Adequate nutrition during the first few years of life is crucial for healthy growth and future development. We know the benefits of having a balanced diet and the importance of not consuming too much sugar or salt but when it comes to supporting the immune system, specific vitamins, minerals and prebiotics play an essential role.
What your baby needs and why
For their first 12 months, breastmilk or formula milk will provide most of the nutrients your baby will need for growth, including carbohydrates, fat and protein as well as compounds that will benefit your child’s immune system, such as antibodies and prebiotics. Read more about the natural brilliance of breastmilk.
From 6 months, nutrient-rich foods can be incorporated into your baby’s diet and these play a key role in topping up essential vitamins and minerals as well as helping to strengthen your baby’s own defences.
Read more to learn which nutrients are important to include in your baby’s weaning diet and which foods are the best sources.
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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. Weaning foods not only top up some essential nutrients for your baby but also help them to explore different tastes and textures, learn to chew, and strengthen the muscles that are important for speech while developing healthy habits from early on.
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. Read more about making baby food.
Essential nutrients for your baby’s development
Vitamin D for Babies
Vitamin D plays a part in the normal functioning of your child’s immune system, which is your child´s first line of defence against infections. It is also needed to aid 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 an even less reliable 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
- 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 8.5-10 micrograms (0.0085-0.01mg) for all babies up to one year, and 10 micrograms (0.01mg) for all children ages one to four years.
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.
Iron Rich Foods for Babies
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.
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 immune response. 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 baby’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:
- Meats and oily fish, such as sardines and salmon
- Dark green, leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach
- Beans and other pulses
- Dried fruit
- Fortified breakfast cereals
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.
Foods High in Zinc for Babies
Zinc is a mineral found in all cells throughout the body. It helps the immune system to fight off invading bacteria and viruses by creating new cells and enzymes. It also helps to heal scratches and 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:
- Milk and cheese
- Cereal products
Calcium for Babies
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 for Babies
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
- Meat and fish
Good sources of selenium include:
- Brazil nuts, if finely ground
- Meat and fish
Vitamin B12 for Babies
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:
- Salmon and cod
- Milk and cheese
- 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 for Babies
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.
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
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
- Chicken and lean red meat
- Eggs fortified with Omega 3
- Bananas, pears and mango
- Fortified milk or cereal
Questions about feeding and nutrition?
Our midwives, nutritionists and feeding advisors are always on hand to talk about feeding your baby. So if you have a question, just get in touch.