As a new parent you want to give your child the best start in life when it comes to their diet. There seems to be a minefield of information of what to give them, when and how. Rosie Henley, registered nurse and midwife in our Health at Hand team cuts through the hype to guide you through your child’s nutritional needs from baby to toddler.
The early days
During the first six months, your baby will receive all of its nutritional needs from either breast or formula milk. How you decide to feed your baby is very personal. Whichever way you choose has to be right for both you and your baby. Your midwife, GP or Health Visitor can talk through the options with you. If you decide to feed your baby formula milk, there are a number brands of first infant formula available to support your baby through those first months..
Some of the benefits of breastfeeding include:
- It’s custom-made by each mother and contains the perfect amount of protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals.
- It’s free and always at the right temperature.
- It contains antibodies which help to protect your baby from infections and diseases.
- It lowers the risk of your baby becoming obese and possibly developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
- It reduces your baby’s risk of developing eczema
- It can help to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer.
- Breastfeeding also has benefits for the mother, lowering the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer and conditions such as osteoporosis and heart disease.
- And both mother and baby are said to derive mental health benefits from the closeness and soothing feelings that the breastfeeding process promotes.
There are some things to consider when breastfeeding too:
- You may feel uncomfortable breastfeeding in public places.
- You'll need to wear suitable, accessible clothing.
- You may need to express your breast milk (either manually or using a special pump) if you want time out from feeding for any reason.
Some of the benefits of formula feeding include:
- It offers your partner, friends and family the chance to help out and get involved.
- It allows you time off or a chance to catch up on some sleep.
- It may allow you to return to work earlier if you choose to.
But there are some things to consider when using formula too:
- It can be expensive.
- It will need to be heated, unless your baby likes cold milk.
- You’ll need to have special equipment to properly clean (sterilise) the bottles to prevent your baby picking up any germs from 'old' milk and becoming unwell. Bottles will have to be prepared in advance and should only be used for formula or water (sugary drinks, like squash, can damage baby teeth).
Weaning and finger foods
Weaning can be a very exciting time as well as a very messy one. When your little one is ready to wean, usually around six months, remember to go slow. Their tummies are tiny and their digestive systems are still developing. Up to the age of one year their main source of nutrients will still come from breast or formula milk. But, as the weeks progress they’ll increase from a few mouthfuls to three meals a day.
Signs your baby is ready for solid foods
There are 3 clear signs, which, when they appear together from around 6 months of age, show your baby is ready for their first solid foods alongside breast milk or first infant formula.
They'll be able to:
- Stay in a sitting position and hold their head steady
- Co-ordinate their eyes, hands and mouth so they can look at the food, pick it up and put it in their mouth by themselves
- Swallow food (rather than spit it back out).
The following behaviours can be mistaken by parents as signs that their baby's ready for solid foods:
- Chewing their fists
- Waking up in the night (more than usual)
- Wanting extra milk feeds.
These are all normal behaviours for babies and not necessarily a sign that they're hungry or ready to start solid food.
The first foods you’ll probably feed your little one should be easily digestible and fairly bland in flavour. You may wish to try:
- Mashed fruits such as banana, peach and melon
- Avocado (mixed with breast milk or formula for desired consistency)
- Soft cooked vegetables and fruit such as sweet potato, carrots, apple and pear
- Baby rice (this is normal rice, ground to a very fine consistency, like flour. It often comes with added vitamins, such as zinc and iron).
Remember no two children are the same. Knowing which foods to try is one thing, but putting it in to practice can be challenging. Try to remember the following tips for successful weaning:
Experiment - Don’t be put off by your little one not liking something. Try mixing up mashed fruits and vegetables. Just because they might turn their nose up at something initially, it doesn’t mean to say they won’t like it in a week or two.
Variety - When they’re able to manage finger foods, offer a selection of fruits and vegetables with breadsticks or pittas, for example, and allow them to choose what they like. Don’t force them to finish their plate if they don’t want to.
Persevere - It can be disheartening when your little one doesn’t eat something you’ve prepared. Don’t give up, remain calm and relaxed and try another day. Babies will often learn to eat and like foods they’re given regularly.
Once your toddler has mastered eating they’re ready to join in with the family meal. They can generally eat the same foods as you, but remember:
- Your toddler needs full fat milk until the age of at least two years. After that they can have semi skimmed milk if they’re healthy and growing at a normal rate. You shouldn’t give your child skimmed milk until the age of five.
- Don’t add salt to your cooking or to their meals. Too much salt can damage their young kidneys.
- Try to avoid too many sweet treats and sugary drinks as this can lead to tooth decay.
- Toddlers, unlike us, need high fat, low fibre diets. If they’re given too many high fibre foods they’ll fill up too quickly and may not want to eat the other foods offered to them.
- Be aware of foods that could be choked on, for example, grapes and nuts. Ensure they are cut or ground up to make them safe. Also make sure that any meat is fully cooked and tender, as your toddler is still mastering the art of chewing with their newly cut teeth.
- Offer three small meals a day along with two healthy snacks and plenty of water to drink. They’re growing quickly, and their tummies are small, so they need refuelling regularly.
- If you’ve decided you’d like your toddler to have a vegetarian or vegan diet remember that they’re at higher risk of having too much fibre and not enough iron for energy. Make sure they’re given dark green vegetables, dried fruits, pulses, beans and fortified cereals.
- Make sure you offer drinks frequently to avoid dehydration. Water is best, or a glass of milk. Fizzy drinks and squash offer little nutritional value and are bad for teeth; even fruit juices can cause dental decay, so dilute them with water and save them as a special treat.
It can be tricky trying to think of new dishes that are healthy, not too fiddly or expensive. If you struggle with inspiration for different recipes that both your toddler and the rest of the family can enjoy together, there are many cookbooks and recipe ideas on the internet.
If you’re concerned about feeding your baby or have a question about this or any other aspect of their development or becoming a parent it’s important to reach out for help. GPs, midwives and health visitors are all well equipped to identify and manage common condition and enable you to enjoy your new baby to the full. You can also get information and support at any time of the day or night through our Early Years Support Service.
Early Years Support from AXA Health
At AXA Health, we understand that becoming a parent – and a family – is a life-changing event, which at times we may not feel fully prepared for.
That's why we've developed our Early Years Support Service for anyone embarking on becoming a parent, by birth or through a fostering or adoption process, however many times you may have ‘been there’ before!
Available through our Health at Hand team, the Early Years Support Service has registered midwives and nurses at the end of the phone for you or your family to talk to day or night, 365 days a year*.
We're here to provide medical information and support, whenever you need us. So if you’re looking for some reassurance or just a friendly chat, or if you have questions about anything from pregnancy, delivery, the postnatal period and adapting to parenthood, to negotiating the early developmental stages, planning for the future, returning to work or even extending your family further, you can contact us by email via our Ask the Expert service and one of the team will get back to you.
*Availability of specialist support:
Nurses and counsellors are available 24 hours a day, every day.
Midwife and pharmacists services available 8am to 8pm Monday to Friday, 8am to 4pm Saturdays and 8am to 12pm Sundays. Call backs can be arranged.
We will transfer members to our Counselling service as appropriate.
If you have a specific question, you can ask our experts here.
Other useful links
For further information on food ideas and on all the topics we’ve mentioned, please click on the links below:
Feeding your baby - AXA Health
NHS UK - Why breastfeed?
NHS UK - Introducing solid foods