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Healthy Eating Habits Begin Before the Age of 2

Too Small to Fail
By Too Small to Fail

There’s no shortage of advice and information available about healthy eating and weight watching for adults, teens, and elementary school-aged children.

But good nutritional habits begin even before a child is born.  From the time a mother is pregnant, until a child is two years old, nourishment – or malnourishment – can set that child on a course that will affect his or her body, emotions and behavior for years to come.

Parents can establish a nutritional eating routine, beginning in pregnancy, and during a child’s infancy and preschool years, to help the child thrive, and avoid a host of health and developmental problems that stem from malnutrition and obesity.

Eating can affect fetal and infant brain development

During gestation and early infancy, the brain is growing rapidly.  To grow properly, it needs energy, protein, fatty acids and micronutrients.

Research shows that inadequate nutrition for a pregnant mother or an infant can affect the way neurons and other basic structures in the brain are created, which can impair the way the brain functions and makes connections.  That can have lifelong consequences.

Poor nutrition affects health and academic performance

Malnutrition in very young kids has been on the rise in the United States.  Cities and emergency rooms are noticing an increase in severely underweight children.  When physical growth is stunted in early childhood, it affects cognitive functioning, motor skills, and creates a deficit that is hard to make up.

Malnourished children are also more apt to get sick, and have more absences from school.  They tend to perform lower in math and reading, and also may experience emotional problems.

The spike in malnutrition is prompting some doctors to write prescriptions – not for medicine – but for food.

Poor eating habits can also lead to obesity.  The rate of childhood obesity in the United States has tripled in the past 30 years, and it increases the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Caregivers are the key to making healthy food choices

Babies and toddlers can’t distinguish between healthy and unhealthy food.  Parents and caregivers are the ones who make choices for them, and model good eating habits. 

There are some simple guidelines for offering very young children a well-balanced diet.  Providing essential nutrients helps a child’s body fight infection and fosters the healthy development of bones, muscles, nerves and the brain.

One key vitamin during pregnancy and for young children is folate.  It’s a B vitamin that promotes the development of cells.  There are lots of foods rich in folate, including black beans, lentils, spinach, chickpeas.

Parents and caregivers can follow a few basic rules of thumb for nourishing an infant or early toddler. For the first six months, an infant needs nothing more than breast milk.  And when breast milk is not available, formula is an ideal substitute.

Between six months and one year, a baby’s nutritional needs expand to include iron, zinc and a certain amount of fat.  For toddlers and preschoolers, fiber and calcium are especially important.

The ideal diet for babies and young children consists mostly of whole foods, and is low in salt and sugar.  To strike the right mix of fruit, vegetables, grains, proteins and dairy, parents and caregivers can adjust quantities and proportions, depending on a child’s age group

Promoting nutrition can be an activity that bonds

Mealtime is just one of many special opportunities for parents and caregivers to engage with an infant or toddler and promote learning that will benefit the child for a lifetime.  Talking about the food they’re eating, asking children to name foods they recognize, and even singing with a six-month old while spoon-feeding oatmeal or pureed carrots is the first stage in nourishing the child’s mind and body. 

For toddlers, parents and caregivers can make healthy eating fun, by getting them involved in mixing and preparing food, and letting kids decide what to eat, and how much.  

While mealtime can be messy with very young children, it’s worth encouraging them to experiment with food – to explore the shape, texture and smell.

Finally, for children of all ages, experts far and wide agree that the cornerstone of child nutrition is a healthy breakfast.  Kids who eat breakfast are not only more likely to receive the recommended amounts of nutrients they need each day, but studies have also shown they are more ready to learn in school and score higher on math and reading achievement tests.

Taking time to guide a child to eat the foods that provide the most nourishment is making an investment in the child’s physical health.  It’s also promoting academic performance and emotional well-being.  

By starting early with awareness about healthy eating, parents and caregivers can set a child on the right course for life.

Posted In: Newsletter