Best start basics: Why healthy nutrition habits matter for babies

The importance of encouraging children to develop healthy habits in early life.
The importance of encouraging children to develop healthy habits in early life. Photo: Supplied.

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As parents, we want to do everything we can to give our children the best start in life. Understanding how your child absorbs the nutrients they need and encouraging them to develop healthy food habits in early life can set them up for a long, healthy future.

"Nutrition plays a significant role in human lives. There are countless examples of disease processes that are caused or exacerbated by poor nutritional choices," says Pediatrician Dr Scott Dunlop of Sydney Pediatrics and Kids Consult.

"Establishing a positive relationship with food at an early age will help to moderate some of those potential negative outcomes and put children and young adults on the path to making sensible food choices through adulthood."

Good gut

Gut health, or the gut microbiome, is the epicentre of overall good health. "The vast array of bugs that inhabit the digestive tract play key roles in digesting and absorbing nutrients, our immunity, and metabolism. It even contributes to our moods," says nutritionist Jessica Cheney.

"It's vital that infants have good gut health so that these bodily processes are supported during the rapid growth and development an infant goes through."

Milk first

In the first year of life, babies get the bulk of their nutrients from breastmilk. Until they are six months, it's all they need! "During this time, milk provides all the necessary nutrition for a baby to grow," says Cheney.

Breastmilk also lays the foundations of infant gut health as it contains both health-promoting bacteria (probiotics) as well as prebiotic oligosaccharides to promote the growth of the probiotics.

Once you start to introduce solids at around six months it's recommended to continue breastfeeding until they are 24 months of age.

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Onto solids

"Once solids are well established, milk becomes a complementary source of nutrition. Solids give great opportunities to nurture the infant microbiome by offering pre-and-probiotic rich foods," says Cheney.

Together, plant-based foods that have prebiotic fibres: fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, and legumes, and fermented foods containing probiotics, commonly: yoghurt, kefir, cheese, sourdough and kimchi, work to keep your gut microbes in balance.

Navigating allergies

"Optimal gut health plays a significant role in ensuring a healthy immune system and could minimise the chance of food allergies," says Cheney.

Giving your baby common allergy-causing foods in their first year can reduce the risk of them becoming allergic to that food. So once your infant is onto solids, introduce peanut butter, well-cooked egg, wheat products and high-quality dairy. However, it's important to note that you should monitor for any intolerances.*

Food allergy occurs in around 5-10 per cent of children in Australia and one of the most common food allergies in early life is to cows' milk. For breastfed infants it may be necessary to exclude dairy from the mother's diet, while for formula-fed infants there are formulas available that are specifically developed for infants with cows' milk allergy. Exclusion and reintroduction of cows' milk should only be done with advice from a medical specialist, however.

Living food

"The most important healthy eating habits are often behavioural in nature," says Dr Dunlop. "In order to establish healthy habits in children, parents also need to model healthy habits."

Involve your baby in mealtime by sitting them at the dining table, eating while they eat and showing that you enjoy it. Introduce them to a wide variety of foods, flavours and textures, and if your baby does reject a food, try offering it again on another day. "Engaging in emotional battles over food will never lead to the establishment of a positive feeding experience. So don't sweat the small stuff," he says.

As experts in early life nutrition with over 40 years of continuous scientific research, Nutricia's formulations are developed to support the progress of your toddler.

*Visit https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/food-allergy-and-intolerance to learn more