When you begin to think about solids and first steps, nutrition, weaning and the right food choices become interlinked parts of the picture. At 6 months of age your baby’s nutritional requirements change and neither breast nor formula milk will contain enough of what they need. This means that the food you offer your baby must be thought about and planned, in order for it to provide them with the right nutritional values.
The phrase ‘food before one is just for fun’ simply isn’t true. Babies have unique nutritional needs and if these aren’t met it will lead to deficiencies and health issues. What's more, getting nutrition right can actually enhance your baby's brain development. The most important nutrients for babies are: iron, omega-3, healthy fats and vitamins A, C and D.
Your baby’s requirement for iron is huge, because they are growing more quickly now than at any other time in their life. They were born with a store of iron that came from their mother, but unfortunately this will now have run out so they need to get more iron from food.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency seen in babies and those who don’t get enough can develop sensory and cognitive problems associated with learning issues. Low iron can also affect babies’ muscles and balance, so it’s a really important nutrient to get right.
The best iron-rich food source is red meat, such as beef or lamb. It’s therefore recommended that meat is one of your baby’s first foods after their first tastes of veggies. You can try slow-cooked strips of beef or lamb as finger foods, or puree the meat with root vegetables like sweet potato, parsnip or carrot.
Other good sources of iron are:
● egg yolks
● dark poultry meat
● nut butters
● dried fruits like raisins, sultanas and apricots
● fortified, unsweetened breakfast cereals
Iron from plant sources such as lentils, beans, fruits, nuts and cereals isn’t as well absorbed in your baby's body, so it needs to be served alongside a vitamin C-rich food. Vitamin C is found in all fruits and vegetables.
It’s best to aim for iron-rich foods twice a day from very early in your baby’s weaning journey. Or, if you’re raising your baby to be vegetarian, offer them iron-rich foods three times a day.
Omega-3 is a special type of healthy fat that’s labelled as ‘essential’. That’s because your baby’s body can't make it by itself, so it has to come from their food. Omega-3 is needed for healthy development of the eyes and vision and is also needed for babies’ brains.
The best source of omega-3 is oily fish (unfortunately, white fish like cod and plaice, or even tuna, don’t count for this). You should aim to offer it once or twice a week, but no more, as you can have too much of a good thing!
Oily fish include:
You can get a type of omega-3 in walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, sesame seeds, rapeseed and edamame beans. However, your baby can’t efficiently convert these into the form of omega-3 their body needs, so you can’t rely on plant forms of omega-3 alone. If you are vegetarian or vegan, it's best to consider an algal oil-based omega-3 supplement.
Remember too that omega-3 passes through breast milk, so breastfeeding mums should eat 1 or 2 portions of oily fish a week as well!
Healthy fats are an important part of your baby’s weaning diet and 50% of your baby’s daily energy should come from them, in order to fuel their rapid growth and the developmental spurts that happen during their first year of life.
Healthy fats include forms of omega-3, as listed above, but in addition you can cook your baby’s food with olive oil or rapeseed oil and choose an olive-based spread. Avocados and nut butters are excellent sources of healthy fats too.
You should also offer whole-fat or full-fat versions of dairy foods, for example, by using whole milk in cooking or in your baby’s cereal. Full-fat yoghurt, fromage frais and full-fat cheese are also good options. Note too that it's definitely best to avoid low-fat or diet versions of foods until children are much older.
The NHS advises that from 6 months of age all babies should have supplements of vitamins A, C and D. Infant formula already has this added, however, so if your baby takes more than 500ml of formula per day, they won’t need such supplements.
Breastfed babies need to have a supplement that contains:
● 200mcg vitamin A
● 20mg vitamin C
● 8.5-10mcg vitamin D
Not all baby vitamin supplements contain the right amounts, so do check the back of the pack. Babies can also get extra vitamins from food, so it’s ok for them to have a combination of the right foods and a supplement (they won't get too much).
This is needed for a healthy immune system, skin health and vision. It’s found in:
● Oily fish
● Fortified spreads
Plant-based sources of beta-carotene, which can be changed into vitamin A by your baby’s body, include:
● Spinach and other dark green veggies
● Sweet potato
This is needed for the immune system too, but it also helps to absorb iron from non-meat sources. It’s found in:
● Citrus fruit
● Kiwi fruit
Vitamin D is needed for healthy bones, teeth and muscle strength. It isn’t naturally present in many foods, though there is some in oily fish and it's also added as a supplement to some foods like milk, orange juice, breakfast cereals and margarine.
Vitamin D is actually a hormone created in the body when certain UV rays from the sun react with the skin. However, in the northern hemisphere we don't get much of these special UV rays and in the summer months when there are more, we tend to cover our babies up, keep them in the shade and use sun cream to protect their delicate skin. The only way to ensure our little ones get enough is therefore through supplements. It's quite safe for your baby to have a supplement plus vitamin D-enriched foods, as well as a little sunlight.
You’ll notice that your baby’s poo changes when you start weaning. This is because they’re getting used to food after a diet of 100% milk. Some babies can become constipated at the start of weaning, while others produce extra wind. It’s all part of their digestive system getting used to food.
Fibre is a natural part of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and pulses and it's very healthy for all of us. From the time your baby starts solids until their second birthday, it's a good idea to gradually increase the amount of fibre they eat, as by the time they reach 2 their requirement is 15g per day, which is half of what a fully-grown adult needs.
Good sources of fibre include:
● Fruits, including their skins
● Vegetables, especially sweet potato, avocado, broccoli, turnip, pumpkin, Brussels sprouts, carrots, French beans and courgette
● Beans, lentils and chickpeas
● Seeds, including linseeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds
● Wholegrain pasta, brown rice and wholemeal bread
By the way, there’s an old wives’ tale that fibre shouldn't be given to babies, as it fills them up and they don't absorb iron. In fact, this only occurs if they’ve eaten an awful lot of fibre.