What’s on the Menu? A Parent’s Guide to Nutrition for Every Stage of Childhood

effects of nutrition on child development

A Parent’s Guide to Nutrition for Every Stage of Childhood: Thanks to the Internet, it’s easier than ever before to access resources, research topics related to raising children and connect with other parents. However, the vast amount of information can sometimes be overwhelming! Where do you even start? How can you know what articles to trust?

Perhaps most importantly, how can you prevent yourself from falling down a rabbit hole of unusual baby names, celebrity parenting stories, funny tweets, and of course amusing videos featuring babies and/or animals? (Spoiler alert: you can’t — at least not always!)

It’s especially difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to nutrition. That’s why we’ve compiled this foundational guide to feeding children at every stage of their development. Use this information as a jumping-off point, and if you have any questions, ask your pediatrician during one of your child’s well-visit appointments.

For Babies, Breast Is Best:

Both the World Health Organization and the American Association of Pediatrics recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of age, and a combination of nursing and feeding supplemental foods thereafter.

The benefits of nursing your child are enormous; breast milk provides all the nutrients that your baby needs to thrive. Not only does it lower your child’s risk of developing numerous diseases including asthma, obesity, SIDS, and more, but it also lowers Mom’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer, Type II diabetes, and hypertension.

If you have trouble breastfeeding, don’t despair — it can be tricky. Check out a local La Leche League meeting or enlist the services of a lactation consultant to get you and Baby back on track.

Starting Solids: When and How

Only once your babe can hold her head up, has lost the tongue-thrust reflex, and has developed the pincer grip necessary to hold small pieces of food should you consider supplemental foods.

Don’t bother with that bland rice cereal; experts say it’s virtually devoid of nutrition. Neither do you need to spend money on expensive baby-food purees. Instead, try mashed banana, avocado, or sweet potato. Yogurt and applesauce are also good starter foods, and it can be great fun to watch a little one practice her grasping skills on a Cheerio.

Introduce foods slowly, waiting a day or two between new tastes. That way, if your child has an adverse reaction to a certain food, you’ll be able to pinpoint it easily.

Be Vigilant About Choking Hazards:

Little ones are more prone to choking than adults, for a variety of reasons. So be certain that anything on your offspring’s plate is safe. Cut small round items like grapes or cherry tomatoes into halves or quarters. Avoid hard candy, popcorn, nuts, and seeds until she is old enough to chew her food thoroughly. Meats and cheese should be cut into very small chunks.

Additionally, always supervise your young child while she is eating. Do not allow her to run or play while noshing, either; meals and snacks should be eaten while sitting down.

The Toddler Years:

As your child grows older, you’ll want to offer as wide a variety of food as you can. That is a great way to help your baby develop a sophisticated palate down the line, but don’t be discouraged if she rejects foods or goes through a picky stage. Many children do. It can take over a dozen tastes of a new item before Baby will decide that she likes it.

“A lot of parents get anxious about nutrition when their child starts to display some pickiness,” says Barbara Bean, M.D., a pediatrician with Families First, a Riverton pediatrics group. “But the child will almost always outgrow this stage, and they’ll be just fine if you routinely offer a variety of wholesome food and model smart eating behavior.”

Never force your young one to eat a particular food. Just be patient and continue offering wholesome foods like lean protein, whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and full-fat dairy products like yogurt and cheese.

A Word About Processed Foods:

The occasional treat is fine, but for the most part, parents should steer clear of fast food, junk food, and anything else that is highly processed or full of additives. This is particularly true with very young children, whose bodies need all the nutrition they can get to fuel their healthy development. Cookies, chips, candy, soda, and anything with artificial colors and flavors can set your child up for a lifetime of bad food choices and possibly even obesity.

Limit your child’s sugar intake, too. Teach them to love naturally sweet foods like fruit, and sweeten cakes and other baked goods with honey, maple syrup, or agave.

Final Thoughts on Children and Nutrition:

Watching your child try new foods is exciting and often entertaining. Will she inherit Mom’s love of super-spicy hot sauce or Dad’s passion for Thai food? No matter how her palate shakes out, the most important thing to remember is that instilling healthy food habits at an early age will reap great rewards later in life.

What was your baby’s first solid food? Did any of your children surprise you by eating and enjoying something unusual at an early age? Did you make your own baby food? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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