Poor nutrition during the early stage of the life-course can lead to problems to physical growth and brain development. On the other hand, good nutrition has a positive effect. Breastfeeding is the optimal way of feeding babies, it provides them the nutrients they need in the right balance, as well as protection against disease. This should be done exclusively for the first 6 months – exclusive breastfeeding.
Complementary feeding starts when breast milk alone is no longer sufficient to meet the nutritional requirements of infants, and therefore other foods and liquids are needed, along with breast milk. This starts after 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding. Complementary foods are expected to have sufficient energy density to provide a growing child with adequate daily energy requirement. Breast milk contains an energy of about 0.7kcal/ml. Complementary feeding should be timely and adequate (in amounts, frequency, consistency, and using a variety of foods). The foods should be prepared under proper hygienic condition, (infants have an increased risk of food poisoning) and be given in a way that is appropriate (foods are of appropriate texture for the age of the child).
Nutrient Composition of Complementary Foods
Proteins are the major sources of essential amino acids and energy at times of energy deprivation. Adequate supply of dietary protein is vital for building body cells, maintaining cellular function and for ensuring normalcy of health and growth. Most common protein deficiency in children is kwashiorkor. The combined effect of protein deficiency and low energy intake leads to protein–energy (PE) malnutrition, the commonest form of malnutrition worldwide
Dietary fats constitute an important portion of nutrients obtained from foods. They are source of energy, essential fatty acids, and fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) for infants. It helps in promoting good health and enhancing the sensory qualities of the foods. Fat accounts for about 50% of breast-milk’s energy and serves as primary energy source for infants during the first 6 months of life.
Starch is a major constituent of many complementary foods for infants. To ensure that its energy value is derived, this starch should be provided in a readily digestible form. Increasing the intake of dietary fibers increases stool bulk, causes flatulence, and decreases appetite. Fibers should be introduced gradually into their diet after 6 months.
Micronutrients are essential for growth, development, and prevention of illness in children. Adequate intake of micronutrients, such as iron, zinc, and calcium, are important for ensuring optimal health, growth, and development of children.
Breast milk makes significant contribution to the total nutrient intake. In well-nourished mothers, breast milk contains significant amounts of vitamin A, B, C, folate, iodine, and selenium. As a result, the amount of micronutrients gotten from complementary foods is supporting the breast milk.
Food Items to prepare complementary foods
After 6 months, complementary foods should be of variety, and balanced mixtures of foods containing cereals, tubers – potatoes, foods of animal (meat, chicken) and vegetable origin, and fat should be offered. Only a varied diet can supply micronutrients, enhances good eating habits, and prevents the development of anorexia caused by monotonous foods.
Grain products (whole grain) can serve as sources for carbohydrates, fibers, and micronutrients such as thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and iron. Protein-rich foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, egg yolks, cheese and yogurt can be introduced to infants between 6 and 8 months of age. Fruits like apple and vegetables introduced over time can provide infants with carbohydrates, including fiber, vitamins A and C, and minerals.
Complementary foods usually are of two types:
- Commercially prepared infant foods – can be produced using some modern food processing technologies such as malting, popping, fermentation, roller drying and extrusion cooking. Some of the commonly available commercially prepared infant foods include iron-fortified infant cereal made of food items
- Homemade complementary foods prepared by the caregivers. From 6 months, infants can eat pureed, mashed and semi-solid foods prepared from infant cereal, vegetables, fruits, meat, and other protein-rich foods. Most infants are able to consume solid constituency (family food) by 12 months. To enhance optimal growth of the child, it is advised to increase te consistency of the foods gradually with the age of the infant.
What to avoid
It is important to give infants a wide range of foods with different flavours and textures. Some foods are to be avoided to reduce the risk of choking or illness:
- Small, hard foods may cause choking. Avoid foods such as whole nuts, seeds, corn chips, raw carrot, and chunks of apple.
- There is no need to add sugar to foods. They can cause tooth decay and can cause extra work for your baby’s small kidneys.
- Cow’s milk should not be given as a drink until 12 months of age, they are not easily digested. Some cow’s milk can be added to food to help with pureeing or mashing.
- Honey is not needed and can cause illness in babies younger than 12 months of age.
- Soft drinks, cordials, fruit juice, tea and coffee are not suitable drinks for babies. Breast milk (or formula) and water are the only fluids your baby needs.