The (Not So) Great American Baby Diet

by Patty Onderko

The (Not So) Great American Baby Diet

What has your child had to eat today? French fries, snack foods, desserts, and sugary drinks were the shocking responses many parents gave in the new Feeding Infants & Toddlers Study (FITS), the first large-scale, scientific look at the eating habits of children under age 2.

The study, sponsored by Gerber Products Company, comes, in part, as a response to recent research that shows that many food preferences are set by the time a child turns 2 years old, which means that the meals and snacks kids consume in those early years could determine their lifelong eating habits. With the number of overweight and obese children in America reaching epidemic proportions — double what it was two decades ago — the FITS findings have the potential to determine why, and reverse the trend.

The good news is that the more than 3,000 children surveyed ranging from 4 to 24 months of age are meeting all of their nutritional requirements. But in addition to getting enough of what they need, they’re also getting too much of the stuff they don’t need — namely extra calories, sugar, and saturated fat. Take a look at the nutritional areas in which FITS found plenty of room for improvement.

Short nursers

Most babies are breastfed, but not for long enough. It’s fantastic that so many women have gotten the message that “breast is best” and that more than 80 percent of all babies have been breastfed at some point in their young lives, according to FITS. But while any amount of breastfeeding is beneficial to your little one, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months and continued breastfeeding until 12 months for maximum benefit. Not only does breastfeeding provide all the protein, sugar, fat, and vitamins your child needs, but breastfed children are also less likely to have ear and upper respiratory infections, asthma, allergies, and certain diseases. The longer you breastfeed, the greater these benefits are.

Among the FITS sample, breastfeeding stopped at a mean age of 5 1/2 months — much better than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement. Only 17 percent of women nursed exclusively in the early months, and only a quarter of them were still breastfeeding at 9 months. “We’d love to see mothers stick with nursing for even longer periods of time,” says Kristy Marie Hendricks, R.D., an associate professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, in Boston, and one of the authors of the study.

What you can do: Don’t go it alone. If you’re having difficulty breastfeeding, consult a lactation consultant or talk to your doctor about proper technique. Visit the La Leche League website

Patty Onderko is a senior editor at Babytalk.

Early solid starters

Babies are still being fed solids too early. You may have heard that putting a little cereal in your baby’s bottle before bedtime may help him sleep better (it won’t), and your own mother has probably told you, “We started you on solid food at 2 weeks, and you turned out fine!” a million times. Yet experts today agree that 4 months is the earliest you should attempt baby foods, and the AAP actually prefers that you wait until 6 months. Contrary to what previous generations believed, newborns’ digestive systems are simply not ready to handle anything other than breast milk or formula. Feeding your baby solids before she’s ready could cause stomach upset and allergic reactions — both of which will certainly not help her sleep better. Yet almost 30 percent of all infants consume solid foods before the recommended 4-month mark, FITS found. Another reason to wait: “Studies have shown that children who wait until between 5 and 6 months to start solids are leaner later on in life,” says Andrea Platzman, R.D., a dietician in New York City.

What you can do: By now, you’ve gotten the message to wait until the magic window of 4 to 6 months to begin your little one on solid foods. Talk to your pediatrician about what’s best for your baby. You’ll know, too, when he’s really ready: He may be consuming 32 ounces or more of formula a day or breastfeeding often and crying for more. In fact, some infants will resume their night wakings after having slept through on a regular basis. Start with iron-fortified rice cereal, which is easy to digest and nonallergenic.

Infants are consuming more calories than they need. The problem that most overweight adults have: Taking in more calories than they expend — is trickling down to the diaper set. Children ages 4 to 6 months require only about 629 calories a day. But FITS found that these tykes are consuming an average of 693 calories — 64 more than they need. Kids 7 to 11 months are getting 166 more calories per day than the 739 they require, and 1- to 2-year-olds are eating 294 more calories than the 950 they should have. Overeating patterns can carry over into childhood, when they are even harder to break — which makes starting your baby on a balanced diet now so important. Where are these extra calories coming from? One clue: Results show that by 19 to 24 months, most kids eat sweets or salty snacks at least once a day.

What you can do: Despite the high numbers, parents don’t need to start counting calories. Simply staying away from foods that have little or no nutritive value should do the trick. “Focus instead on offering healthy food choices, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and kids will most often self-select a balanced diet,” Hendricks says. Remember: Diets that consist primarily of fast foods, sweets, and baked goods will probably push your child over her recommended calorie boundaries, without giving her the nutrients she needs.

A veggie strike?

French fries are the most commonly consumed vegetable. French fries are a vegetable? That’s what we wondered. Technically, of course, potatoes are a vegetable, but frying them and dousing them with salt certainly undermines their nutritional value. Nevertheless, FITS found that by 15 to 18 months, French fries are the “vegetable” toddlers eat most. And nearly a third of infants and toddlers 7 to 24 months don’t consume any vegetables — or fruits — at all!

What you can do: Fruits and vegetables should be a regular part of your child’s daily diet, says Platzman. In fact, most infants and toddlers prefer these simple, natural flavors. Even if yours doesn’t, you can always sneak the stuff into his meals. Get a plain pizza and let your toddler have fun adding well-cooked veggie toppings (chopped into bite-size pieces) — he’s more likely to eat them if he has a hand in the “decoration,” says Platzman. Or try mashing pureed broccoli into mashed potatoes. Teaching your baby colors using vegetables (red tomatoes, green beans, yellow squash, and so on) may also pique his interest in trying them, she adds.

Today’s infants are problem drinkers. They may not be sipping alcohol, but the drinking patterns of babies and toddlers can be a cause for concern nonetheless. According to FITS results, nearly one-fifth of babies are given juice before they reach the 6-month mark, which is when the AAP recommends introducing it for the first time. Plus, many children drink sweetened juice drinks instead of 100 percent juice, which increases their calorie consumption and fills them up so that they’re less likely to eat nutritious foods, says Kathleen Reidy, R.D., director of nutritional sciences at Gerber Products Company. Fima Lifshitz, M.D., a member of the AAP’s Committee on Nutrition, refers to many of today’s infants and toddlers as “juiceaholics.” “Their parents give them a bottle of juice as a pacifier. Kids drink it all day,” he says.

But juice wasn’t the only beverage problem in the study. It seems parents are also confused about which type of milk to feed their little ones. Cow’s milk should not be introduced until after 12 months (babies should remain on breast milk or formula for the first year), but FITS found that 20 percent of younger babies were drinking it anyway. Once they are drinking cow’s milk, however, 1- to 2-year-olds need the fat in whole milk to develop their growing brains and nervous systems. But more than a third of toddlers are drinking reduced fat or skim milk — and falling below their recommended fat intakes.

What you can do: Delay starting your baby on juice until 6 months. Juice is an important part of your child’s diet, but limit it to four to six ounces of 100 percent fruit juice a day, and never give your infant juice at bedtime. Encourage whole fruits, which contain more fiber, instead of the liquid stuff. Wait until after the first year to introduce cow’s milk, and only serve whole milk until age 2; after that you can switch to reduced fat.

Your “picky” eater may not be so picky after all. About 50 percent of the mothers of 15- to 24-month-olds considered their child a picky eater, FITS results showed. But can half of all toddlers really be that choosy? “Picky eating is a normal developmental phase,” says Dr. Lifshitz. “But if your child is growing and gaining weight well, then she’s getting enough calories.” In fact, according to FITS, these children met or exceeded their daily calorie and nutrient recommendations despite their supposed pickiness, showing that even the most finicky eaters manage to eat enough of a variety of foods — even if it seems as if all they want is macaroni and cheese.

What you can do: You may just have to wait until they grow out of this normal phase, says Dr. Lifshitz. In the meantime, don’t stop trying to cajole your fussy feeder into eating new things. FITS researchers found that on average, moms offer a new food three to five times before giving up on it. But research has shown that it can take between 10 to 15 tries before a child warms up to a particular food. So if your child turns her nose up at, say, peas, don’t put them away for good. Keep placing a few on her plate and eventually, she’ll be ready to pop one of those tiny green balls into her mouth.