No doubt you’ve heard the term “the first 1,000 days” in relation to your baby’s health. This critical window includes pregnancy and the first 2 years and is filled with more developmental milestones than at any other point in your baby’s life. In the grand scheme of things, 1,000 days isn’t actually that long and it’s incredible that your baby will go from a small cluster of cells to a walking, talking, probably opinionated and hopefully resilient child.
Nutrition is a key component of that development and the responsibility to set the foundation lies with you, their parent or primary carer. Is this a huge and monumental responsibility? Absolutely! But this is not meant to worry you because raising a child who loves nutrient dense food is actually easier than you think. The first thing you need to do is arm yourself with as much education and knowledge as you can so you can make informed decisions. Knowing who to trust is difficult but if you follow the advice of healthcare professionals who are aligned with your values, you’ll nail this!
Setting the foundations for healthy eating and for a child who will choose cucumbers and carrot sticks over yogurt covered raisins and sugary biscuits starts at 6 months. Let me be clear, I do not have an opinion on how you choose to feed your child – spoon feeding and baby led weaning will both work so you need to choose what works best for you. The important thing is to introduce as many different foods, flavours and textures from 6-12 months as possible. Breastmilk or formula is still the main nutrition so use this opportunity to introduce foods that will compliment brain growth, nervous system development, and intestinal functionality.
My education, training and both on the job and personal experience have taught me that there is an order in which foods should be introduced in relation to intestinal maturity. Infants are growing and developing at such a fast pace so to overload their intestines at 6 months with nutrients that they might not be able to digest until 9 months are not beneficial. Let’s use an example of a starchy carbohydrate like a white potato or a piece of bread. Those foods require a pancreatic enzyme called amylase to be broken down and digested. Your baby doesn’t produce enough of this enzyme until 8-9 months old so by offering it too soon, they could become constipated, gassy, irritable. No one wants that! An introduction timeline that is matched to their intestinal development will help avoid those issues.
Let’s talk about food rejection. What if I told you it can take anywhere from 10-17 introductions of a food before your baby accepts it? Being told “no” 9 times would be really tough! If there is a food you perceive your baby to dislike, keep introducing it over the next week. Try mixing it with another food that your baby already likes or add some breastmilk / formula right before serving to give it a familiar flavour. Be persistent! Don’t force them to eat it as that will just develop into a power struggle at meal time but put a few leaves of spinach on your 10-month old’s high chair tray. See what they do. Be consistent and do the same thing again tomorrow. Repetition and consistency are very essential.
The consistency you set in months 6-12 will be teaching your child the foods they will choose as they grow into toddler years and through early childhood. You have the ultimate control at the beginning where you decide what gets put in front of them.
If another parent offers you something that you don’t want them to have, you can politely decline to say your child just ate.
Modeling good behaviour is key. You need to eat the same foods that you are expecting your child to eat and be vocal about it. Talk about how crunching the broccoli is or how delicious and fresh the kale tastes tonight. If a bowl of salad is a regular meal for you, it can be a regular meal for your child too. Where possible, involve your child in meal preparation. Teaching them to pour ingredients into a bowl, they can help by whisking or mixing and use tongs when serving. Not only it helps with coordination but also will also give them a sense of contribution.
Introducing solids for long term nutrition is not meant to be overwhelming so don’t put pressure on yourself to get it right the first time. Take each day as it comes and makes meal time enjoyable. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll be discussing what to introduce first, why and some common pitfalls that parents can run into during that 6-12 month window.
About the Author
Michelle Fernandez is a Paediatric Nutritionist. She holds a Bachelor degree in chemistry and biochemistry and a Masters in human nutrition with a concentration in paediatrics. She’s been practicing nutrition since 2014. She lives in Sydney, Australia with her husband and two beautiful children, aged 4 years and 1 year. Michelle practices what she preaches with her own children and loves nothing more than hearing positive feedback from her clients about their thriving children. Her goal is to educate as many parents as possible to give them the confidence to introduce nutrient dense solids to their little ones.