Updated: Feb 7, 2020
By M. Marie Rhamie FNP-BC, MSN
Providing good nutrition for infants and children goes beyond deciding whether to bottle feed or breast feed. When deciding on a healthful and nutritious diet for a new baby, there are five stages a mother must consider. First, prenatal nutrition sets the stage for the unborn baby to develop optimally. After the baby is born, the mother has to consider whether to breast feed or bottle feed. Introducing healthy foods early in development continues to set the stage for a life time of healthy nutritional choices. The developing young child poses a new set of challenges for nutrition which prevents the development of chronic diseases. The teen years are also a challenging time which requires parents to allow teens to make their own choices.
Many women think the question of providing nutrition for our children is simply a question of deciding whether to bottle feed or breast feed. If it didn’t matter what parents fed their children, there probably wouldn’t be so many choices. How do parents decide? Unfortunately, many mothers make their decision based upon what television advertisement they recently viewed, or sometimes the final decision is based upon whatever brand of formula the particular hospital happens to have samples of in their new arrivals packet for new parents.
Nutrition for children actually begins long before a child is born. Women who anticipate their pregnancy can prepare will in advance by removing harmful elements from their diets such as alcohol (can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome) and tobacco (can lead to small birth weight) and adding helpful elements such as prenatal vitamins and adequate water to ensure a good pregnancy and a healthy baby. A healthy body produces a healthy body. Expecting mothers should choose good nutritious food that provides rich nutrients to the developing mother and the baby. Pregnant women who take prenatal vitamins help to prevent the development of serious birth defects such as spina bifida (spinal bones fail to close properly during early development). Taking prenatal vitamins at the beginning of the pregnancy assures that a woman gets sufficient amounts of the B vitamin folic acid, and thereby decreasing the risk of serious birth defects. Eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables also assures that essential trace minerals will be available for the mother as well as the developing baby. Women who have diabetes for example, are encouraged to regulate their blood sugars as much as possible to ensure optimal growth and development for their babies. Infants born to a mother who has diabetes tend to have larger birth weights.
Infants who are breast fed receive natural antibodies from their mothers which help these babies to resist many types of illnesses such as ear and respiratory infections. Breast feeding is the most optimal form of infant nutrition. Many medical experts believe infants who are breastfed develop less chronic problems such as asthma, allergies, constipation, and obesity. Many mothers who breast feed their infants develop a special bonding which continues through out the life of the child. Breast feeding is also inexpensive and convenient. Formula feeding does provide adequate nutrients for infants as well. Breast feeding is recommended for at least six to twelve months after which babies should be weaned to table foods and drinking from a cup.
Toddlers are often described as “picky eaters”. In general, children eat what they are “taught” to eat. While each child has individual preferences for particular foods, when children are given a variety of nutritious foods as soon as they begin to eat table foods, they develop a love for nutritious foods. Parents who “train” their children to eat a rainbow of healthy fruits, vegetables and proteins early in life, will be rewarded with children who have less illnesses such as asthma, allergies, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
Childhood obesity is an alarming epidemic. Currently it is estimated that 25% of children between the ages of 2 and 18 years old are over weight. Children who are at or above the 85th percentile for their weight are at increased risks for the development of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke, liver disease, and cancer. Aggressive attention to nutrition and exercise is strongly recommended to prevent the development of obesity related chronic disease in childhood. Micronutrients necessary for proper growth and development is frequently lacking when foods are rapidly and incorrectly prepared. Increased physical activity is critical to the prevention and treatment of obesity. The Body Mass Index (BMI) is a screening tool for children as young as 2 years old. Medical experts have noted cardiovascular disease in children as young as two years old. Chronic disease among children can be prevented or delayed by maintaining ideal body weight, controlling blood pressure, lowering blood cholesterol, participating in regular daily exercise for at least 30 minutes to an hour daily, eating nutritious food every day, managing stress, stop smoking and drinking plenty of water daily.
The teen years are a culmination of ideas, habits and discipline practices that have occurred throughout the life of the teen. Many teens defy their parents as they seek to create their identity. Parents must set boundaries and limits and allow for freedom of choice. With teens parents should provide support as teens are allowed to manage consequences for their choices.
Nutrition for children requires a great deal of thoughtful planning and preparation. Evidence shows that healthy pregnancies produce healthy babies. Good nutrition begins before the pregnancy and continues throughout. A well balanced nutritional diet can be encouraged early in life and if done correctly can prevent or delay the development of many chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. Many resources are available to parents for planning and preparing healthy nutritious meals. Children should never be placed on diets but rather given direction for healthful eating.