The World Health Organization found that a child’s nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life—from conception through age 2—has a substantial impact on physical and behavioral development. According to Dr. Christina Valentine, a neonatologist focused on infant and maternal diet, parents should take this into consideration when choosing a child’s first foods.
“We want kids to develop physically, but we want them to be social as well,” she says. “Brain development affects not only how you learn but how you see the world and respond to sensory inputs. We need DHA from salmon or egg. We need iron from meat. In the first 1,000 days all that development in the brain is happening and needs some of these key foods.”
According to Dr. Valentine, children in the U.S. tend to be deficient in vitamin D, DHA, potassium, fiber, vitamin E and iron. These deficiencies are not only affecting physical development in youngsters—they are hurting social and emotional development as well.
To combat this trend, Dr. Valentine recommends introducing these nutrients as soon as babies are ready to add “complementary foods” to their primary nutrition source of formula or breastmilk. Parents can look for cues like finger-raking to determine when a baby is ready to try solid foods, usually around 4-6 months of age.
Once baby seems ready, think about starting with foods that have iron, such as strained meats, fruits, vegetables and eggs. Baby cereal was once recommended as a first food, but it doesn’t have as much nutrition or sensory appeal as these other options. From there, continue to add nutrient-dense, brightly colored whole foods to baby’s diet. Be sure to consult your child’s pediatrician about baby’s specific health needs.
Researchers have found that the most predominant “vegetable” in an American toddler’s diet is french fries. About 30 percent of tots are consuming sweetened beverages like cola or sweet tea daily. As a result, many American children are malnourished, despite exceeding daily calorie needs. Their high-sugar diets leave little room for nutritious foods.
For that reason, USDA guidelines are clear about avoiding sweets. Dr. Valentine recommends looking for foods with less than 6 percent added sugar. Check labels—especially on things like granola bars and breakfast bars since they often have a surprising amount of sugar.
“If you can replace sweetened foods and beverages, you can get more fruits and vegetables and fiber into a child,” says Dr. Valentine. “That will not only help development, but decrease weight and risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It can also improve immune health!”
Mealtime should be fun and exciting for babies. Each meal together is an opportunity for baby to experience new flavors and socialize with family. Try to enjoy eating together and don’t stress too much if you’ve made a few mistakes already.
“It’s never too late,” says Dr. Valentine. Good nutrients benefit children no matter when they are added to their diets.
Dr. Valentine’s Tips for Child Nutrition
- Roast those veggies. Dice and roast vegetables with a little olive oil for a more appealing texture. Babies are sensory beings, and mushy foods might not be appealing.
- If your baby takes formula, choose a brand developed in the U.S. Our guidelines are trustworthy and based on good science.
- Make crispy salmon cakes to help children get enough DHA. Packaged salmon with tuna oil is super nutritious. “Mix it with one egg and some Italian breadcrumbs and make tiny patties,” she says. “Sauté in olive oil and let it cool.”
- Eat a rainbow—bright colors have nutrients and appeal to baby’s senses.
- If you’re concerned about nutrition gaps, try making highly nutritious pancakes or muffins by adding powdered toddler formula (containing DHA and iron) to the batter.
What pregnant mothers and babies eat and drink in a baby’s first 1,000 days (from conception to a child’s second birthday) has a profound impact on a child’s growth and development. Learn more at www.thousanddays.org.
Anne Malinoski is a contributing writer. She lives in Santee with her husband and two sons.