Guiding Babies in the Principles of Healthy Eating
Feeding our children can be among the most exciting and the most stressful moments of parenting. Often parents have many questions and worries when it comes to feeding their babies. Is my baby eating enough? Too much? How do I encourage vegetables? Although there is enough information and opinions on feeding babies to fill an entire library, I’d like to give you a few principles to support you and your baby on a journey of nutritional health. But first, I invite you to take a deep breath and relax. Feeding your family doesn't have to be hard or complicated. It’s ok to keep it simple, do your best, and spend more time savoring special moments with your little one.
Healthy Eating Begins (and Continues) With You
Setting your baby up for a lifetime of healthy food preferences begins at conception. Research shows that babies actually begin “tasting” in the womb. The flavor of vegetables can actually be detected in amniotic fluid! Pregnancy can be a tricky time for some women that experience extreme morning sickness and fatigue to eat their veggies, but it really is an important time to center your diet around healthy foods. We often think of pregnancy as a time of “eating for two” and giving in to cravings, but women carrying single pregnancies only require, on average, about 300 calories more per day to grow a baby. It’s ok to enjoy some indulgences, but I recommend emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts and seeds in your diet. In addition, ensure that you are taking your prenatal vitamin as recommended by your doctor.
Once your baby is born, if you choose to breast feed, the foods you consume will continue to influence your rapidly growing baby. Just like amniotic fluid, subtle flavors of your food can be transferred into the breast milk and increase the likelihood that your baby will prefer those foods.
However, even if you choose not to or are unable to breast feed, the eating habits and food choices of parents and family members are known to have a big influence on children. Children are much more likely to choose fruits and vegetables if they see their parents eating and enjoying them. Eating meals as a family several times per week further strengthens the effect and protects children from obesity.
If you aren't already a veggie lover, don’t despair. All tastes (except breast milk) are acquired and if you slowly begin integrating more vegetables into your meals, you will start to enjoy and even crave them. In addition, it doesn't have to be all-or-nothing. Being a role model does not mean you have to be perfect. Food is first and foremost for fuel and nutrition, but it also provides pleasure and enjoyment. My rule of thumb is to use the 80/20 rule. Choose healthful, nutritious foods at least 80% of the time so that 20% of the time you can have some fun.
Trust your Child’s Natural Intuition
Our society and culture has lost the art of intuitive eating. Because of this, parents become very stressed when their babies and children either refuse to eat or eat more than seems appropriate at the time. Intuitive eating is a way of eating that honors internal cues of hunger and fullness rather than external cues such as time of day or a set menu plan. As intuitive eating becomes more and more rare, raising an intuitive eater can be considered a proud accomplishment. Babies are born intuitive eaters. They cry for food and eat when they are hungry and they pull away and turn their heads when they have had enough. Once a feeding pattern has been established and a baby is gaining weight after the first few days of life, it is ok to trust your baby to signal to you when they are hungry or full. Regular checkups with their doctor will reassure you that they are gaining weight along their growth curve and are developing normally. As babies grow, there may be times when they want to eat a lot more or less than usual. If they otherwise do not seem ill, then there is no reason to be concerned. This may seem even more dramatic as they enter toddlerhood. Again, there is no need to panic. It is very normal for growing, active toddlers to eat only a few bites at one meal and devour their entire meal plus some at another. Never force a child to eat. If you are concerned that your child is not eating enough, is losing weight or seems ill, seek medical attention. Trusting your child’s innate hunger and fullness signals may require patience and skill on your part, but it will pay off in the long run.
Emphasize Whole Plant Foods
There is mounting evidence that eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans decreases our risk of chronic disease and increases longevity. The Standard American Diet is currently very high in processed foods and additives such as sugar, salt and fat and incredibly low in fiber, certain vitamins and antioxidants. Whole plant foods beautifully house all the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) in addition to vitamins, antioxidants, fiber and water. Whole plant foods should be the foundation of a healthy, nutritious diet. Of course, babies will not start directly exploring the world of plants until around 6 months of age. Before then, they may start experiencing some flavors through the amniotic fluid or through breast milk. Once babies have tried different fruits, vegetables and whole grains, don't be shy about integrating different types of beans. With recent changes in guidelines, there is now a recommendation to begin exposing babies to nut butters after 6 months as well. When you begin feeding babies and toddlers, avoid and limit processed foods. Although convenient, they are often stripped of fiber and packed with additives such as sugar, salt and preservatives. When purchasing packaged foods, choose foods that have the shortest ingredient lists. Again, it doesn't have to be all-or-nothing. We know from studies of the longest lived populations that they ate a plant-based diet 80-95% of the time. Choose whole plant foods more often than not, but remember that there is room for indulgences and conveniences in a modern, health-promoting diet.
Keep it Simple
Babies and toddlers can become overwhelmed if they are presented with too many choices. Although variety in the diet is important in order to maximize different vitamins and antioxidants, our bodies are more efficient than you may think. Don’t feel pressured to constantly introduce new foods or force variety onto your baby. It is ok to take it slow and let them take time to explore new foods and tastes. As they become older, introduce new foods along with a familiar food that you know they like. And if it is not accepted right away, no worries, try again another time. As I said before, all flavors are acquired. With time and patience your child will accept vegetables into their diet.
Have Fun and Enjoy the Experience
It is such a joy to explore one of the most essential and pleasurable human needs with your growing child. From dramatic expressions of disgust and enjoyment, food smeared on faces and in hair and food thrown all over the floor, feeding your child at each stage is a memorable milestone in parenting and development. Relax, have fun, trust your child and your own intuition. You won’t be perfect, but you will have many opportunities to learn more about your child and your own journey of health. May you be happy and well!
*This article first appeared in Yakima Playdate Magazine on May 3rd, 2017.
What lessons have you learned from feeding your baby? Comment below, leave me a like and share this blog post. Thanks for reading and have a plantastic day!