Healthy eating is about balancing your body’s nutritional needs while enjoying the foods you eat. Why…
A guide to healthy eating in infants
- It is important that infants have an appropriate diet to support their healthy growth and development.
- In the first months, it is best to feed your baby breastmilk if possible, as it contains the perfect components for your baby's nutrition and health.
- In the first months of your baby's life, they will get their nutrients in liquid form, moving gradually to solids in time.
- As your toddler grows older, and moves to eating more 'regular' foods, encourage healthy eating habits that can form the basis for a lifetime of healthy eating for your child.
The first six months
After your baby is born, they will require a liquid diet for the first six months. This can be by breastfeeding or bottle-feeding.
It is best to feed your baby breastmilk, as it contains the perfect components for your baby's nutrition and health. Breastfeeding strengthens your bond with your baby and can also prevent pneumonia, diarrhoea-causing diseases, obesity, diabetes and allergies. Breastfed babies are also at lower risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
A healthy baby is normally alert and ready for the first feed within the first hour of being born. The number of feeds your baby requires can vary from around 8-12 feeds in the first 24 hours. Your body will continuously replace breastmilk as it is taken by your baby, so it is best to let your baby set the pace for feeds.
During late pregnancy, a mother's body produces a fluid called colostrum (also known as 'first milk'), which is particularly suited for newborns. Colostrum is yellowish in colour and is rich in immune components, growth factors and protein. It helps to protect your baby from middle ear, gastrointestinal, urinary and respiratory infections. Colostrum is ready for your baby immediately after birth. Your baby will feed on colostrum for the first few days, until the breastmilk appears.
Breastmilk is an important food source for babies until they are 12 months old, but breastfeeding can be continued for longer. If you are experiencing difficulty breastfeeding, it is possible to express the milk by hand or with a breast pump and feed your baby from a bottle.
If you are unable to breastfeed, you can use infant formula. Although it does not contain antibodies and all of the natural nutrients that are found in breastmilk, it is a suitable alternative. If you use formula to feed your baby, sterilising all of the equipment used will help to avoid contamination and illness. When preparing the formula, it is suggested to follow the packaging recommendations. Infant formula can be used as an alternative to breastmilk up to the age of 12 months.
Moving to solid foods
When your baby is about six months old, you can start introducing solid foods into their diet, while still breastfeeding or bottle-feeding. This is particularly important, as a baby that is solely breastfed or bottle-fed may not be receiving enough iron at this stage. Your baby will also have doubled in weight since birth and will need more substantial foods to satisfy their hunger.
The exact time to start solid foods depends not only on your baby's age, but also on their ability to sit up, support their own head and other developmental milestones, including opening their mouth when food is offered. This normally occurs at around six months of age. If your baby has not reached this stage in their development, it can be dangerous to feed them solids as they may not have the coordination to swallow and may inhale food into the lungs.
Types of solid foods
There is no golden rule for which solid food must be given first. It is best to introduce single-ingredient foods first, one at a time, to identify if your baby has any allergic reactions and to help your baby get used to new tastes.
Signs of an allergic reaction include skin rashes, swelling in the face, vomiting, diarrhoea, coughing, wheezing or pale skin. It is best to contact your baby's doctor if any of these symptoms occur.
Some types of solid foods to start your baby on include:
Single-grain infant cereal, which contains additional calories and iron, is a popular first choice. Rice cereal is commonly chosen due to a reduced chance of allergic reaction, but you can also try wheat cereal. The cereals are prepared with breastmilk, infant formula or water. At first, the cereal can be made thin and then gradually made thicker over time. A spoon can be used to feed your baby; this can help to build the coordination of swallowing motions. Initially, you can offer small amounts of cereal - one teaspoon or 5 mL - at the end of breastfeeding or bottle-feeding.
Puréed foods can also be introduced one at a time; these can include vegetables, fruits and meats. A new food can be added every few days, if no allergic reaction is observed. When introducing new foods, the amount eaten is less important - the main goal is to expose your infant to new flavours and textures. As a guide, by around eight months of age, your baby will consume about half a cup of fruit and half a cup of vegetables.
At around 7-9 months, when your baby starts getting used to puréed foods, you can try giving combinations of two or more ingredients. These can be thicker in consistency, but it is important to make sure your baby can tolerate all the individual components on their own.
Finally, chunky combinations of foods that have even more texture can be given to encourage chewing. These can be seasoned with spices, but it is best to avoid adding any salt or sugar. These can include blends of puréed foods that contain small pieces of vegetables, pasta or meat. Your baby can chew the food with their gums, so you don't need to wait until teething starts.
At around 10-12 months of age, your child will be able to move onto more complex foods that they can either pick up with their fingers or with a spoon. These can include 'adult' foods including soft toast, small tender pieces of lean meat, chicken, or fish, and cooked vegetable pieces.
If you prepare some of your baby's food at home, it is important to work on clean surfaces and with clean equipment. This can help to avoid any illnesses while your baby's immune system is still developing. If you are using baby food from jars, it is best to serve the food from a bowl to avoid any contamination to the remaining portion in the jar. After opening a jar, follow the instructions for storage and discarding.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are important for your child's development. It is important that your child gets enough:
- Iron is found in iron-rich infant formulas or iron-fortified infant cereals, iron is important in the development of the central nervous system. Iron supplements are also available, but these should only be used if your advised by your doctor;
- Vitamin B12 is found in dairy products, eggs and meat, it is important for the maintenance of red blood cells. A multivitamin containing B12 can be given to babies of breastfeeding mothers who are vegetarian or vegan;
- Vitamin D helps to absorb calcium and phosphorus, which are important for bone development, and;
- Fluoride is normally found in drinking water. It can help to reduce cavities forming in children's teeth.
For babies under 12 months, there are some foods that are not suitable. These include:
Toddlers and food
As your toddler grows older, you will gradually start feeding them more of what the rest of the family eats. At this point, it is important to think about what you would like your child to grow up eating. From an early age, it is best to practise healthy eating. It is important to offer your child a wide variety of nutritious foods and not limit them to what they prefer or what is easy. It is best to limit the intake of food and drink that contain saturated fats, added sugar and added salt.
Many toddlers go through a stage of 'fussy eating', in which they only agree to eat a few types of food. In most cases, this stage passes in time without doing any harm. For more information, see our food refusal report.
The five food groups
The Australian Dietary Guidelines separate most commonly-eaten foods into five major food groups.  Because we tend to think in terms of foods, rather than macronutrients or energy, using the major food groups can help you to choose a selection of foods that will help contribute to a balanced diet with all the nutrients your child's body needs.
The five major food groups are:
- Vegetables and legumes (which include beans, peas and tofu);
- Grain or cereal-based foods, such as breads, rice, breakfast cereals and pasta;
- Lean meats, fish, poultry and eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds;
- Fruits, and;
- Dairy and dairy substitutes (such as non-dairy milks fortified with calcium).
The guidelines stress that choosing a variety of foods within each of these food groups can help your family to get the nutrients their bodies need. For example, choosing vegetables of different colours, eating different fruits in season and swapping around your grain-based foods (rice one night and couscous the next) are easy ways to do this.