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 salt1, but when it comes to supporting the immune system, specific vitamins, minerals and prebiotics may play an essential role2.
Baby nutrition and immune systems
What are the nutritional needs of babies?
Breastfeeding gives your baby the best start in life and offers many benefits, including supporting your immune system development3,4.
Read more about the natural brilliance of breastmilk.
For their first 12 months, breastmilk or formula milk will provide most of the nutrients your baby will need for growth5 including carbohydrates, fat and protein as well as compounds that will benefit your child’s immune system, such as vitamins, minerals and prebiotics6.
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 defences7.
Read more to learn which nutrients are important to include in your baby’s weaning diet and which foods are the best sources.
How to boost a baby’s immune system
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 rate8.
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 9,10,11,12.
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 varies between vegetables, for example steaming is best for broccoli13. Offering a rainbow of colours will help to ensure your baby receives a wide range of vitamins and minerals14. 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 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 life15.
The Science behind Vitamin D, powered by Nutricia
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 source15. 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 include16:
- 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. 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 years17.
Formula-fed babies don’t need vitamin D supplements until they are drinking less than 500ml of formula per day, usually at around 12 months old, because most infant milks are fortified with vitamin D17.
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 diet18.
The Science behind iron, powered by Nutricia
Your baby was born with a store of iron, which was built up in the womb, mostly during the third trimester of pregnancy19. After 6 months this store starts to run low, so iron-rich foods are an essential part of a healthy weaning diet, to provide enough to meet your baby’s growing needs.
An adequate intake of iron supports the rapid brain development that is happening at this stage18
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 pregnancy19,20.
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 sources21.
Include the following iron-rich foods in your baby’s weaning diet to increase their intake21:
- 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 meal22. 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
Zinc23 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 plays role in healing scratches and wounds.
As with iron, once your baby reaches a certain age, they need complementary foods with zinc to meet their 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 grow24.
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 as a main drink for babies under 12 months old25.
Other sources of calcium include24:
- 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 is involved in controlling the balance of fluids in the body and is important in bone and heart health26. Selenium has important antioxidant properties and plays a role in supporting the immune system27.
Potassium is found in most types of food. Good sources of potassium that are suitable for your baby include26:
- Fruit and vegetables
- Beans and pulses
- Nuts, if finely ground
- Meat and fish
Good sources of selenium include28:
- Brazil nuts, if finely ground
- Meat and fish
Vitamin B12 for babies
One of the B-group of vitamins, B1229 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 advice30.
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 31.
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 supplements, (unless they are drinking more than 500ml infant formula a day)17
Add these vitamin-rich foods to your baby’s weaning 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
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- Georgieff M, Cusick S. 2020. The first 1,000 days of life: The brain’s window of opportunity. UNICEF. [Online] Accessed June 1, 2020. Available at : https://www.unicef-irc.org/article/958-the-first-1000-days-of-life-the-brains-window-of-opportunity.html.
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- Nair, R., and Maseeh, A. J Pharmacol Pharmacother, 2012;3(2):118–126.
- Cunningham, D., et al. Nutrients,2017;9(7):647.
- nhs 2020. Vitamins for children. nhs.uk. [Online]. Accessed June 1, 2020. Available at : https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/vitamins-for-children/
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- Nhs 2020. Vegetarian and vegan babies and children. nhs.uk. [Online] Accessed June 2, 2020. Available at : https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/vegetarian-vegan-children/
- European Food Safety Authority Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies. Scientific opinion: DHA and ARA and visual development. EFSA Journal 2009;941:1-14
Last reviewed: 16th July 2020
Reviewed by Nutricia’s Medical and Scientific Affairs Team