The first few years of your child’s life is a period of rapid growth and development. Proper nutrition is important at this stage for growth, development, and the maintenance of health. Continue reading to learn more about nutrient requirements for infants and how to build healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.
What is infancy?
Infancy is the time period between birth and up to two years of life. It’s considered to end when a baby is weaned off of breast milk or infant formula, usually around 24 months. It’s also the stage at which growth and development occur at their fastest rate. At this stage in life, infants should receive most of their nutrition from breast milk or infant formula. (1)
Nutrition in early infancy
To meet your child’s nutritional needs for healthy growth and development, it is recommended to breastfeed or give infant formula exclusively for the first six months of life. This is because breast milk contains all important nutrients an infant requires, except for vitamin D. For those who are not able to breastfeed, infant formulas, such as iron fortified formula, can be used as a substitute for breast milk. (11)(12)
Essential nutrients required for infants include:
Did you know? Breast milk on its own does not provide infants with an adequate amount of vitamin D. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants receiving breast milk as their primary source of nutrition should be supplemented with vitamin D. (2)
Benefits of breastfeeding
Breastfeeding has several benefits for both mom and baby.
1. Benefits to baby
Breast milk is considered to be the optimal source of nutrition for infants. This is because the nutritional composition of breast milk changes to meet the nutritional needs of a child as they grow and develop. (5) Additionally, breastfed infants have a lower risk of developing:
- Acute otitis media (ear infections)
- Gastrointestinal infections (diarrhea/vomiting)
- Type 1 diabetes
- Severe lung disease
- Skin conditions
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) (2)(8)(9)(14)
Did you know? Breast milk can be used as a topical skin treatment for conditions such as, diaper rash, eczema, pink eye, umbilical cord separation, and minor scrapes and burns. (14)
2. Benefits to birthing parent
Research has found that breastfeeding can protect women from health conditions such as:
- Breast cancer
- Heart disease
- Ovarian cancer (5)
Did you know? The body uses energy and thus burns calories to produce breast milk. Breastfeeding can therefore help a person lose weight gained during pregnancy. (13)
Nutrition in late infancy
After 6 months of age, complementary foods can be introduced. However, breast milk or infant infant formula should be the primary source of nutrition for at least two years. (11)
At about 6 months of age, you can begin to introduce foods other than breast milk to your baby’s diet. These foods are referred to as complementary foods, as they are meant to “complement” or add to the nutrition your child receives from breast milk or infant formula. (6)
How to know when your child is ready for solid foods
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most babies can be introduced to foods other than breast milk or infant formulas around 6 months of age. However, as every baby is different, it’s best to look for signs that your baby is ready for solid foods.
Your child may be ready for solid foods if they can:
- Bring objects to their mouth
- Control their head and neck
- Grasp small objects, toys, or food
- Open their mouth when food is offered
- Sit up without any support
- Swallow food (6)
Starting solid foods
When introducing solid foods to your child for the first time, introduce one single-ingredient food at a time, waiting three to five days between each new food. This is will help to identify any food allergies or food sensitivities. (6)
What food should you introduce to your child?
Introducing your child to a variety of foods of different colors, flavors, and textures will build healthy eating behaviors to last a lifetime. Additionally, children who are introduced to a variety of foods during infancy are less likely to be picky eaters. Eating a variety of foods will also provide your child with essential nutrients, including vitamins and minerals.
Healthy foods to introduce to your infant include:
- Cereals and whole grains, such as iron fortified infant cereals, rice cereal, whole grain breads, and pastas
- Commercial baby foods, such as pureed vegetables, and fruits
- Cooked vegetables, such as beans, beets, carrots, peas, spinach, and yams
- Fruits, such as avocados, bananas, berries
- Iron rich foods, such as iron-rich meats, meat alternatives, and fortified cereals
- Protein, such as soft and small pieces of beef, chicken, eggs, fish, lamb, turkey, and tofu
- Potentially allergenic foods, such as eggs, seafood, and legumes (6)(11)
Tip: As your child approaches 12 months of age, they will be interested in the foods you eat. You can set a good example by eating a healthy diet.
What to avoid when introducing your child to food
Foods and drinks to avoid giving to your infant include:
- Caffeinated drinks, such as coffee, caffeinated teas, energy drinks, and soft drinks
- Cow’s milk or fortified soy milk before 12 months
- Fish that is high in mercury, such as king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish, and tuna
- Foods with added sugars
- Foods high in sodium
- Foods that can be choking hazards, such as hard foods, foods that require chewing, bones, or fruits with pits or seeds
- Honey before the age of 12 months
- Juices or sugary drinks
- Unpasteurized drinks or foods, such as cheese, milk, and yogurt (6)
The bottom line
Infancy is a time of rapid growth and development. During infancy, breast milk provides most of the nutrients necessary to support optimal growth and development. Around six months of age, complementary foods may be introduced; however, breast milk or infant formula should still be the primary source of nutrition for infants. It is important to ensure your child is ready for complementary foods to prevent hazards such as choking.
Introducing a variety of healthy baby-safe foods will build healthy eating behaviors, prevent allergies, and provide your child with the nutrients needed for optimal health, growth, and development.
- Bogin, B. (2012). Infants: Nutritional Requirements. Human Growth and Development, 7, 287–324.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, July 2). Vitamin D is needed to support healthy bone development. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-special-circumstances/diet-and-micronutrients/vitamin-d.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Foods and Drinks to Limit. (2022, May 17). Retrieved October 17, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/infantandtoddlernutrition/foods-and-drinks/foods-and-drinks-to-limit.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, July 9). Recommendations and Benefits. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/InfantandToddlerNutrition/breastfeeding/recommendations-benefits.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, August 23). Why It Matters. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/about-breastfeeding/why-it-matters.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, August 24). When, What, and How to Introduce Solid Foods. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/infantandtoddlernutrition/foods-and-drinks/when-to-introduce-solid-foods.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021d, December 1). Foods and Drinks for 6 to 24 Month Olds. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/infantandtoddlernutrition/foods-and-drinks/index.html
- Dieterich, C. M., Felice, J. P., O’Sullivan, E., & Rasmussen, K. M. (2013). Breastfeeding and Health Outcomes for the Mother-Infant Dyad. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 60(1), 31–48.
- National Institutes of Health. (2018, July 27). What are the benefits of breastfeeding? Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/breastfeeding/conditioninfo/benefits
- Patel JK, Rouster AS. Infant Nutrition Requirements and Options. . In: StatPearls (Internet). Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560758/
- Public Health Agency of Canada.Nutrition for Healthy Term Infants: Recommendations from Six to 24 Months – Canada.ca. Government of Canada. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/canada-food-guide/resources/infant-feeding/nutrition-healthy-term-infants-recommendations-birth-six-months/6-24-months.html#a5
- Public Health Agency of Canada. Nutrition for Healthy Term Infants: Recommendations from Birth to Six Months – Canada.ca. Government of Canada. Retrieved October 17, 2022, from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/canada-food-guide/resources/infant-feeding/nutrition-healthy-term-infants-recommendations-birth-six-months.html
- Public Health Agency of Canada. (2020, February). 10 Great Reasons to Breastfeed your Baby – Canada.ca. Government of Canada. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/health-promotion/childhood-adolescence/stages-childhood/infancy-birth-two-years/breastfeeding-infant-nutrition/10-great-reasons-breastfeed-your-baby.html
- Witkowska-Zimny, M., Kamińska-El-Hassan, E., & Wróbel, E. (2019, April 26). Milk Therapy: Unexpected Uses for Human Breast Milk. Nutrients, 11(5), 944.