Relative to their size, babies have a much higher need for energy and vitamins & minerals than adults. Until 6 months of age, they will have got their requirements from the stores they are born with combined with the nutrients in breast milk or infant formula1 and will have doubled their birth weight. By the time they are one year old they should have tripled it. To do so, they need a diet that is energy and nutrient rich. Milk alone is not enough.
To avoid filling them up, that means providing a diet that is super efficient - high in fat but low in fibre. Because they have stomachs ten times smaller than adults but need (relative to size), three times more energy, it also means little - but often. To ensure a balanced diet during weaning, a variety of foods should be offered but parents should be careful not to replace too much milk too soon with vegetable and fruit purees that are lower in calories.
It is important that good sources of iron are introduced straight away into the diet of a six month old baby who is being weaned. Anaemia (iron deficiency) is a common problem symptomised by loss of appetite, irritability and lethargy in the baby.
Iron is most easily absorbed from red meat but is also present in dried fruit, iron-fortified infant cereals, beans, lentils, chickpeas and green vegetables. Vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron from non-meat sources. Some follow-on milks like Ronalac 2 are also good sources of iron.
Zinc is also an important inclusion for growth & development but also affects immune function. It can be found in eggs, milk, cheese, wholegrain cereals, meat, fish and pulses.
Vitamin A affects growth & development, skin, eyes and the immune system. It can be found in whole milk, cheese, butter, oily fish and liver. Carrots and other orange coloured fruits and vegetables, as well as dark green leafy vegetables, contain carotene that converts to vitamin A.
Vitamin C also affects growth & development and helps the body absorb iron. It is also vital for the formation of a protein called collagen that helps make skin, scar tissue, tendons and blood vessels. It can be found in blackcurrants, oranges, mangoes, kiwi fruit, broccoli and peppers.
Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption to promote the formation of bone. Lack of it causes rickets and poor bone growth. It can be found in oily fish, liver, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals and also in margarine. It can also be manufactured by sunlight on skin but this alone will not be sufficient to meet the needs of a growing baby and exposing babies to too much sun is not recommended.
For babies between 6-12 months who drink less than 500-600ml per day of follow-on milk or for whom breast milk is the main drink, vitamin supplements A, C, and D are recommended
It is widely accepted that babies should be introduced to solids from about 6 months but not before 4 months. In 2000 the World Health Organisation reviewed the scientific literature on the optimal duration of breastfeeding, comparing babies exclusively breastfed for 6 months and those exclusively breastfed for 3-4 months. They concluded that there were no differences in growth between the two groups and that there were no benefits to introducing solids between 4 and 6 months. Infants breastfed for 6 months suffered fewer gastrointestinal and respiratory infections.
1. Lawson M. Contemporary aspects of infant feeding. Paediatric Nursing 2007 19 39-45
2. Kramer MS & Kakuma R. The optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding: A systematic review. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2002