Healthy from the Start - Promoting healthy eating habits (birth-12 months)

Based on content from ZERO TO THREE®: National Center for Infants, Toddler and Families.

How feeding nurtures your young child's body, heart and mind

One Size Doesn't Fit All:

What Your Individual Child Really Needs

Children are born all different sizes and weights. Some grow faster than others. Some eat more than others. Babies and toddlers can be healthy at many different sizes.

Sometimes parents worry about their child's eating habits. Is she eating a balanced diet? Is he eating too much? Is she eating too little? There is not one right amount of food children need to grow. How much food children need is based on many factors such as their height, activity level, and how quickly their body burns calories.

The best way to know if your child is growing well is to ask yourself whether he or she enjoys eating and has the energy to play and interact with others. You can also talk with her health care provider.

Read Your Child's Signals

Babies and young children know when they are hungry or full. They have many signals for letting us know by using their voices, faces, and actions. For example, when 3-month-old Jenna is hungry, she nuzzles her mother's shirt. When 3-month-old Damon is hungry, he sucks on his fingers and makes fussy noises. Responding to your child's signals lets her know that she can trust herself to know when she is hungry and full, and that she is a good communicator whose needs will be met.

Sometimes the same signal can have more than one meaning. For example, 9-month-old, Ricky, pushes the spoon away when he is full. Bianca, also 9 months, pushes the spoon away when she wants to feed herself.

Do You Know a "Picky" Eater?

Picky eating is when children refuse foods often or only want the same food over and over. Many parents worry that their picky eaters are not getting enough nutrition to grow. But in most cases, they are. In fact, 50% of parents think their children are picky eaters. But 95% of healthy babies and toddlers meet all their nutrient needs.

What to avoid

Forcing your child to eat

The fact is that forcing children to eat usually leads to the child eating less. Forcing also teaches children to rely on others to tell them how much to eat and what they are feeling. This does not lead to healthy eating habits or good self-esteem. When it comes to eating, your job is to provide your child with healthy food choices and pleasant meal and snack times. It is your child's job to decide which of these healthy foods to eat and how much to eat. When you approach feeding this way, your child learns to listen to his body and makes healthy choices. (From the work of Ellyn Satter.)

Nagging or making deals with your child

Strategies like these don't work in the long run. Children who learn to make deals about eating quickly learn to make deals and ask for rewards for doing other things. Soon they won't do anything unless there is a reward!

What does food mean to you?

Thinking about our own experiences, beliefs and feelings about food is important. It helps us make the choice to do things the same way or differently than our parents did with us.

  • What were mealtimes like when you were growing up?
  • How did your parents and caregivers make you feel about your body?
  • How do you feel about your eating habits now?
  • How do you feel about your body now?

Your culture-the customs, traditions and beliefs you grew up with-plays a big part in how you approach mealtime. For example, parents in some cultures want their children to be independent from early on. They encourage children to feed themselves. Parents in other cultures believe children should rely on parents and caregivers to feed them.

The foods you feed your child are also a very important way you share your culture. Special meals remind us of good times with family and friends. Sometimes these foods are not the most nutritious. Making small changes to family recipes keeps these traditions alive for our children, and teaches them about healthy choices, too.

Healthy Eating Strategies for Babies and Toddlers

  • Remember: Meals are about more than food. Talk with your child during meals and don't let her eat alone. This helps build strong family relationships.
  • Create routines around mealtime. You might say a blessing if that's part of your family's tradition. Or, share something about your day before each meal.
  • Establish regular meal and snack times beginning when your child is 9-12 months old. When your child shows he is hungry, you might say: "You're hungry, aren't you? Well then, it's time to eat!" This helps children learn to link their feelings of hunger with the act of eating.
  • Offer 3 to 4 healthy food choices at each meal. Research shows that children will choose a healthy diet when they are offered a selection of healthy foods.
  • Don't force your baby or toddler to eat. This often results in children refusing food and eating less.
  • Offer your child a healthy snack between meals if you think she is hungry. This way if she doesn't eat much at one meal, she doesn't have to wait long to eat again.
  • Limit juice to no more than 4 ounces a day. Drinking too much juice can fill children up and make them less hungry at mealtimes. Consider adding water to juice.
  • Be flexible about letting little ones get up from the table when they are done. Plan for three meals a day of about 10-20 minutes each and 2 to 3 snacks of about 5-15 minutes each.
  • Don't give up on new foods! Patience is key. You may have to offer your child a new food 10 to 15 times before he will eat it. Let him see you eat it. Children learn by watching and imitating you.
  • Turn off the TV (computers, and other screens) at mealtime. Mealtime is a time to connect with your child.
  • If you are concerned about your child's weight or activity level, talk to your child's health care provider.

Go Play!

Healthy eating and physical activity go hand-in-hand. Take walks as a family, go to the playground, or dance to your favorite music. And limit television and computer time. Children who spend the most time in front of a screen are also the most likely to overeat and be overweight.