The foods each of us were fed as babies can be unrecognisable from one culture to another. And now we have constantly updated guidelines on what babies should eat. If new parents are confused about feeding their baby, it's no surprise.
Yet it's important we get it right. What kids eat in the first 1,000 days of life - the time from pregnancy until age two - has life-long effects.
What’s so important about the first 1,000 days?
Early diets are so important that the prestigious British Medical Journal recently named nutrition for pregnant women and babies among the highest priorities for improving our global health.
Researchers have found that everything from the risk of developing diabetes or having a heart attack, to mental health issues and life expectancy are all influenced by diet during these 1,000 days.
For example, research published last year followed 700 Western Australian children from age one to age 17. The study found a healthier diet as babies seemed to help their brains work faster years later, as teenagers.
Of course, the value of nutrition doesn’t stop on your child’s second birthday. But the first 1,000 days is a particularly critical period.
What does good nutrition look like at this age?
It’s no secret that healthy eating means a variety of mostly home-made foods from all the food groups.
Here’s what else you need to know at each stage.
- Pregnancy – There’s no sexy formula, just seek balance. According to the Dietitians Association of Australia, this means plenty of different fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, and a little extra lean meat, dairy, and fish (especially tuna and salmon). And remember you’re not eating for two. Rather, the baby is eating whatever you eat.
- Newborn to six months – Australia’s infant feeding guidelines recommend exclusive breastfeeding.
- Six to 12 months – Introduce solids by six months (but not before four) while (ideally) continuing breastfeeding. Introduce iron-rich foods early. To prevent allergies, the latest recommendations are to introduce peanut butter, wheat, fish and cooked egg now (speak to your doctor about concerns). Don’t add salt or sugar.
- One to two years old – Toddlers can drink full-cream cow’s milk and should be eating family foods, not baby foods.
For personalised advice, see an Accredited Practising Dietitian.
How the “perfect” diet gets in the way of a healthy relationship with food
As parents we need to be careful our good intention to see kids eat their greens doesn’t disrupt their relationship with food.
Dr Stephanie Damiano works on the Confident Body, Confident Child project at La Trobe University. She says: “Some research indicates that if parents are concerned about their child’s weight and are restricting their child’s intake of particular foods, then this may actually promote unhealthy eating behaviours from a young age.”
Modelling a healthy attitude begins with avoiding labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Nutritionist and young mother Tara Leong, of Baby Guru Nutrition, says: “I see many mothers who are on a diet - gluten-free, paleo, sugar-free, etc. Children are growing up hearing that certain foods are ‘evil’ and need to be avoided at all costs and these children are developing fears around food that can be physically and psychologically damaging,” she says.
Instead, eat mostly ‘every day’ foods and a few ‘sometimes’ foods.
How to stress less
Meals are not just about nutrients, but also about connecting as a family. Dr Damiano says: “Children should be encouraged to view eating as a social and enjoyable way to nourish and fuel the body.”
Making family meals relaxing starts with accepting learning to eat as tricky and messy. “Letting kids make mess is absolutely essential. Children who are allowed to make mess while eating are more relaxed and less likely to be fussy eaters,” says Tara.
When you’ve served your little one a lovingly prepared meal, of course you want them to eat it. But trust your child knows when they’re full. Tara says: “Children are born with a truly valuable skill at birth - they eat when they are hungry, and stop when full.”
“Our role as the parent is to ensure the food being offered is nutritious, and the child decides if they will eat it and how much,” says Tara. So hand those decisions over and ditch the phrase ‘just one more bite’.
Providing a balanced diet while modelling a flexible approach to eating isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. Dr Damiano says: “A positive relationship with food and the body from a young age can set children up for a lifetime of healthy habits and attitudes towards food... and protect children from experiencing body dissatisfaction and disordered eating later in life.”
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