March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Starting your baby on solid foods is exciting — and messy! Most babies start with a very small amount of solids at around 4 to 6 months old, slowly increasing their portion size. Then, at around 9 to 11 months old, you may start noticing a dramatic drop in how much breast milk or formula your baby drinks as he or she starts getting more nutrition and calories from solid foods.
Because of their changing dietary needs over this transition, it is important that infants get the nutrition they need to grow and develop. For some children, this means filling nutritional gaps with carefully chosen supplements.
Babies are born with a store of iron that lasts them for about 4 to 6 months. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that full-term infants who are exclusively breast-fed be given an iron supplement starting at 4 months of age. Talk to your pediatrician to see if your infant needs an iron supplement. Children born premature or with a low birth weight may have reduced iron stores. If so, your pediatrician will probably recommend iron supplements until your baby's first birthday. Formula is generally iron-fortified, which means formula-fed babies rarely need an iron supplement.
As infants begin to eat more solid food, serving them iron-rich foods such as iron-fortified cereal, meat or beans at least twice a day will help them meet their iron needs. But, if your baby is over 6 months old, is breast-fed and is not eating iron-rich foods, your pediatrician may recommend an iron supplement.
To promote iron absorption from plant foods, combine iron-rich solid foods you serve to your child with vitamin C-rich foods in one meal. For example, pair a bean and rice puree or finger food meal with tomato sauce, fruit or a fruit puree.
Vitamin D is important for healthy bones and prevention of chronic disease. Because low levels of vitamin D are so common, the American Academy of Pediatrics says all breast-fed infants — and formula-fed infants who drink less than 32 ounces of formula per day — should take a supplement. When starting solids, you can mix vitamin D drops in purees as well as add them to formula or water.
Before you determine if your baby needs fluoride, which is important for cavity prevention, you need to know levels of fluoride in your local water supply. Fluoride supplements are only available by prescription, so discuss this with your pediatrician.
Vitamin B12, which prevents anemia and supports healthy neurological function, is found in animal products such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy, and is not a concern for most children. However, if you plan to introduce only plant-based foods into your child's diet, he or she may need a B12 supplement. Formula-fed vegan babies can get their vitamin B12 from a special fortified formula, most often soy-based. Vegan mothers who exclusively breast-feed should be sure to consume adequate vitamin B12 through fortified foods and supplements in order to provide ample B12 to her baby via breast milk.Vitamin B12 is typically included in most over-the-counter infant vitamin drops and many ready-to-eat cereals and milk substitutes.
Before giving your infant any supplements, always consult with your pediatrician. Not all infants automatically need supplements when starting solids. Make sure to introduce your baby to a variety of foods in order to develop his or her palate and meet nutritional needs.