By Dorota Trupp, Nutritionist
As parents, we all want to ensure that those precious years of speedy growth of our beloved children are supported by good nutrition. Fortunately, sustaining growth, learning, positive behaviour and health through optimal nutrition is easily achievable and can be stress-free, provided you stay informed and heed your instincts. As the mother and father of a two-year-old boy, we have endeavoured to lay solid foundations for his developing body. Here are the key steps we have taken.
There is no better food for your baby or toddler than breastmilk. As your child grows, your breastmilk changes in composition – the nutrient ratios transform – to suit each particular stage of your child’s development. In other words, the milk is ‘custom-made’ for your child – no formula company could ever beat that. This is why breastfeeding should be the first-choice feeding option for every newborn, baby or toddler. In fact, the World Health Organization recommends that breastmilk continue to be a part of a child’s diet until he or she is at least two years of age.
Prior to giving birth, I had already made the decision to breastfeed my child. However, when our baby was born, it wasn’t a ‘walk in the park’ experience either for him or me. Our baby had torticollis – a neck-muscle injury that occurred during the birthing process – and he cried while lying on the affected area during breastfeeding. Meanwhile, I had my own problems. A spinal disc injury meant that I couldn’t sit or hold my baby without excruciating back pain, which caused both of us much distress. I soon sought help from a lactation consultant, who introduced me to some techniques that would help me deal with these issues. My son and I went through lots of pain and tears, but I was persistent and didn’t give up, and after a month of riding a physical and emotional roller-coaster, a happy breastfeeding relationship was established.
It is important not to be ashamed to seek help when you find you aren’t managing breastfeeding as well as you’d thought you would. Parents, other close family members and good friends can offer you a lot during such an intense time. My husband did all he could to support me. He cleaned, he made sure I stayed hydrated, and he cooked – of course, luckily for me, he is a chef!
Introduction of Solid Foods.
To prevent the development of food allergies, I exclusively breastfed my baby for six months before introducing him to solid food, by which time he had four front teeth. Even then, I kept breastfeeding him, as we had no intention of giving him formula. At first we mashed his food, but after a few months he refused to eat it. Thankfully, we quickly realised that he enjoyed soft, cooked veggies in their natural shapes. He would also eat meat that was finely chopped and well cooked. We introduced new food cautiously, being careful to avoid doing anything that might potentially encourage food allergies. At times he may have eaten something he shouldn’t have, but in general we tried to be consistent. We also reminded ourselves that children are naturally suspicious of new food – this is an evolutionary instinct – so if our child didn’t accept a particular food at first, we’d continue to offer it to him.
Avoidance of Processed Foods.
As much as possible, we made sure that our baby didn’t eat processed food, or food with lots of sugar or salt. We didn’t use formula either, or other food and drink specially designed for babies, as these tend to be processed too. I also made sure that I stayed on a relatively allergen- and stimulant-free diet, as I was concerned about passing on these substances to our baby through my breastmilk.
Encouraging good eating habits.
Our child imitates us in everything we do, so we feel it’s important for us to try not to favour or shun some foods more than others. That said, if we do want our child to eat a particularly healthy food, such as broccoli, we set an example by eating it ourselves. And we don’t eat any junk food because we want our child to know that this shouldn’t be a part of his normal diet. In addition, we never force our child to eat something he doesn’t want to, as a child who is compelled to do this could potentially develop food aversions and phobias.
Feeding on demand
Babies grow super-fast but have very small stomachs, which is why they get hungry far more frequently than adults. It’s rare for a baby to sleep through the night at four months, especially if you choose to breastfeed, and multiple feeds will probably be required for many months. I discovered that this was completely normal and that I just needed to adjust to the needs of my baby and feed on demand. It’s becoming increasingly common for people to attempt to train their children to sleep, but personally I do not favour this approach, as it may teach a baby to ignore his or her needs in order to fulfil yours. A child that is trained in this way – usually via a technique called ‘controlled crying’ – is often a hungry child who may not be getting enough nutrition and comfort for optimal development. Research supports the view that this technique can have negative consequences, including the disruption of a child’s normal brain development because of the presence of high levels of cortisol, the so-called ‘stress hormone’. Ultimately, your relationship with your child may suffer too. The circumstances can be testing, but I continue to feed our toddler on demand. It’s fine with me – as long as he’s happy. One day he will be old enough to make his own food, right? I just keep that in mind and enjoy his babyhood!
Choosing fresh, organic wholefoods
Organic and biodynamic food is not only free from any number of nasty agricultural chemicals, it is also extremely nutrient-dense. This is why it is our first choice when we shop for food. As much as possible, when our finances and seasonal availability allow us to, we buy organic wholefoods and cook them ourselves. To make food preparation cost-effective, and to get the most nutrients into our diet, we bake our own bread, make our own pasta, and so on. We strive to prepare fresh meals, avoiding the storing and reheating of food again and again. Of course, the fact that we are food professionals makes it easier for us to live this way, but actually, we are just as time-deprived as many other families. Planning ahead, frequent shopping, good organisation, cooperation and the mastering of cooking skills have all helped us to maintain this lifestyle. It’s achievable if you choose to put good food first.
Our son loves to nibble snacks when he is out and about. We give him a variety of raw, fresh foods such as fruits, vegetables like carrots, and soft nuts such as walnuts, as well as homemade sandwiches of wholemeal bread, butter, avocado and meat or eggs. Our son also loves drinking filtered water or water mixed with vitamin-C powder.
Investing in your baby’s brain development
Your child’s brain is in a phase of rapid development during the first three years of life. Keeping this fact in mind, we endeavour to incorporate all the essential nutrients into our son’s diet, such as foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. We also make sure he has plenty of vitamins – B12, D, A – as well as minerals such as zinc, iron and calcium. We feel that it is important that our child is physically active, too, so we don’t expose him to TV. Instead, we take him to playgrounds and parks. We’ve also invested in an outdoor trampoline, as research has shown that a child’s intelligence goes hand-in-hand with a well-developed sense of balance. There is also a growing body of literature that suggests that physical activity has beneficial effects on mental health, improving a child’s overall quality of life and helping to minimise mood disorders. This all makes for an energetic toddler, but being in a family where child-minding responsibilities are shared has made it easier to cope with this.
To safeguard our child’s brain development, we’ve also had to make decisions beyond those relating to diet and parenting style. Our child was born with a facial birthmark called a port-wine stain, which is a rare vascular defect that occurs in 3 per cent of newborns. We were advised by doctors to have the birthmark removed using laser surgery as soon as possible, in order to lessen the potential emotional impact of this malformation on our child. We duly started the treatment, but then we found out that the use of a general anaesthetic, which was a necessary part of the procedure, might adversely affect a developing brain. Well, the experience certainly taught us the importance of seeking a second opinion and being well informed. We ended up choosing to delay our son’s treatment until he is at least three years old, in order to limit the risks associated with general anaesthesia. In the meantime, we simply encourage our child to accept being ‘different’ and to maintain a healthy self-esteem.
Building your child’s immune system
When it comes to our child’s immune system, our goal is to build it up naturally. We ensure that our child has a healthy wholefood diet, as well as adequate levels of vitamin D and zinc. We also try to help him develop good intestinal flora, as 80 per cent of the body’s immune system is found in the lining of the intestinal wall, and to have well-functioning bowels. We also limit as much as possible his exposure to the toxic elements that are hidden in some foods, toys and personal-care products.
Having a meal with your child is fun! Witnessing your little one discovering all the different flavours that good food can offer is priceless. Once you establish the sound eating habits discussed above, you will grow as a parent – and yes, you will be proud to see that your child is healthy, well behaved, happy and full of energy.