Critical Nutrients for weaning your baby
Your babies weaning journey is short. She has just 6 months to learn about a whole range of textures, tastes and flavours of in order to have arrived at family meals by the time she is 1 year old. Weaning onto a mixed diet of food is important because breast and formula milk simply don’t contain enough nutrition for the rapid growth and brain development that occurs at this time. A baby’s head is huge compared to the rest of their body and that is because most of her development in the first year of life happens in her brain. Not enough of the right nutrition during weaning can lead to cognitive issues including learning and behavioural problems but getting it right can enhance your baby’s intellectual abilities.
Have you heard the phrase "food is fun till they're one"? This worries me...its simply not true.
The food you choose to give your baby during weaning needs to be carefully considered for its nutritional value as the simple fruits and vegetables that were advised in the past just don’t contain enough of the critical nutrients babies need by 6 months of age. You can download my baby-superfoods cheat-sheet here.
The critical nutrients required during weaning are:
This is probably to be the most important nutrient because babies need a lot more iron between six months to 2 years than any other time in their lives. It’s essential for brain growth and babies who don’t get enough can be both sensory and cognitively impaired leading to learning issues. It can also effect their motor (muscles and balance) development. The iron stores that are laid down in the last trimester of pregnancy are gone by 6 months of age and if your baby was born early or was low birth weight she’ll be depleted even earlier than this. Similarly if you were iron deficient when you were pregnant your baby won’t have their full 6 months worth of iron. This means that iron rich foods need to be introduced early on in your baby’s weaning journey.
Incidentally breast milk contains only a little iron but it is very well absorbed, and although formula is supplemented with lots of iron its poorly absorbed by your baby’s body and is pooped out, so even through the tin tells us formula is rich in iron, its not being used. Iron found in foods is much more readily available particularly from animal sources. The best iron rich food source is red meat such as beef, lamb or liver, in fact meat should be one of your babies first foods. Other good sources of iron are egg yolks, dark poultry meat, fortified breakfast cereals and pulses. Paring an iron rich food with a vitamin C containing food is a great idea as vitamin C helps your baby absorb the iron. Vitamin C is found in fruit and vegetables. I recommend that iron rich foods are given twice a day from the start of weaning.
Fats and oils are the best energy providing foods and despite their reputation for causing adults to become overweight, they are actually very healthy for babies. Babies need around half of their energy to come from fats and oils otherwise they don’t get enough calories for growth and development. Fats and oils are needed also for brain myelination and a lack of it can effect cognitive development. Getting enough energy can be tricky as babies tummies are so small and their appetites can be variable, therefore choose whole or full fat versions of food like whole milk, cream, full fat yoghurt and cheese and cook with oil or use a olive based spread wherever you can. Don’t be afraid to add high fat foods to your baby’s weaning foods, if she likes slices of peaches serve them with a pot of cream for her to dip them into, you can add melted butter to vegetables before serving and try sautéing or frying foods. The best oils to cook with are rapeseed and olive oils as these are high in monounsaturated fatty acids which promote heart health.
Protein is the main building block for growth. Foods that contain good sources of protein foods are fish, meat, milk, cheese, yoghurts, nuts, eggs, and vegetable proteins such as soya, tofu and beans and pulses. The body can’t use protein unless your baby has enough energy, so paring up a protein food with an energy food is key.
Many of the high protein foods are also high in zinc such as meat, fish, dairy foods, nuts, eggs and beans and these are all essential from early on in the weaning journey. Zinc keeps your baby’s immune system healthy and so a diet high in zinc can help protect against bugs and colds. Conveniently iron rich foods are also high in zinc, so giving your baby iron twice a day ensures they’ll get enough zinc too!
We can’t get enough vitamin D from food, its made by your baby’s body when sunlight shines on her skin. Vitamin D is needed for bone strength and growth and it also plays a role in developing a healthy immune system. The few foods that do contain vitamin D are oily fish, egg yolks and foods that have had vitamin D added during manufacturing like some margarines, milks and breakfast cereals. But your baby is unlikely to be able to consume enough of these for what her tiny body needs. Instead the recommendation is for an 8.5mcg to 10mcg supplement per day in the first year of life. Infant formula already contains the supplement but breastfed babies need vitamin D drops. Most drops also contain vitamins A and C too, which are also recommended.
In the UK the best way for your baby to get vitamin D is by exposing their skin to the sun during the summer months, but with the dangers of sunburn and skin cancers many of us put sun cream on before our little ones go outside. If you can safely let your baby’s face, arms and legs get some sunlight before applying sunscreen in the summer months this will help. I recommend that exposing skin to the sun for half the time it would take them to burn before applying sunscreen is safe and healthy for vitamin D production.
Omega 3 or DHA
Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid, a key nutrient that your baby’s body cant make and can only be obtained through food. Omega 3 or DHA is mainly found in oily fish but some vegetarian foods also contain small amounts these include walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds and edamame beans. However the vegetarian sources of DHA are so poorly absorbed by the body that your baby wont be able to meet her needs from these sources. DHA is responsible for vision and healthy development of the eye and it is also essential for the growing brain. Babies who don’t get enough DHA can have affected vision, cognitive abilities and intellect. Oily fish once twice a week is really the only food source that will provide enough DHA, but it does pass through breast milk too so breastfeeding mums should eat oily fish too. If you are planning to wean your baby onto a vegetarian diet speak to a Registered Dietitian like me for further advice. Because the majority of oily fish in the developed world is contaminated with mercury, it is reccomended that your baby has no more than 2 portions per week.
We've talked a lot about nutrients but in real life we eat food. Below are my tips for ensuring you get all those critical nutrients into your baby's weaning foods.
Iron fortified breakfast cereals – there’s no need to buy baby cereals in fact often these are without iron.
Scrambled egg and toast
Porridge with pureed dried fruits
Dippy eggs and buttered soldiers
Peanut butter on wholegrain toast
Lunch / dinner ideas:
Lentil and vegetable puree
Chunks of salmon, avocado and toast
Mini tuna sandwiches
Slow cooked beef casserole
Beef Chilli and rice
Chicken and mushroom potato topped pie
White fish in a cheese sauce
Fish pie with a sweet potato mash
Mini fruit muffin
Houmous and breadsticks
Homemade fruit jelly
Yoghurt or fromage frais
Pancakes and fruit
Fruit juice ice lolly
When planning your baby’s meals bear in mind the foods that contain those critical nutrients. To ensure the right balance:
Start with an iron rich protein food like a lentil puree, ½ a boiled egg or some slow-cooked red meat like lamb or beef.
Add a vitamin C rich food like 1 broccoli floret or 2 raspberries halved.
Finish with an energy dense food like a soldier of buttered toast or potato mashed with butter.
Make meals up of two courses like a starter and main or main and pudding.
If you’ve found this post useful and want to know more about your baby’s nutrition and growth during their first year of life, I host an Online Weaning Masterclass. To find out more or sign up click here for my Courses page.