years

Focus on: Nutrition
Proper nutrition is the foundation of good health, says Marilyn Tanner, a pediatric dietitian at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. "The sooner your children develop healthy eating habits, the less likely they will suffer from obesity, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease,” she says.

Breast-feed. A mother's milk is the perfect food for baby, providing the right balance of carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals for up to six months. "After that, add in an iron supplement or iron-rich foods, such as iron-fortified cereal," says Matthew Baral, ND, pediatrics professor at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona. The essential fatty acids in breast milk—particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA)—are crucial to a baby's cognitive development. Research shows that breast-feeding also helps reduce the risk for many health problems, including diabetes, allergies, and asthma. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast-feeding babies for at least 12 months, but research shows mother's milk continues to provide nutritional, immunological, and developmental benefits beyond the first year, Baral says.

Wait on solids. Introducing solid foods too early can cause digestion problems, asthma, and eczema, because a baby's body isn't mature enough to process solid food. It also increases the likelihood of food allergies or sensitivities. Baral and many pediatricians recommend waiting six months before bringing on the rice cereal, mashed sweet potatoes, and other solids. Hold off on eggs, dairy, wheat, and peanuts until your child is at least 1, because they can trigger food allergies.

Offer variety. Once your kiddo is able to eat solids (usually between ages 1 and 2), introduce her to many different fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein-rich foods. If your child refuses to eat her broccoli once, don't give up. Research shows it can take up to 15 exposures before a child will accept a new food (Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 1998, vol. 57, no. 4). Foods that could cause choking, such as grapes, nuts, and raisins, should be reserved for children over 2.

Say no to junk food. Children as young as 2 eat an average of 14 teaspoons of sugar per day—more than three times the amount recommended by the USDA—often in the form of baked goods, soda, and sweetened juice and in place of vegetables, whole grains, and other nutritious foods Journal of Pediatrics , 2005, vol. 146, no. 1). As a result, many children do not consume adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables, which are important sources of fiber and nutrients ( Journal of the American Dietetic Association , 2006, vol. 106, no. 1 Suppl.). Buck this troubling trend by replacing sugary treats with more nutritious fare, such as whole-grain cereal, apple slices, cucumbers and hummus, or plain low-fat yogurt.

Feed them what you eat. By feeding your child the same healthy foods the rest of the family eats, you set a good example and prevent your child from morphing into that kid who will eat only pizza or macaroni and cheese. So he refuses to eat? "It's OK for a child to go without dinner," says Keri Marshall, a naturopathic doctor in Dover, New Hampshire, specializing in children's health. "He won't starve, and a few nights of going to bed hungry will convince him it's better to eat what's served at the table."

Language development. The first three years of life are critical to verbal development, says David Perlmutter, MD, FACN, of Naples, Florida, author of Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten (Morgan Road, 2006). By reading with your little one, you foster important child/parent bonding, boost your child's language skills, and plant the seeds for a lifelong love of reading. Perlmutter recommends lining your child's bookcase with both picture and story books, including those written for preschool and older kids.

Ear infections. Some 80 percent of children develop an ear infection by age 3. But the risk can be diminished through breast-feeding and by limiting pacifier use to bedtime, according to Perlmutter.

Skin care. It can take two or three years for a baby's skin to fully mature. Care for his fragile dermis by using products specially formulated for babies and free of harsh fragrances, irritants (such as alcohol), or chemicals such as phthalates, which Perlmutter says have been linked to kidney damage and cancer in children. Zinc oxide creams are wonderful for preventing diaper rash, and natural moisturizers containing almond, jojoba, or wheat germ oils can help keep baby's skin soft and supple. Avoid sunscreen for babies younger than 6 months.