The first years of your child's life instill habits that can last a lifetime. That's why it's so important to teach ways to "live lean" during this impressionable stage. Babies are naturally plump, of course -- that adorable, pinchable layer of fat insulates your little one's body from the elements and provides fuel for the "play first, eat later" toddler years. Most babies lose their chubbiness when they start to crawl and walk, but here are some guidelines to make sure your tot keeps the baby fat at bay -- for life.
Of course, the very best thing you can do to help your child maintain a healthy weight is to set a good example. If you're passionate about eating right and staying fit, your child will emulate your good habits. Remember, you have more influence over him in these first years of life than at any other time, so take advantage of this opportunity to give him the tools for a healthy lifestyle.
1. Breastfeed for as Long as Possible
Breastfed babies not only "lean out" sooner, they're also less likely to become obese later in childhood. What's more, the longer a baby breastfeeds, the better her chances of growing up at a healthy weight. That's because breastfeeding teaches her not to overeat. When she feels full, she naturally slows down or stops nursing. This helps her identify her hunger signals and regulate the amount she eats at each meal, a habit she's likely to carry into childhood.
Breastfeeding also keeps your baby from equating food with comfort. After he fills up on breast milk, he may continue to suckle, but in a slow way that gives very little milk. As a result, he learns to associate the good feelings that come from sucking with the warm sensation of being held in your arms, not with having a too-full tummy.
2. Learn to Read Your Baby When Feeding Him Formula
Without baby-to-breast contact, bottle-feeding may be less intuitive than breastfeeding, but you still can help your child develop healthy eating habits by following his feeding cues. Offer formula when he's hungry, not according to a schedule -- a young baby's tummy is about the same size as his fist, which means he'll do better with smaller, more frequent feedings. By the same token, let him decide when he's full. There's no need for him to finish the last ounce or half-ounce in the bottle if he's not interested. If he's simply crying for comfort, use music, massage or rocking instead of a bottle to soothe him.
Follow this pattern once she starts eating solids too -- just because she's eating table foods doesn't mean she needs to clean her plate. Smaller, more frequent meals are perfectly fine for your growing baby. Allowing a child to stop eating when her hunger is satisfied teaches her to trust her eating cues, helping to prevent overeating from becoming a habit.
3. Limit the "Terrible Two" - HFCS and Trans Fats
Once your baby is ready for table foods (at about 6 months), watch for corn syrup (or high-fructose corn syrup) and hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (a source of unhealthy trans fats) -- a duo of factory-made ingredients found in many processed snack foods that provide empty calories. Foods that depend on these for flavor and texture teach children to prefer sweeter, fattier fare, putting them on the road to being overweight. Make it a habit to check the label before you buy, and avoid foods that have the "terrible two" -- instead, look for foods labeled "saturated-fat free" or "contains no trans-fats", or give your little one healthier snacks like fresh fruit and vegetables.
4. Opt for Real Fruit
Fruit juice provides vitamins and energy, but too much can displace more nutritious foods, such as fresh fruit and milk, in a child's diet. Limit infants 6 to 12 months old to no more than 4 ounces of juice per day, and 1- to 4-year-olds to no more than 6 ounces per day. Look for labels that say "100-percent fruit juice," and avoid juice "drinks," "cocktails" and "punches," which contain lots of sugar but relatively little real fruit juice. Also steer clear of beverages that contain artificial sweeteners, colors and/or flavors.
Even 100-percent fruit juice tends to be very sweet, so it's a good idea to mix your tot's juice with a bit of water. A good rule of thumb is to offer him plain water to quench thirst and for a sweet treat, offer diced fruit instead.
5. Choose Good Fats
Babies need fat -- it's the most nutrient-rich food, providing the most calories in the smallest volume. Optimal development of the brain and other vital organs requires infants and toddlers to eat more fat proportionally than adults do.
Focus on giving your baby healthy fats, like those found in breast milk or infant formula enriched with DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid) and ARA (an omega-6 fatty acid). When he's ready for table foods, offer salmon, egg yolk and avocado. I call these "grow foods" because they promote healthy development of the brain and nervous system while also helping to strengthen the heart and immune system.
Stay away from packaged "low-fat" foods. Fat is a potent flavor-booster, so when it's taken out, manufacturers often add more sugar or sodium to make up for the lack of taste. Save the skim milk for later: Babies need whole milk for a full year after their first birthday. (Never give cow's milk to an infant under 12 months.) Once your toddler turns 2, you can introduce reduced-fat milk, or low-fat milk for children with a family history of obesity.
6. Make Healthy Carbs a Habit
Like fats, carbohydrates are a necessary part of your child's diet -- they give her energy to play and grow -- but the carbs she consumes should be nutritionally sound. When your baby starts on solids, give her the fiber- and protein-packed carbohydrates found in whole-grain bread, fiber-rich cereals and fresh fruits and vegetables, not the empty carbs found in sweetened beverages and many packaged foods that lack the protein, fat and fiber needed to truly satisfy hunger. Because "good-carb" foods are filling, she'll be less likely to overeat. Plus, teaching her to prefer the flavor and texture of healthier carbs at a young age can help her develop smart eating habits for life. To tell which carbs are the right ones, check the label and favor those foods with a high proportion of fiber and protein (at least 3 grams of each) in relation to overall carbohydrates.
7. Move It!
Once they discover their own mobility, most babies are only too happy to stay on the go, but you should get in on the act too -- make playtime a special bonding time for the two of you, and your baby will learn to love being active. Get down on his level and play: Lie on the floor and let him climb on you, or crawl around with him and chase each other around the house. Once he starts walking, make a stroll outdoors a regular routine for the whole family. You can even make watching TV an active experience -- watch with him, and play games and dance along with the characters on the program. Keep it fun, and you'll keep him moving.