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Baby feeding and nutrition

The importance of each nutrient for your baby Variety show

Summary

Although breast milk or formula milk will still provide most of your baby’s nutrition for their first 12 months, weaning foods help to top up certain essential vitamins and minerals. Learn which nutrients are important to include in their weaning diet, and which foods are the best sources.

Baby nutrition for a healthy future

It's no accident that your baby’s hunger for solid foods coincides with their ability to sit up and enjoy a more independent view of the world. During the weaning stage, your baby becomes stronger, learns new ways to express their wants and needs, and continues to grow at a rapid rate.

All this growth and development requires a wide range of nutrients. Although breast milk or formula milk will still be their main source of nourishment until their first birthday, weaning foods help to top up some essential nutrients for your baby. They also help your child explore different tastes and textures, learn to chew, and strengthen the muscles that are important for speech, while developing healthy habits from early on.

“Weaning foods should complement the nourishment your baby receives from milk, rather than replacing it."

Providing a variety of wholesome, nutritious weaning foods will fuel your baby’s learning and development into toddlerhood and support their health throughout life.

Making the most of the nutrients in fresh foods

Certain foods are easy to mash or purée when raw: bananas, avocados and mango are nutrient-rich examples. Others need to be cooked before puréeing, and the best ways to prepare them to preserve their vitamin content are to steam or microwave them. If you choose to boil them, use a small amount of water and boil until just soft enough to mash or purée. Offering a rainbow of colours will help to ensure your baby receives a wide range of vitamins and minerals.

Essential nutrients for your baby’s development

Iron

Iron, a mineral found in high levels in meats, beans, dried fruits and fortified breakfast cereals, supports your baby’s physical and mental development. This early development lays the foundations for all development yet to come, which is why iron is such an important nutrient to include in your baby’s weaning diet.

Your baby was born with a store of iron, which was built up in the womb, mostly during the third trimester of pregnancy. After 6 months this store starts to run low, and because breast milk doesn’t provide enough to meet your baby’s growing needs, iron-rich foods are an essential part of a healthy weaning diet, even from the very early stages. A fortified milk such as Aptamil Follow On milk can also help to maintain a healthy daily intake.

“An adequate intake of iron supports the rapid brain development that is happening at this stage.”

Too little iron can lead to iron deficiency anaemia – a condition that can affect your baby’s development. Premature babies may be at increased risk of this due to missing out on iron stores that normally build up during the later stages of pregnancy.

Iron comes in two forms. Haem-iron is found in meat and fish and is easily absorbed by the body. Non-haem iron is present in plant foods, and is harder for the body to absorb and use. Even small amounts of meat and fish in your child’s diet can help them to absorb the iron from other food sources.

Include the following iron-rich foods in your baby’s weaning diet to increase their intake:

Vitamin C aids the absorption of iron from foods, particularly from plant sources, so when you can, include them in the same meal. Beneficial combinations include beef stew with tomatoes and peppers; fortified porridge with lightly stewed berry fruits; bean and potato mash with sticks of steamed broccoli or carrots as finger foods; and sardines in tomato sauce.

Zinc

Zinc plays an important role in your baby’s normal growth and development. Its various other functions include helping the body use carbohydrates, proteins and other nutrients in foods; supporting the immune system; and helping to heal and repair scratches or wounds.

As with iron, the zinc content of breast milk is low compared to your baby’s increased needs, so it is important to include good sources from the start of weaning.

Good sources of zinc to increase your baby’s intake include:

  • Meat
  • Milk and cheese
  • Bread
  • Cereal products

Calcium

Calcium is needed for the healthy development of your baby’s bones and teeth. This important nutrient helps to build your baby’s skeleton as they grow, and will make up around 2% of their body weight by the time they are an adult.

Most of your baby’s calcium intake comes from milk, whether they’re breastfeeding or formula feeding. Cows’ milk also contains calcium but isn’t suitable for babies under 12 months old, due to its lower levels of iron.

Other sources of calcium include:

  • Milk, cheese and other dairy foods
  • Green, leafy vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage and okra, but not spinach
  • Soya beans and tofu
  • Nuts – can be introduced if finely ground
  • Bread and anything made with fortified flour
  • Oily types of fish where you eat the bones, such as sardines and pilchards (check for any larger pieces of bones)

Potassium and selenium

Potassium helps muscles to function and is involved in controlling the balance of fluids in the body. Selenium has important antioxidant properties and plays a role in supporting the immune system.

Potassium is found in most types of food. Good sources of potassium that are suitable for your baby include:

  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Beans and pulses
  • Nuts, if finely ground
  • Milk
  • Meat and fish
  • Bread

Good sources of selenium include:

  • Brazil nuts, if finely ground
  • Meat and fish
  • Eggs
An adequate intake of iron supports the rapid brain development that is happening at this stage

Vitamin D

The main role of vitamin D is to aid in the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, two minerals that help to form the strong healthy bones and teeth that will support your baby throughout life.

Sometimes called the sunshine vitamin, the most efficient source of vitamin D is UVB rays: the body generates it in response to sunlight on the skin. However, the latitude of the UK means that we only get effective sunlight in the summer months, and our unpredictable weather makes this even less reliable as a source. The use of sunscreen also blocks any ability to produce vitamin D from sunlight, meaning children are often entirely dependent on dietary sources and supplements.

Food sources of vitamin D are limited and include:

  • Oily fish – herring, salmon, sardines and mackerel
  • Eggs
  • Fortified fat spreads
  • Fortified breakfast cereals

It is difficult to get the recommended intake of vitamin D from foods alone. If you are breastfeeding, your baby is at even higher risk of not getting enough because breast milk doesn’t contain sufficient amounts.

Because of this, the Department of Health advises a daily vitamin D supplement of 7–8.5 micrograms (0.007-0.0085mg) for all children from six months to five years old.

If your baby is breastfed and you didn’t take vitamin D drops during pregnancy, you may be advised to give them vitamin D drops sooner. Formula-fed babies don’t need them until they are drinking less than 500ml of formula per day, usually at around 12 months old, because most infant milks provide what they need.

Vitamin B12

One of the B-group of vitamins, B12 supports development of your baby’s nervous system and it is important that they have a reliable, steady supply. It is also involved in making red blood cells as your baby grows, as well as releasing energy from food.

Good sources of this nutrient for your baby include:

  • Meat
  • Salmon and cod
  • Milk and cheese
  • Eggs
  • Some fortified cereals – check the labels to make sure they have been fortified

As most of the sources are animal-based, you may be advised to supplement your baby’s nutrition if their weaning diet is mostly or completely vegetarian. If you are unsure, speak to your health visitor or doctor for advice.

Omega 3 fatty acids

Omega 3 is a type of long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (LCP) that contributes to the development of your baby’s brain as well as their normal visual development. Also known as DHA, it is involved in nerve cell transmission and can lower the risk of heart disease later in life.

Oily fish, such as sardines, pilchards or salmon, are an excellent source of Omega 3 and can be offered as part of your baby’s weaning diet once or twice each week. Many formula milks, including Aptamil, contain added LCPs to help support babies’ development.

In terms of foods, non-fish sources of Omega 3 fats are thought to be less effective compared to fish, but they still have some benefit. These include:

  • Fortified eggs
  • Fortified fat spreads
  • Fortified breads
  • Linseed, walnut and rapeseed oils

Next Steps

To help increase your baby’s vitamin D intake while weaning, consider:

  • Giving them vitamin D supplement drops

Add these vitamin-rich foods to your baby essentials list:

  • Oily fish – salmon, sardines or mackerel
  • Kale, spinach and broccoli
  • Hummus
  • Chicken and lean red meat
  • Eggs fortified with Omega 3
  • Bananas, pears and mango
  • Fortified milk or cereal

View references

Hide references

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1. British Nutrition Foundation. Weaning your baby (from around 6 months) [Online]. 2011. Available at: www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/nutrition4baby/weaning [Accessed May 2014]

2. Friel JK et al. A double-masked, randomized control trial of iron supplementation in early infancy in healthy term breast-fed infants. J Pediatr 2003;143(5):582-586.

3. Rao R, Georgieff MK. Iron therapy for preterm infants. Clin Perinatol 2009;36(1)27-42.

4. Dube K et al. Iron intake and iron status in breastfed infants during the first year of life. Clinical Nutrition 2010;29(6):773-778.

5. NHS UK. Vitamins & minerals [Online]. 2012. Available at: www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-minerals/pages/vitamins-minerals.aspx [Accessed June 2014]

6. Patient UK. Zinc deficiency, excess and supplementation [Online]. Available at: http://patient.info/doctor/zinc-deficiency-excess-and-supplementation [Accessed June 2014]

7. Krebs NF. Food choices to meet nutritional needs of breast-fed infants and toddlers on mixed diets. J Nutr 2007;137(2):511S-517S

8. British Nutrition Foundation. Dietary calcium and health [Online]. 2005. Available at: www.nutrition.org.uk/attachments/105_Dietary%20calcium%20and%20health.pdf [Accessed June 2014]

9. Abrams SA et al. Absorption of calcium, zinc, and iron from breast milk by five-to seven-month-old infants. Pediatr Res 1997;41(3):384-390.

10. Department of Health Dietary Reference Values for Food Energy and Nutrient for the United Kingdom 1991

11. NHS UK. Other vitamins and minerals – potassium [Online]. Available at: www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-minerals/pages/other-vitamins-minerals.aspx#potassium [Accessed June 2014]

12. NHS UK. Other vitamins and minerals – selenium [Online]. Available at:www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-minerals/pages/other-vitamins-minerals.aspx#potassium [Accessed June 2014]

13. Vitamin D Mission [Online]. Available at: www.vitamindmission.co.uk [Accessed July 2014]

Last reviewed: 21st August 2014
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