Nutrition and your child’s development

In the beginning

The old adage states that we are what we eat. It’s certainly true that everything in our bodies is made from the nutrients supplied in our diet. The process begins from the moment of conception when the developing baby takes its nutrients from its mother.

As the baby grows in the uterus, all the nutrients it needs are supplied through the placenta. If any are in short supply, the baby has first run on what’s available – even if it is at the expense of the mother’s nutritional status.

Some dietary factors – such as a high alcohol intake – can have a devastating effect on normal development during pregnancy. Some dietary components can also exert some adverse effects on the way nutrients are transferred across the placenta. For example, if the mother has a high intake of a trans fat which is produced when vegetable oils are processed, there can be interference with the passage of the vitally important omega 3 fats to the baby.

After birth, the baby’s development depends on the nutrients in breast milk or formula. In breast-fed babies, nature again protects the baby as much as possible, although ideally, we hope the mother’s diet provides enough nutrients for her own needs as well as those of her baby.

Breast milk supplies everything the baby needs for healthy development for the first 6 months of life. After that, other foods should be added to provide the larger quantities of nutrients needed as the baby grows. Where possible, mothers should aim to continue breastfeeding for at least 12 months.

Check list: only breast milk (or formula, if breastfeeding is not possible) for the first 6 months.

Nutrition, growth and development in young children

For healthy growth and development, a child needs adequate protein, essential fats, 13 vitamins and dozens of minerals. All are available from regular foods and supplements are not normally required.

The nutrients needed include:

Protein – vital for growth of all new tissues and available from animal foods such as milk, yoghurt, cheese, lean meat, poultry, fish and eggs or from plant sources including legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds, cereals and grains. Relative to their body size, children need more protein than adults. Protein deficiency is common in many areas of the world, and usually occurs in association with general malnutrition. Fortunately, it is rare in Australia.

Check list: each day include milk plus 1-2 serves high protein foods (lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs or a vegetarian alternative.

Essential fats – needed for the development of the brain and nerve tissue. The right balance of essential fats is also important to reduce the risk of inflammatory reactions in the body. Adults often try to reduce fats in the diet because they’re so high in kilojoules, but the kilojoules from fats are important for growth in babies and infants. Over 50% of the kilojoules in breast milk come from fat and this high percentage is important to allow babies to grow normally and triple their birth weight by the time they are 12-18 months old. Some toddlers also find it hard to eat enough food for their rapid growth if they are given a low fat diet. This does not mean that we should be giving small children fatty snack foods, chips, chocolates, pastries, cakes and other fatty foods, but it does mean they should have nutritious foods such as eggs, meat and full-cream milk, cheese and yoghurt during their first two years of life. Current guidelines in Australia and New Zealand recommend full cream milk until two years of age, then a change to reduced-fat milk. For active, lean children, regular milk is not a problem at older ages, but if there is a family history of heart disease, fat-reduced milk is preferred from age two onwards.

Essential fats are provided initially by breast milk, which has an excellent balance of the omega 3 and omega 6 families of fats. Formula milks contain a less ideal balance of these fats, although manufacturers are trying to come closer to the ideal ratio found in breast milk.

Once children start on solid foods, essential fats are available from fish, liquid vegetable oils (used in small quantities in cooking), lean meat, ground nuts and seeds (beware of allergic reactions!). Wholegrain cereals and vegetables supply small amounts.

Both types of essential fats are important in the structure of the membranes around every cell in the body. The omega 3 fats are especially important in the structure of the brain.

It is important to avoid a particular fat called elaidic acid. It is called a ‘trans’ fat and is not found in nature. It is formed when vegetable oils are processed to make them suitable for spreads, or for use in foods that require a crisp texture such as biscuits, chips and other crunchy snack foods, pastries and crisp coatings on foods. The trans fats in processed vegetable oils is undesirable and the less consumed the better. It is found in some of the cheaper margarine spreads (check the label or the bottom of the container), chocolate nut spread, chips, crisps, confectionery and some pastries, cakes and biscuits, especially those containing hydrogenated vegetable oils. Fortunately, liquid vegetable oils do not contain this trans fat and so are safe to use for frying or salad dressings

Check list: use regular milk or other dairy products up to age 2. Include essential fats by using olive or other liquid vegetable oils in cooking and include fish once or twice a week. Avoid spreads and products containing trans fats. Australian and New Zealand food laws do not require these to be listed on the food label, but check the ingredient list and if the product contains hydrogenated vegetable oils, avoid it. Cook fresh foods where possible.

The vitamins are:

  •   A
  •   B – consisting of 8 different vitamins – thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), cyanocobalamin (B12), biotin and folate C
  •   C
  •   D
  •   E
  •   K

Vitamin A is found in full-cream dairy products. Beta carotene in fruits and vegetables can be converted into vitamin A but the conversion doesn’t proceed efficiently in the first two years of life, so this is another reason why young children should be given regular milk.

Vitamin D comes from the action of sunlight on skin and requires exposure of some portion of the skin to sunlight for about 10 minutes a day. To get the benefits of sunlight without the harmful effects of sun, avoid exposure of the skin to sun between 10am and 4 pm.

Biotin and vitamin K are made by bacteria in the intestine. All other vitamins are available from regular foods. Vitamin B12 is found naturally only in foods of animal origin (dairy products, meat, fish, chicken). If these foods are not consumed, breast feeding should be continued until 2 years of age and then switch to a soy beverage with added B12.

Check list: Ensure you child eats fresh fruits and vegetables, cereals and wholemeal bread, lean meat (or tofu and mashed legumes), fish, poultry, dairy products (or a soy alternative).

Water: More essential to life than food, water is important, although it is not needed for the first six months of life. Breast milk or formula will meet a small baby’s fluid requirements. Avoid adding cordial or juice to water – cool boiled water is ideal on its own.

Check list: Make sure children see adults drinking water when they’re thirsty and let them follow suit. Don’t add cordial or juice to water – plain water is best.

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