We are told to avoid salt in babies under 1's as their kidneys cant cope with it, however we all - including babies - need a little bit of salt to survive. What babies kidneys can’t cope with is too much salt.
How much salt do babies need?
Babies only need a tiny amount of salt, in fact it’s less than 1g per day until they turn one and only 2g per day thereafter. For the first 6 months of life they will meet their needs through breastmilk or formula.
Once weaning starts and milk feeds reduce, your baby will get the additional salt he/she needs from food, but this is where it tends to go a bit haywire and babies consume too much.
We know that by the age of 1 the vast majority of babies are consuming far too much salt and we know that baby-led-weaners get there sooner.
What is sodium?
Sodium Chloride is the chemical name for salt often referred to just as sodium and its actually the sodium component that is harmful if your baby eats too much of it/ Salt and sodium are often used interchangeably and you may see both on food labels.
How do babies eat too much salt?
The staple foods of weaning such as bread, crackers, breadsticks and cheese are actually very high in salt - its needed as part of the recipe., Also processed meat such as ham and sausages are very salty too.
Breakfast cereals too, even plain ones, can be a huge contributor to salt in your little ones diet.
It’s important not to add salt to anything you cook from scratch, even if you think it tastes bland - taste is a very different experience for your baby than it is for you. You should also avoid soy sauce, standard stock cubes, gravy and packet, tinned or jar sauces marketed for family meals, as they tend to be loaded with salt.
What should you do?
Cook from scratch
Whenever you can and use herbs and spices as flavour enhancers. Baby stock cubes are very handy as they are much lower in salt and if you want to go the whole hog you can make bone broth from a chicken carcass and vegetables boiled in water.
Check shop bought foods
Shop bought baby foods, such as baby cereals, finger foods and pouches have a low salt content as it is against the law to add salt to baby food during processing. Toddler and children’s meals however can have salt added so be careful to buy only age appropriate foods for your baby!
Ready meals, puffs, pots, pouches and jars are often low in nutritional value however - pouches can have water added to bulk them out and meals often have a very low meat or protein content so won’t meet your babies requirements for the critical nutrients they need.
Choose a range of starchy carbohydrates
Bread and crackers contain salt as it has to be added as part of the baking process and bread won’t rise properly without it. Therefore its wise to limit bread, breadsticks and crackers to once or twice a week. Pasta, rice, potatoes, couscous, quinoa and other grains are very low in salt and these make excellent alternative starchy carbohydrate options for home made baby meals.
Don’t rely on cheese
Cheese is very highly salted and its often loved by little ones as its so flavoursome, so is often a staple. It’s also a great source of calcium, protein and a great energy booster and so this is one food I recommend you still allow your baby to have routinely but try to rotate with other protein foods such as chicken, fish, lean meat, beans and other pulses.
Low salt foods are:
Fruits and vegetables - fresh, frozen or tinned are fine but avoid those canned in syrup or brine
Fish - not battered or breadcrumbed or canned in brine
Lentils, beans and pulses
Milk, cream, yoghurt
Very salty foods that are best avoided are:
toddler, child & adult ready-meals
pies, pasties, scotch eggs and sausage rolls
Breaded or battered chicken and fish
Sausages and other cured meats
Crackers including breadsticks
Soups - including fresh soups
Packet, dinner or jar sauces
Pizza and filled pasta
What to look for on food labels:
When looking at the nutritional information labels on foods check the amount of salt per 100g. A low salt food contains less than 0.3g per 100g. Salt is sometimes also expressed as sodium. To find out the amount of salt in a food you need to multiply the sodium value by 2.5 so if a packet of crisps contains 1g sodium, it contains 2.5g salt.
What actually happens if my baby has too much salt?
Your baby’s kidneys process excess salt so that she can wee it out in her urine, however as her kidneys are immature they are not able to deal with large amounts of salt in one go. In addition, we know that a high salt intake can cause high blood pressure which puts your little one at greater risk of heart disease and stroke as she gets older. A high salt diet in childhood has been linked to osteoporosis as it interferes with calcium absorption, asthma, obesity and some cancers too.
Is my baby born liking salty foods?
Liking salty food is a ‘learned taste preference’ which means that your little one has to be taught to like salty foods before she will choose to eat them. The best way to avoid developing a preference for salty foods is not to give them routinely in the first place.
What about pink Himalayan salt or sea salt? This is healthier isn’t it?
Despite these salts containing other natural minerals and ingredients, they do still contain sodium chloride and do need to be avoided for under 1’s.
The experience and exposure caveat:
Weaning however, is a time when your baby should experience a wide variety of tastes and textures, it’s a learning adventure and so it’s important for her to be exposed to as many different tastes as possible. Therefore the occasional taste of something salty such as a chopped olive or piece of anchovy won’t do her and long term harm and yet will allow her the experience of learning about a new food.
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 course called Baby Nutrition, Weaning & Getting Feeding Right, and I’d love to see you there.