By Nancy Gottesman
Perhaps one of our strongest instincts as parents is the desire to feed our babies. But satisfying their hunger and providing proper nourishment for them can be two distinctly different achievements.
The latest data from the Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS), a survey of more than 3,000 parents, reveals that infants in America are developing eating habits that put them at higher risk for obesity, a condition that sets them up to suffer from myriad life-threatening illnesses.
“At 12 months, we’re seeing a diet that’s very low in fruits and vegetables,” says Kathleen Reidy, DrPH, RD, head of nutrition science at Nestlé Infant Nutrition, which sponsored the study. “By 9 months old, many children are consuming sweets, sodas and other sugary beverages.” Follow these guidelines to start your baby’s eating habits off right and you’ll help ensure they’ll maintain a healthy weight for a lifetime.
1. Breastfeed for as long as possible.
Some studies show that infants who breastfeed for up to 12 months have a much lower risk of becoming chubby at age 10.
“We think it’s related to self-regulation,” says Janet Wojcicki, PhD, MPH, a pediatric obesity researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. “A breastfed infant starts and stops on his own, while moms may try to give formula-fed babies more than they need.”
Another benefit: Recent research says 4- to 8-month-old breastfed babies are more likely to accept veggies and fruits when they start eating solids. Researchers believe that infants grow accustomed to flavors transmitted through breast milk and learn to like the foods that you eat on a regular basis (so eat as much healthy stuff as you can!).
2. Don’t start solids too early.
Here’s why: For formula-fed babies, introducing solids too soon may increase their risk for becoming obese by the time they reach age 3, according to a recent Harvard study.
Good news, however, for breastfed infants: The timing of solids showed no impact whatsoever on obesity at age 3. “There may be a ‘finish the bottle, clean the plate’ style for parents of formula-fed infants that could lead to overeating,” says study coauthor Matthew W. Gillman, MD, director of the Obesity Prevention Program at Harvard Medical School. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you breastfeed exclusively for at least four months (six, if you can) and continue breastfeeding after solid foods are introduced, until your baby is 12 months old.
3. Discuss diet at every well-baby visit.
Here’s why: The more you learn about feeding your infant, the less chance he’ll become a picky eater who prefers junky snacks over healthy fare.
Penn State research shows that when nurses taught first-time moms about timing of solid foods, responding to hunger cues and how to introduce new foods, their babies were more likely to accept vegetables and other novel foods at 12 months than babies of moms who didn’t get the nutrition education.
“There should be a lot more discussion about infant feeding between parents and pediatricians,” says Wojcicki. “Always ask about nutrition in the first few years.” If your child is already overweight, ask for a referral to a pediatric nutritionist, suggests Wojcicki.
4. Know when your baby has had enough.
Here’s why: Mothers who miss signs of satiety in their infants tend to overfeed, leading to excess weight gain when their babies are 6 to 12 months old, says a recent Rutgers study. Recognizing hunger or “I’m full” cues takes some time, especially in someone who can’t speak yet! Reidy offers some hints on what to look for:
- Don’t always assume baby’s hungry when she’s fussy. She may just need some TLC.
- When your baby spits out the nipple or turns away from her bottle, she’s done.
- Remember, your infant doesn’t have to consume every last ounce you’ve readied for her.
- When a spoonful of yummy peaches nears her mouth and she turns her head, that’s a sign she’s full (even if it seems that she has hardly eaten any).
- If she’s playing with—and not eating—her food, mealtime is over.
5. Check out your childcare setting.
Here’s why: Many parents depend on infant-care providers to offer nutritious foods and support healthy eating behaviors—but sometimes, however, parents and childcare providers aren’t on the same page.
One Pediatrics study of more than 1,100 babies up to 6 months old found that childcare in a center, someone else’s home or in the child’s own home by a nonparent is linked to excess pounds at 1 and 3 years old.
“It’s important for parents to find out what the nutritional environment is like,” says study coauthor Gillman. “Our study suggests that childcare centers are not as obesogenic as childcare homes.”
6. Snooze, baby, snooze.
Here’s why: Too little sleep raises an infant’s risk for gaining too much weight in early childhood. In one of Gillman’s latest studies, babies who slept less than 12 hours daily (including naps) had double the risk for becoming obese at age 7.
Other studies also confirm that sleep duration in infancy is an important factor in predicting obesity.
Some scientists speculate that sleep affects brain regions that regulate metabolism. But another reason could simply be excess calories. “We don’t yet know the hormonal pathways at work in infants,” says Wojcicki. “But we do know that some moms use a bottle at every nap and night-waking to get their babies to fall asleep.”
7. Push the healthy stuff now.
Here’s why: Eating patterns become set between 12 and 24 months. “You need to establish the foundation for healthy diets early in life when habits and food preferences are being formed,” says Reidy.
Diet after six months should consist of breast milk, lots of veggies and fruits, fortified whole-grain cereals, fish, meat, eggs, beans, plain yogurt and other nutritious fare.
Studies show that diets high in fruits and veggies are linked to a lower risk of obesity. Yet the FITS found that mashed potatoes—made with milk and butter—were the most common vegetable eaten by 9- to 11-month-olds. For 12- to 14-month-olds, French fries were the number one “veggie.”
8. Eat your broccoli, Mom.
Here’s why: You have tremendous influence over how many fruits and vegetables your child eats. In fact, a study in Preventive Medicine established that when a parent eats one extra fruit or vegetable each day, her child does the same.
“Parents are nutritional role models,” stresses Reidy. “When children see you eating vegetables, they’ll want to eat them, too.”
And don’t forget to set an example with physical activity. Regrettably, women with children under age 6 get significantly less exercise than women who do not have kids at home, researchers have found. Buck the inactivity trend by taking baby for a 30-minute stroll every day.
We all want to feed our babies foods that make them happy—but foods that make them healthy are even more important. Here’s how to get your baby’s nutrition off to a strong start.