Desperate moms often ask me what they should feed their babies.
Modern women and men are rarely part of large extended families, and few of us have observed the normal weaning process.
I was pleased recently to read an excellent article titled "Weaning Recommendations: 6-12 months. The very first menu has a lifelong effect", published by Irene Labuschagne et al at the Nutrition Information Centre of the University of Stellenbosch (NICUS).
The title of this article is so true. Researchers have been accumulating evidence that a child’s diet in infancy and even earlier, what it "feeds on" during gestation, can influence health for the rest of their life. For example, a number of studies have shown that poor growth in the foetus before birth is associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity and heart disease in later life.
In a similar fashion, the foods and quantities of food a child learns to eat during the weaning period (between the ages of 6 and 12 months) can have a dramatic effect on the child’s health, life and body weight in adulthood.
Breast is best
If at all possible, a child should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. The World Health Organization (WHO) Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding states unequivocally that “infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health.”
Many moms, however, have to work, or for some other reason can't do this. In such cases, the WHO recommends the use of infant formula rather than cow’s milk, provided that such formula is “available, affordable and can be safely used” (for example, the water that's used to dilute infant formula must be clean and safe, and the formula shouldn't be more diluted than indicated in the instructions).
If you're in a position to continue breastfeeding your baby beyond six months, this can be done on demand until the child reaches the age of one year. However, after the age of six months, other foods should be introduced so that the infant is has a varied diet by the time it reaches his first birthday.
Breast milk doesn't contain sufficient iron to meet the needs of infants older than six months. Cow’s milk, on the other hand, may cause microscopic bleeding of the infant's digestive tract, which could lead to iron losses. Goat’s milk, which so often is used for allergic babies, is deficient in folic acid.
Therefore, foods that are good sources of iron, zinc, and B vitamins (e.g. folic acid) need to be added to a child’s diet at six months. Iron-enriched baby cereals, pureed meat, chicken, liver and other organ meats, fish, pureed beans, peas, lentils or soya, and egg yolk are all good examples. Iron supplements can also be used for infants who drink cow’s or goat’s milk instead of infant formula.
Get baby to eat vegetables
Many mothers who write to me are failing to convince their babies or young children to eat vegetables. Labuschagne et al have some great information and advice:
- Research indicates that breastfed infants are more likely to accept vegetables than bottle-fed infants.
- Offer the child vegetables before you offer him fruit. This gives the child a chance to get to know vegetables and accept them before being enticed by the sweeter taste of fruit.
- Offer the same food over and over again. Scientists have discovered that babies need to be offered the same food repeatedly before they'll accept it. So don’t give up if your baby refuses to eat pureed carrots, even if you have tried 10 times before. Just try again.
- Offer only one new food at a time. Don’t chop and change if your baby refuses a food like a vegetable the first, second, third or even 10th time. Just persist without getting frantic.
- Offer a very small portion of any new food. One teaspoon of a new food is more than enough. Infants
- Offer the food in a form that the infant can handle. Puree or mash foods finely for the first few months. The baby is not yet able to chew or swallow chopped foods.
- (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc, May 2008)
(Labuschagne I et al (2008). Weaning Recommendations: 6-12 months. The very first menu has a lifelong effect. The Specialist Forum, April 2008: 27-36.)
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