According to a 2018 statement made by the American Academy of Pediatrics, “a baby’s nutritional environment during the first 1,000 days of life is critical to lifelong mental health and development.” We can all agree that feeding babies the most nutrient-dense foods from a young age is ideal, but it can be hard to navigate the varying opinions and options out there.
Nutrition for babies starts with providing mother’s milk, which is specifically made for your baby. Then, bringing nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables into your baby’s diet will help him or her to explore the flavors and textures of these healthy foods, while promoting his or her ongoing development. (1)
Your baby receives the nutrients you consume during pregnancy, which is why a pregnancy diet full of brain-boosting and growth-promoting foods is so important. After giving birth, your choices will impact your baby’s relationship with food for years to come. Hopefully, learning about the best foods for baby nutrition and how to begin incorporating them into your diet will help to make this process a little clearer.
What Is Baby Nutrition?
The most essential tool for the growth and development of your baby is good nutrition. Not only does the appropriate types of foods support your baby’s health, but positive feeding techniques and attitudes can also help an infant to develop a healthy and optimistic attitude toward foods and themselves.
In the first year of life (and into the toddler phase) a child needs to receive adequate amounts of brain-building and growth-promoting nutrients. These nutrients include vitamins A, D, B6 and B12, plus protein, polyunsaturated fatty acids, probiotics, prebiotics, fiber, zinc, iron, iodine, folate and choline. These nutrients are found naturally in breast milk and in the foods that you will introduce during your baby’s first year of life. (2)
Formula vs. Breast Milk
Research shows that breast milk is the best source of nutrition for nearly all babies. Breast milk contains the perfect combination of bioactive agents that promote the proper function of the immune system and gastrointestinal tract. Plus, it supports brain development and promotes optimal infant growth.
One study, published in Cellular and Molecular Biology, indicates that the components present in breast milk, such as proteins that contain amino acids (including glutamine), cytokines, hormones, oligosaccharides and polyunsaturated fatty acids, can also influence the child’s feeding behavior, regulation of growth and appetite control later in late. This finding suggests that breast milk can help to protect infants against obesity and type 2 diabetes, even into their adult years. (3)
Organizations such as the World Health Organization, American Academy of Pediatrics and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommend that infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life and breastfed in combination with starting foods from six to 12 months of life. (4)
For women who aren’t able to breastfeed or are having trouble producing enough breast milk, infant formula serves as an industrially produced substitute. Infant formula is meant to mimic the nutritional composition of breast milk. According to a review of infant feeding published in Nutrients, 75 percent of mothers in the United States initiate breastfeeding from birth, but by 3 months of age, 67 percent of them turn to infant formula for some portion of their baby’s nutrition. (5)
Infant formula is not identical to breast milk, but formula products have been produced to mimic the nutrition profile of human milk as closely as possible. Usually, cow or soy milk is used as the base and supplemental ingredients, like vitamins, minerals, fats and probiotics, are added to match the composition of breast milk. However, milk contains higher levels of fats, protein, sodium and potassium than breast milk, and these levels are too high for the infants to handle, so the milk must be skimmed or diluted. Studies show that even skimmed milk-base formulas contain too much protein for infants and there’s evidence to suggest that high protein intake during the first two years of life is a risk factor for the development of obesity later in late. (6)
It’s also important to note, in the discussion of infant formula, that there are a number of alternatives to cow’s milk formula on the market today. For infants with a milk allergy, there are soy-based formulas, hypoallergenic formulas that don’t contain cow milk or soy milk, and amino acid formulas. There are also infant formulas made from the milk of different animals, including goat and lamb.
Another major difference between breast milk and formula is the presence of probiotics and prebiotics. Research shows that babies who are breast fed carry a more well-balanced and uniform population of probiotics than infants who are formula fed. And scientists believe that a healthy microbiome in infancy may have an impact on the child’s health later in life. (7)
So, to summarize all of this information on human milk versus infant formula, breast milk is by far the best nutrition for babies because it’s made naturally by humans and is meant to provide what an infant needs to grow and develop properly. However, for women who are unable to breastfeed because of their specific circumstances, infant formula provides an alternative that focuses on mimicking the natural components found in human milk.
Stages of Nutrition for Babies
Birth to 6 Months
There are four reflexes that an infant will typically demonstrate after birth. They include the rooting reflex, suck/swallow reflex, tongue thrust reflex and gag reflex. Here’s a rundown of these reflexes and why they are important: (8)
- Rooting: After birth, the first reflexive response that your infant will perform is reacting to objects when they touch his oral area, which includes his lips, corner of the mouth, cheek and chin. The baby, at this stage, should turn in the direction of the object and open his mouth, which allows him to locate a mother’s nipple or bottle nipple for food.
- Suck/Swallow: Another reflex that begins right after birth is the suck/swallow reflex that allows the infant to open his mouth and suck on an object. In order to swallow, tongue of the baby automatically moves to the back of his mouth. This reflex allows the infant to feed from a mother’s breast or a bottle.
- Tongue Thrust: The tongue thrust reflex causes the infant’s tongue to extend out of his mouth when his lips are touching. This allows the baby to suck on the nipple or bottle so that he can get food.
- Gag: The gag reflex causes the infant to gag when an object, such as a spoon, is placed far back in his mouth. This reflex is the reason why parents have to wait before they can feed the infant foods from a spoon.
Infants from birth to six months should only receive breast milk or infant formula, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Because of their feeding reflexes, they aren’t ready for foods in any form. And the digestive tract of an infant is still developing and isn’t ready for solids until about six months of age. Some infants show signs of food readiness earlier than six months, but exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first six months of life before moving on to adding complementary foods to the diet.
How do you know if your baby is getting enough breast milk or formula for the first six months of life? Your baby should continue to gain weight, once he gains back the weight he lost in the weeks right after birth. He should also be wetting at least 1–2 diapers in the first few days of life and then six or more diapers. The amount of stools your baby has per day will vary from several a day in the first month of life to one, or sometimes less, per day.
6 to 9 Months
Before an infant can move on to eating what’s called complementary foods, along with breast milk, he needs to have good head control and be able to sit up without support. Most infants reach this phase of development within 4–6 months of birth. Your baby must also be able to transfer food from the front of the mouth to the back of the tongue so that he can swallow foods from a spoon, and he must close his mouth around a spoon.
Once your baby has shown that he’s ready for solid, complementary foods, you will begin to introduce one new food at a time. The food should be offered alone and not in combination with other foods for at least 3–4 days before you move on to another food. This will help you to determine if your baby has any food allergies or sensitivities.
Just go slow and remember that breast milk is still the most important form of nutrients for your baby at this time. The dietary fat found in breast milk is essential for a baby’s brain development and immunity, so these feedings are still extremely important, even though your baby is now having fun with solid foods too.
Here’s the amount of food you’ll give when you begin: (9)
- At first, your baby only needs about a teaspoon of puréed food per day. This is a great time to pay attention to your baby’s reflexes and make sure he is ready for solids. I recommend beginning with pureed vegetables, like sweet potatoes and carrots, and then moving on to fruits.
- Once he gets the hang of it, move on to 1–2 tablespoons of puréed food once a day.
- Then about a month later, start feeding him 1–2 tablespoons of puréed food twice a day. If the baby wants more, then it’s okay to give him more. Just look out for his hunger cues to let you know when he’s full.
- By the time your baby is nine months old, you can be feeding him pureed foods three times per day. Keep giving him one food at a time, but you can do one type of food for the first feeding and a second kind of food for the second feeding, for instance.
As you feed your baby and try new foods, pay attention to his hunger cues. If he opens his mouth in between spoonfuls, that’s a good sign that he wants more. And if he closes his mouth shut and turns away when you are going in with the spoon, that’s a sign that your baby has had enough.
9 to 12 Months
Between 9 and 12 months, your baby will begin to experiment with self-feeding and can chop small pieces of soft food with his teeth and gums. You may also notice him playing with the spoon during meal times, although he probably won’t be able to spoon feed himself yet, and he’ll start using his thumb and index finger to pick up small pieces of food and feed himself.
At nine months, you can begin mixing two or more foods together, such as carrots and peas, as long as your baby has tried each food alone first. You will also begin to bring in other types of foods, beyond fruits and veggies. In these months, your baby is still getting breast milk or formula because he won’t begin drinking cow’s milk or a dairy alternative until he’s 12 months old.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, you can now bring puréed meats, pureed legumes, small amounts of cheese, small amounts of unsweetened yogurt and finger foods (like teething crackers, puffs and small pieces of scrambled eggs) into your baby’s diet.
Within this period, you can also introduce grains into your baby’s diet. Some pediatricians may recommend combining ground grains with breast milk or formula in order to make your baby feel more full. If that is something to choose to do at this time, I recommend adding gluten-free grains like brown rice, quinoa, millet and amaranth first. (10)
In this phase of eating, you will also introduce some common food allergens into your baby’s diet. This may been dangerous, and in the past it was recommended that infants avoid these foods until after one year, but new research is showing that introducing these foods earlier in life can actually help to decrease the risk of developing a food allergy. For this reason, it is suggested that your baby is exposed to small amounts of nut oil and peanut butter that’s diluted with water before he’s 12 months old. You can also introduce small amounts of yogurt and scrambled eggs at this time. (11)
Within the 9–12 month period, your baby is probably up to 3 feedings a day, so offer a range of foods every day. Eventually, within this phase, your baby will be ready to eat foods that aren’t pureed. This includes table foods like cooked peas, corn and pieces of carrots, as well as pasta or pieces of bread that have been been cut up. Two foods that you want to avoid until the baby is 12 months are honey and shellfish.
12 Months and Beyond
At 12 months old, your baby has already explored most foods and he is feeding himself by picking foods up or using a spoon. At this point, your baby can eat everything, including honey and shellfish.
He can also start drinking cow’s milk or a milk alternative of your choice. I think that coconut milk is an excellent choice because it contains lauric acid, which is also found heavily in mother’s breast milk. Some other cow’s milk alternatives that are great for children with a milk allergy or can be offered along with cow’s milk include almond milk and goat milk.
At this point in your baby’s diet, he can also drink as much water as he wants. I recommend avoiding or limiting juice for your baby. Many people ask “is juice healthy?” and the truth is that many juices that are marketed for children contain a ton of sugars and calories. If you are going to offer juice to your child, go for small amounts of antioxidant-rich fruit juices and vegetable-based juices.
Baby Nutrition Chart
Birth to 6 months:
Breast milk or formula only
Start at one feeding per day and then move on to two feedings.
Vegetables — (all puréed) sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, squash, avocado, peas, green beans
Fruits — (all puréed) apples, pears, bananas, peaches, plums
Grains — (puréed and mixed with breast milk or formula) brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, millet, amaranth, kamut
Begin three feedings a day and mix food groups. Begin serving finger foods (cut into small pieces) when your baby is ready. Continue providing breast milk or formula as well.
Vegetables — (puréed, mashed or cut into small pieces) broccoli, green beans, cauliflower, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, beets, zucchini, parsnips, eggplant
Fruits — (puréed, mashed or cut into small pieces) mangoes, papaya, pineapple, nectarines, berries, kiwi, melon, figs, cherries, cranberries, grapes
Protein Foods — (puréed, mashed or cut into small pieces) chicken, turkey, beef, eggs (yolk first), fish (no shellfish), peanut butter (diluted with water), lentils, beans
Dairy — (spoon fed or cut into small pieces) unsweetened yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese
Grains/Bread — (cut into small pieces) cooked gluten-free pasta, soft bread, flax
12 to 15 months:
Feed three times per day and add in snacks when baby shows hunger cues. Bring in more finger foods as baby shows readiness and offer a spoon or fork with meals.
Vegetables — All vegetables
Fruits — All fruits
Protein Foods — All meats, eggs, legumes, beans
Dairy — All cheeses, breast milk, cow’s milk, goat milk or dairy alternative
Grains/Bread — Dry cereal, puffs, cooked pasta, all grains
10 Best Beginning Foods
If you walk down the baby aisle at your local grocery store, you’ll notice a ton of baby food options. From organic to non-organic foods, to foods served in plastic, in glass and in pouches, to an array of combinations — how do you know where to begin? There’s no doubt that baby nutrition can be confusing and overwhelming.
Well, I recommend that you begin by making your own baby food at home and supplementing with organic foods in glass jars from the store when you need to. Remember that for the first few months of eating solids, your baby needs to receive one food at time. Once he’s about nine months old, you can start combining different foods. You are also providing breast milk in combination with starting solids.
To make baby’s first foods at home, simply steam, boil or bake them until they are soft, then use a food processor or blender to purée them. If the fruit or vegetable has skin, make sure it’s peeled before you purée it. For the first month or so, you’ll only need 1–2 tablespoons of pureed fruits and vegetables for each feeding. (12)
A great way to prepare and store plenty of baby food at once, put the puree into a BPA-free ice tray and then store the cubes of food in freezer-safe bags until you need them. Then simply pop the cube in the microwave or cook it on the stove until it’s warm and soft again. This will save you a ton of time and money! Plus, you are ensuring that the foods are organic, fresh and clean.
Here’s a list of the first 10 foods that you should offer your baby. These foods are rich in nutrients, easy on your baby’s maturing digestive system and soft enough for your baby to swallow easily. Remember to serve one food at a time, for 3–4 days, before moving on to the next food.
It’s important to note that each baby is different. Some babies will take a bit longer to adapt to solids and some will catch on right away. Always pay attention to your baby’s hunger cues and reflexes to determine what stage he’s at when it comes to feeding. If you have questions about feeding your baby grains or dairy, ask your pediatrician. You should also consult your pediatrician if you suspect that your baby has a food allergy.
If your baby shows signs of an allergy after eating a specific food, such as a new skin rash, diarrhea, vomiting or blood in the stool, eliminate the food from your baby’s diet and consult your pediatrician. It is normal for your baby’s stool is change colors or texture after eating a new food, so don’t be concerned about this indicating a problem.
Final Thoughts on Nutrition for Babies
- Nutrition for babies is extremely important for their growth and development. The first step to ensuring your baby’s health in the first months of life is exclusive breast feeding.
- After 6 months of exclusive breast feeding, you can begin adding complementary foods to your baby’s diet. Starting with puréed vegetables and then fruits is ideal.
- By nine months of age, your baby can begin receiving a combination of foods, including fruits, veggies, grains (I suggest going gluten-free at first), beans, legumes, dairy and meat.
- Here’s the top 10 beginning foods for your baby that are soft enough to swallow and gentle enough on the digestive system:
- Sweet Potatoes