How to feed your baby the best at every stage
By Carlotta Mast
Mornings are my favorite time of day, thanks to my 1-year-old son, Eli, who always wakes up with a big smile and an even bigger appetite. It’s my job to nourish his rapidly growing body with the healthiest foods. If you, too, have a child in your charge 2 or younger, the following tips can help provide the nutrition your little one requires.
Birth to 6 months
“Mother’s milk is the best and only food a child needs from 0 to 6 months,” says Amy Lanou, author of Healthy Eating for Life for Children (John Wiley & Sons, 2002). Packed with about 30 vitamins and minerals, breast milk provides just the right balance of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins for infant growth and development, while significantly decreasing the risk for numerous acute and chronic diseases, including insulin-dependent diabetes and allergies. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) found in mother’s milk—particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA)—may improve a baby’s cognitive development. This perfect food is also bursting with antibodies that shield your newborn from ear, respiratory, and other infections.
When breast-feeding isn’t possible, the next best option is prepared infant formula, which contains nutrients similar to those found in human milk, minus the immune-strengthening antibodies. Your baby’s doctor can help you decide which formula to use. “If there is a family history of asthma or allergies, the pediatrician might suggest using a soy or hypoallergenic formula,” says Christine Wood, MD, a San Diego–based pediatrician and author of How to Get Kids to Eat Great & Love It! (Griffin Publishing, 2001). Check the label for one that contains DHA and ARA.
Newborns typically eat 8 to 12 times during a 24-hour period. Although it is difficult to gauge how many ounces of milk a breast-fed baby is getting, you’ll know it’s enough if he seems satisfied and has six to eight wet cloth diapers (or five to six wet disposables) and two to five bowel movements a day, according to La Leche League International.
6 months to 1 year
Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends introducing solid foods between 4 and 6 months of age, many pediatricians advise waiting until closer to 6 months because “the earlier you introduce other foods, the more likely you are to induce food allergies,” says Matthew Baral, ND, pediatrics and nutrition professor at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona.
- Buy organic fruits and vegetables and scrub well before using.
- Steam vegetables until they are soft and easily mashed.
- Invest in a food mill, which makes grinding and mashing food easy and cleanup quick.
- Freeze leftovers in an ice-cube tray covered with plastic. This will enable you to take out and thaw individual portions.
- Label all food, including the date. Don’t keep baby foods in the freezer for more than three months.
By 6 months, a baby’s body is ready to tolerate and digest other foods. “About this time, teeth begin to come in, the baby’s digestive enzymes start to kick in at higher levels, and the kidneys become able to filter the new proteins and foods,” Baral says. Introduce one item at a time, adding a new food every four to seven days to give baby’s digestive system time to adjust—and for you to watch for allergic-reaction signs, such as rash, diarrhea, vomiting, or increased fussiness. Along with solids, babies should continue drinking breast milk or formula until at least age 1.
Good starter foods for babies include iron-fortified, single-grain rice cereal (mixed with breast milk or formula until runny) and puréed carrots, squash, pears, apples, bananas, and peaches. As baby’s grasp develops at 7 or 8 months, offer soft finger foods, such as well-cooked, semi-mashed carrots, soft bananas, and chunks of ripe avocado. At 8 or 9 months, begin feeding a variety of protein-rich foods, including well-cooked and mashed beans, chunks of soft tofu, or cooked ground lamb or poultry. Starting at around 9 months, babies may want—and often demand—to feed themselves; see “Self-feeding Fun,” for ideas on how to help your little one enjoy mealtime even more.
A baby or toddler’s portion size is generally 1 tablespoon for every year of life. For example, a serving of vegetables for a 2-year-old is about 2 tablespoons. Because of their propensity to trigger food allergies, avoid eggs, dairy, wheat, and peanuts during the first year, Baral advises. Babies should not be fed honey during their first year because of the risk of botulism. Also, any foods that could cause choking, including grapes, seeds, nuts, raisins, and meat chunks, should not be given to children younger than 2.
A baby’s nutritional needs remain steady—and are primarily met through breast milk or formula—throughout the first year, although iron stores start to lag at around 6 months. Boost a baby’s iron intake with fortified formula or cereal, or a supplement. Also, allow your child to get 10 to 15 minutes of daily sun without sunscreen to ensure she’s getting enough vitamin D, Lanou says.
1 to 2 years
As they grow older, babies get a greater proportion of their nutrients from solid foods, so feed your toddler a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein-rich items. Unfortunately, children often become pickier eaters between ages 1 and 2. To ensure your toddler gets what her body needs, stick to nutrient-dense foods, such as puréed chickpeas, avocado, bean spreads, or brown-rice pasta doused with flaxseed oil (replete with DHA and other EFAs).
You can also sneak in the good stuff by grinding kale or other green leafy vegetables into nut butters or adding ground carrots or other vegetables to spaghetti sauce or pancake batter.
And remember, you’re the role model. When your child sees you eating and enjoying healthy foods, she’ll follow suit.
Writing “Open Wide” inspired writer Carlotta Mast to improve her own eating habits as well as those of her child. “The choices I make today as a parent will have an effect on my son for many years to come,” says Mast, who lives in Boulder, Colorado.