If you've ever debated what to feed your baby, stay tuned: The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working on its first-ever dietary guidelines for babies from 0 to 2 years old. (Previous guidelines only offered advice beginning at age 2.) A government panel of experts is reviewing nutrition research and writing the new guidelines, which are expected in the next year or so.
People who specialize in infant nutrition say the foods that babies eat in their first 2 years set the stage for future health. "It's a window identified by science as a critical time period, when the absence of good nutrition could have a significant and irreversible impact on a child's health, future well-being, and brain development," says Lucy Sullivan, founder and executive director of 1,000 Days, an advocacy organization focused on nutrition for pregnant women and babies in the time between conception and Baby's second birthday. Sullivan hopes the new guidelines give parents clarity about what and how to feed babies. "There is, unfortunately, a lot of confusion out there," she says.
Here's some of the advice she would like to see in those guidelines.
A boost for breastfeeding. Sullivan hopes the new guidelines follow the lead of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization, which encourage moms to breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months and to continue until the first birthday while introducing solid foods. Moms and babies can continue beyond 12 months if it works for both.
Among its merits, "breast milk has unparalleled brain-building benefits," Sullivan says, in part because it contains beneficial fats known as long-chain polyunsaturated fats.
A call for variety at 6 months. Sullivan expects the guidelines to address the process of introducing solid foods at 6 months. Although many families start with rice cereal, that should be just one of the first foods.
"The more tastes and textures you can introduce, the better, because it trains the baby's palate for later life," she says. Give Baby tastes of vegetables such as broccoli or asparagus -- and do it regularly -- even if he makes a face; he may need repeated exposure to like those flavors. Sullivan adds that meats and fish are also important in the first year because they provide iron, protein, and beneficial fats, all critical as Baby grows.
A ban on fruit juice in the first year. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently urged parents to skip fruit juice before Baby's first birthday, and Sullivan expects the dietary guidelines to echo that rule. "Fruit juice tends to be high in sugar, and it replaces more nutrient-dense food," she says.
The organization 1,000 Days suggests introducing infants to a variety of foods beginning at 6 months. Here are some smart choices to include in those first offerings:
- Meats. Red meat and dark poultry are rich sources of iron and protein, which are critical for brain development in Baby's first 2 years. Many infants and toddlers don't get enough iron. Eggs are also a good choice.
- Legumes. Beans and lentils are another key source of iron and protein, and are an ideal food for babies learning to pick up small objects with their thumb and forefinger, a developmental milestone.
- Broccoli. Sullivan recommends offering vegetables such as broccoli and carrots early on so babies learn to tolerate (and even enjoy) these flavors as they grow.
- Fish. Cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, and herring contain long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (similar to the fats in breast milk), which are necessary for development of the brain, eyes, and other tissues. Seeds and nuts also have healthy fats.
Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of WebMD Magazine .