A child’s early years are crucial for rapid growth and development. At birth, an infant’s brain is around one-third the size of an adult brain, but it grows faster. As per the growth flow, on an average most infants will double their birthweight by the age of six months and later on by 2.5 to 3 times up to 12 months. During this time period complementary feeds are provided.
Complementary feeding (often called weaning) is the introduction of solid foods into the diet of a baby who is only consuming breast milk or formula milk. It is a gradual process but, by the time they are a year old, most children will be eating regular food, but well mashed and without any spice. We need to introduce complementary feeding to children so they are able to get all of the nutrients they need. Moreover, biting and chewing also help to develop the muscles needed for speech development. At or around six months old, a child’s body stores of some nutrients, such as iron, start to run out. That is why this is the best time to introduce additional solids/semi-solids into their diet.
The key nutrients to be focused on at this time are as follows-
- Essential protein – for normal growth and development of muscles and bones in children. The best sources include meat, fish, dairy foods, poultry, eggs, beans, pulses. There’s no need to delay introduction of these foods if weaning starts at around six months of age, though everything should be provided in cooked form.
- Good fibre intake- Increased faecal bulk and acceleration of intestinal transit. Sources include fruit, vegetables, wholegrain cereals. Fibre targets vary age by age and on an average 15g/day is recommended.
- Calcium- Normal growth and development of bone in children. Abundant in dairy foods, green leafy vegetables.
- Iron - An important nutrient for making red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. Sources include red meat, fortified cereals, green leafy vegetables, beans and pulses.
- Zinc - Helps the maintenance of normal bones and raising the immunity of baby. Majorly found in fish, poultry, meat, cheese, beans, sprouts etc. Zinc absorption is lower from plant foods compared with meat and fish so the latter are always a better source.
- Vitamin A- Helps the immune system work properly, helps vision and keeps skin healthy. Found in cheese, yellow and orange vegetables
- Vitamin D- Important for normal development of bones, teeth and muscles, and is proven to support normal immune function. Best sources include fish, eggs, flaxseeds and walnuts.
The weaning process must focus on the consistency of the prepared meal: thicker consistency with some lumps; soft finger foods can also be introduced at this stage. Mashed, chopped, minced consistency for example boiled salad/fruit smoothie/porridge/cereals with milk or curd/fruit yoghurt are best. Also, each meal should preferably be low in quantity at low but given frequently through the day.
(The author is a Senior Health Coach and Nutritionist)