The World's Healthiest Foods

Newborns and Infants


Anyone who spends any time with babies recognizes that they grow and change almost before your eyes. In the span of 12 months, most infants learn to sit up, cut many teeth, start to crawl, move from crawling to walking, begin to communicate verbally, and triple their body weight. At no other time in the child’s life, will he/she again experience such rapid growth and development. Good nutrition is the key to ensuring that growth and development proceeds optimally. Infants require all the essential vitamins and minerals and also need large amounts of calories and protein. For most of the first year of life, breast milk is often all a baby needs. As the baby develops the physical skills necessary to eat solid foods, simple and hypoallergenic foods should be introduced on a one-by-one basis.

Physical Factors

Infancy is characterized by extremely rapid physical growth and development. During the first few days of life, most infants lose a little bit of weight. But, within a week, they regain their birth weight and set off at a pace of growth that causes a tripling of their birth weight and a 50% increase in length by the time they reach their first birthday! At the same time, the individual organ systems of the infant are developing to allow for increasingly more complex functions. To ensure that this growth and development proceeds optimally, infants need to obtain a large amount of calories, protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals.

Nutrient Needs

No one can argue that the growth and development of newborns and infants is affected, perhaps even determined, by the type and amount of food they eat. Severe nutrient deficiencies during infancy impair mental and physical development. On the other hand, overnutrition results in taller, heavier, and frequently, obese children. The table below lists the Dietary Reference Intakes for newborns and infants. The nutrients highlighted below are of special importance:

Energy: Most infants will adjust their intake of breast milk to meet their calorie needs. When caloric intake is appropriate, growth in height and weight will increase at about the same rate. If weight does not increase along with height, than the child may not be taking in enough calories. On the other hand, if weight increases much more quickly than height, the child may be overeating. For an infant who is exclusively nursing, the caloric density of the mother's milk depends in part on the health status of the mother. Moms need to be as careful - or even more careful - about their nourishment while breastfeeding as they are during pregnancy!

Protein: The amount of protein required during infancy is higher on a per body weight basis than at any other age. This is because infants need lots of protein to support the rapid growth of tissue that occurs during this life stage. Like adults, infants need all of the essential amino acids. Once again, the quality of the mother's diet is critical in determining the amino acids received by the nursing infant.

Fat: Fat should account for 30-50% of the infant’s total caloric intake. The omega 6 essential fatty acid, linoleic acid, should provide at least 3% of total calories. In grams, this would equal approximately 2-3 grams for a 15-pound infant consuming 725 calories per day. The omega 3 fats, including alpha-linolenic acid, docosahexaenoic acid, and eicosapentaenoic acid, are also extremely important for the health of the infant. In fact, docosahexaenoic acid plays a crucial role in the development of the brain, eyes, and nervous system. The amount of omega-3 fats in the diet of the breast-fed infant depends on the mother’s diet. Consequently, mothers who breastfeed should include at least one source of omega 3 fats in their diet every day. Mothers who decide not to breastfeed should select an infant formula that contains omega-3 essential fatty acids, or supplement the baby’s diet with these important nutrients.

Iron: The Adequate Intake level established by the Institute of Medicine for infants up to 6 months old is only .27 milligrams (the same as 270 micrograms). This relatively small amount reflects the fact that, until four to six months of age, the infant has sufficient amounts of stored iron to meet his/her needs for this nutrient. However, after six months, these iron stores are nearly depleted, and the infant is dependent upon dietary sources of this mineral. As a result, the recommended intake level jumps to 11 milligrams. Although breast milk contains less iron than iron-fortified infant formulas, the type of iron in breast milk is much more easily absorbed. If an infant is not being breastfed and his or her infant formula does not contain iron, additional food sources of iron should be added to his or her diet. These additional iron-containing foods could include Blackstrap molasses, barley, or tahini (sesame seed paste).

Nutrient 0-6 Months 7-12 Months 1-3 Years
Energy (calories) Kg x 108 Kg x 98 Kg x 102
Protein (grams) Kg x 2.2 Kg x 1.6 Kg x 1.2
Vitamin A (mcg RE) 400 500 300
Vitamin D (mcg) 5 5 5
Vitamin E (mg alpha-TE) 4 4 6
Vitamin K (mcg) 2 2.5 30
Thiamin (mg) .2 .3 .5
Riboflavin (mg) .3 .4 .5
Niacin (mg NE) 2 4 6
Pantothenic Acid 1.7 1.8 2
Vitamin B6 (mg) .1 .3 .5
Folate (mcg) 65 80 150
Vitamin B12 (mcg) .4 .5 .9
Choline (mg) 125 150 200
Biotin (mcg) 5 6 8
Vitamin C (mg) 40 15
Calcium (mg) 210 270 500
Phosphorus (mg) 100 275 460
Magnesium (mg) 30 75 80
Iron (mg) .27 11 7
Zinc (mg) 2 3 3
Iodine (mcg) 110 130 90
Selenium (mcg) 15 20 20
Copper (mcg) 200 220 300
Manganese (mcg) 3 600 1.2
Chromium (mcg) 0.2 5.5 11

Dietary Choices

Naturally, newborns and infants have little control over what they eat, and their parents are responsible for selecting and providing any source of nourishment they receive. The clear ideal to shoot for, in virtually all circumstances, is breastfeeding. The composition of breast milk, even in mother's who are not optimally healthy, is still clearly superior to formula. Of equal importance is the relationship between mother and infant that is made possible by breastfeeding. (Mothers who decide not to breastfeed can still work to establish this same kind of relationship when bottle feeding.) The decision about whether and how long to breastfeed is complex for many mothers, and often involves issues related to employment outside the home and lack of support for breastfeeding from the social and home environment. (For more information about breastfeeding, you may want to consult the official web page of La Leche League International at La Leche League. Breastfed or bottle fed, the importance of the infant's nutritional intake and early-life relationship with food can not be overstated.

Sometimes an infant's dietary choices become affected by a condition called colic. This condition is characterized by inconsolable crying for several hours during the day and frequent gas. Food allergy has been identified as a common cause of colic. Consequently, a mother of a colicky breastfed infant may need to change her diet. Often, excluding dairy products can help. Formula-fed infants with colic may need a hypoallergenic formula. Colic is usually a temporary condition, but it can affect the infant's intake of food and should be addressed.

The appropriate time to introduce solid foods is a controversial issue. Some nutritionists suggest introducing cereals as early as 4-6 months after birth, while many others suggest that the digestive and immune systems of infants are not developed sufficiently at this point to handle solid foods and argue that premature introduction of solid foods may lead to food allergies, poor digestion, and obesity. So, how do you decide the best time to give your baby solid foods? To be safe, it is advisable to wait until your baby is at least six months of age. At around five months, begin to watch for signs that your child is developing the physical skills necessary to begin eating. He/she should be able to sit up and should start to display chewing motions (up and down movement of the jaw). Select simple, unprocessed, and hypoallergenic foods (see the Allergy Avoidance Diet for more information). Puréed cooked vegetables and fruits (such as sweet potatoes, squash and applesauce) are best. Once your baby cuts his/her first few teeth and develops the hand-eye coordination necessary to grasp and hold foods, you can begin to introduce a wider variety of foods. In addition to these physiological, growth-related benchmarks, many parents let their child's interest in solid foods help guide their decision about when to try them. The first hypoallergenic foods should always be introduced one at a time, to allow accurate assessment of their compatibility with the child.


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This page was updated on: 2001-12-02 12:37:38
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation