Nutrition and play go a long way
Between 12 and 24 months old, toddlers develop in fascinating, exciting and surprising ways. Physically, socially, emotionally and verbally, they are becoming more independent and able to express their budding personality. A healthy, balanced diet supports this development and provides the nutrients they need to learn and grow. Learn about the importance of certain nutrients at this stage, and why playing is an invaluable stepping stone to all future learning.
Your toddler’s development: 12–24 months old
The period between your toddler’s first and second birthdays is a time of incredible and exciting mental and physical growth.
Improved motor skills and stronger muscles mean they are becoming more mobile by the day, cruising and walking more confidently, and gaining the coordination required for running and jumping. Their bones are developing rapidly too, and a constant process of bone renewal helps each bone strengthen and grow.
Socially, your toddler is becoming more self-aware and assertive. This is happening alongside dramatic changes in the language centre of their brain, which enables them to express their wants and needs more clearly.
When they first start putting words together, their sentences will be very simple – ‘play me’ when they want you to play with them, for example. You might notice that ‘I’ and ‘me’ become some of their favourite words as their communication skills improve between 1 and 2 years old.
All this development requires a wide range of nutrients and energy. However, whether they’re closer to 12 or 24 months old, their stomach is still small in relation to body size: that’s why it’s important to provide a healthy nutrient-rich diet.
Optimal nutrition supports your toddler’s development
Although your toddler seems more and more like a mini adult every day, they still have a lot of growing up to do and their nutritional needs are different to yours. Incredibly, between 1 and 2 years old your child needs nearly three times more energy for their size than an adult. When you consider that their tummy is around three times smaller, it’s easy to see why every mouthful counts.
Iron plays an important role in many functions of the body and is a key nutrient for healthy brain development. Good sources include meat, oily fish and eggs, as well as plant sources such as beans and green, leafy vegetables. Meat and fish contain haem iron – a type of iron that is more easily used and absorbed compared to the non-haem iron found in plant sources. Including even small amounts of meat and fish in your toddler's diet will enhance the absorption of iron from other sources.
Due to the temperamental tendencies of toddlers, as well as fussy eating phases and their small appetites, many toddlers don’t get enough iron in their diets. Astonishingly, over 50% of toddlers aged between 18 months and 3 years aren’t getting the recommended daily amount, so every parent needs to be aware of this vital nutrient2. The situation can be made worse if toddlers fill up on foods with
To increase your child’s intake, try to offer at least one iron-rich food every day. Pairing it with vegetables or a piece of vitamin C-rich fruit will help your toddler’s body absorb it more effectively. Follow On
Vitamin D is another essential nutrient for this stage, supporting your child’s bone development by helping the body absorb calcium and phosphorus. The main natural source of vitamin D is summer sunlight on your child’s skin. However, sunshine isn’t a reliable source in the UK. This is why the Department of Health recommends that all children between the ages of 1 and 3 years old have at least 7mcg of vitamin D daily, regardless of sun exposure. Oily fish, eggs and fortified cereals are great ways to help meet this requirement, but it can be difficult for toddlers to eat enough of these foods to get the levels they need.
It is thought that around a quarter of children in the UK are deficient in vital vitamin D4. To help ensure toddlers meet their nutritional needs, the Department of Health recommends that all toddlers should be given a daily vitamin supplement containing vitamins A, C and D5.
Growing Up Milk is another good way to help your toddler get the nourishment they need at this stage. Some varieties are fortified with vitamin D to help supplement your toddler’s diet.
Play: The perfect stimulation for your toddler
Younger toddlers often play alone, which is completely normal. Even in the company of another toddler, your child may not interact. This is called
Their increasing awareness of what’s happening around them, mixed with a growing assertiveness, means that your toddler might want to take control now and again. Allowing your toddler to make their own decisions is a great way to help them feel valued and heard.
Let them choose what clothes to wear or what games to play. You can also help your toddler to make use of their new coordination skills by walking in different ways – sideways, backwards, forwards – as well as running and jumping.
The more they learn and understand, the more they’ll listen with interest to what you’re saying. At this stage of development, your toddler is more than likely to want to join in with singing nursery rhymes and songs, so it’s a good idea to refresh your memory and recall all your childhood favourites.
Just remember to be aware of the facial expressions and colourful language you use around them. Your toddler learns by mimicking you in ways you wouldn't expect, and what they remember and repeat can be quite surprising, even at just 1 year old.
Look for recipes that include the following nutrient-rich foods to support your toddler’s development at this stage:
- Oily fish – salmon, sardines or mackerel
- Iron-rich meat – beef, pork, lamb, venison, chicken
- Sweet potatoes
- Broccoli, kale, and other leafy, green vegetables
- Strawberries or blueberries
- Fortified milk or cereal
1. Play England. Why is play important? [Online]. Available at: www.playengland.org.uk/about-us/why-is-play-important.aspx[Accessed May 2014]
2. Infant and Toddler Forum. Iron fact sheet for HCP’s [Online]. 2008. Available at: https://www.infantandtoddlerforum.org/media/upload/pdf-downloads/4.4_-_Iron_Deficiency_Anaemia_in_Toddlers.pdf[Accessed July 2014]
2. Infant and Toddler Forum. How to get enough iron in your toddler’s diet [Online]. 2014. Available at: https://www.infantandtoddlerforum.org/media/upload/pdf-downloads/iron-the-facts_1.pdf [Accessed July 2014]
4. SACN (2007) Update on Vitamin D Position statement by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, London TSO
5. Chief Medical Officers. Vitamin D – advice on supplements for at risk groups [Online]. 2012. Available at: www.dh.gov.uk/prod_consum_dh/groups/dh_digitalassets/@dh/@en/documents/digitalasset/dh_132508.pdf [Accessed July 2014]
6. NHS UK. Vitamin for children [Online]. 2013. Available at: www.nhs.uk/Conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/vitamins-for-children.aspx [Accessed July 2014]
Last reviewed: 26th August 2014
Questions about feeding and nutrition?
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