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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Nutritionally speaking, infants are not small adults.
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Cindy D. Davis

As the mother of young children, I’m tempted to try and feed them low-fat foods because that is what is recommended for adults. However, eating patterns of infants and toddlers are different from those of adults. Did you know that, pound for pound, infants and toddlers require more calories than adults?

For this and other reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee and the National Cholesterol Education Program agree that fat and cholesterol should not be restricted in the diets of children from birth to two. Dietary fat supplies concentrated energy, provides the essential fatty acids linoleic and linolenic (necessary for proper nerve development) and contains fat-soluble vitamins. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, essential fatty acids should constitute at least three percent of the calories in baby’s normal diet. Essential fatty acids are those that the body can’t make from other substances, and so must be provided in the diet.

Babies are growing machines. In one year they will triple their birth weight and increase their length by 50 percent. To do that they need to eat, they need to eat a lot, and they need to eat often. Thus, another concern parents often have is whether their children might be eating too much. However, babies are particularly good self regulators when it comes to eating what they need. Any attempts to restrict their intake can backfire. For example, children whose parents withhold food become preoccupied with it and are prone to overeat when they get a chance.

Their rapid growth rate also means that, for their size, they need more iron, calcium and zinc than at any other time. Fortified infant cereals are a very good source of these minerals. For older infants, other sources of iron include meats, poultry, and cooked dried beans and peas. Offer a variety of whole-grain breads, fortified cereals and crackers, milk, yogurt and cheese. A child presented with appropriate, nutritious foods, will come to prefer them over junk foods.

To help babies and toddlers accept new foods, offer the same new food for several days in a row. Practice and patience are key ingredients to helping children develop healthful eating habits. Offering a variety of foods at an early age sets the stage for life-long healthful eating habits. No one food ensures a healthy eating pattern.

Parents can help balance the nutrient intakes of older infants and toddlers by offering a variety of foods. Studies show that the larger the variety in one’s diet the better nutritional intake they have. That’s because different foods provide different nutrients. No one food, NOT EVEN TEN FOODS, can do it all.

The trick with toddlers is to find a variety of foods they will eat that will cover the important nutrient families, and then build from there. Include foods from all of the food groups every day to help supply the energy, vitamins, and minerals growing children need.

Most importantly, be a role model. After all, children are imitators. The examples you set in your eating habits and attitudes toward food will cross over to your children.

Last Modified: 10/23/2006
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