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Once your baby reaches 6 months of age, their nutritional requirements are much greater. Not only have they started to run out of their important nutrient reserves that they were born with (such as iron), but also as they are growing and developing, their bodies actually need more.
Breast or formula milk doesn’t contain enough nutrients to meet this demand, so this means that the food you offer your baby needs a lot of consideration to ensure you are getting all the essential nutrients in.
The right balance is also important as not all foods are equal. At this stage, food is not just ‘for fun’ as the saying goes, but critical in ensuring the diet contains enough nutrients to support your babies rapid growth and brain development that occurs at this time.
Have you noticed how a baby’s head is huge compared to the rest of their body? That is because most of her development in the first year of life happens in her brain. Not enough of the right nutrition during weaning can lead to learning and behavioural problems, but getting nutrition right can enhance your baby’s intellectual abilities.
So what do these critical nutrients and a carefully balanced diet for a 6 month old (any beyond) look like?
At the start of weaning, I recommend bitter vegetables as research shows that babies who are introduced to vegetables first are more likely to be eating vegetables when they grow into older children.
However it is a myth that babies who are given fruit first will never eat vegetables, as fruit plays a pretty important part in the diet, providing some key vitamins and minerals (micronutrients). However, what I do suggest is that the vegetables and fruits alone in the diet (whether going down the traditional spoon fed or using the baby led weaning approach) doesn’t last too long.
It’s really important to introduce other foods to provide energy, protein and fat. By 6.5 months of age, nutrition becomes even more important so I encourage progression towards eating three meals a day, so that by the time they are 7 months, they are fully established in eating breakfast, lunch and dinner alongside their milk feeds.
This is when it becomes really important to include some other food groups into the diet, like protein foods e.g. lentils, beans, meat, fish, eggs and dairy foods alongside energy dense carbohydrates e.g. bread, rice, pasta, potato, cereals and grains.
The critical nutrients that are most important at this stage are:
Omega 3 (fats)
Vitamins A, C & D
Between 6 months and 2 years, babies have rapid brain growth which is linked to a huge increase in iron requirements. It’s also the most common nutritional deficiency seen in babies and toddlers. Babies who don’t get enough can be both sensory and cognitively impaired leading to learning issues. It can also affect their motor (muscles and balance) development and so really is a critical nutrient and one to get right.
During the last trimester of pregnancy, the mum creates stores of iron in her baby, which they are then born with. However, during the first 6 months of life these are used up by your developing baby. It’s important to note here that if your baby was born prematurely or was low birth weight, or mum smoked, it’s likely their stores will run out even earlier than 6 months. Similarly, if you were iron deficient when you were pregnant your baby won’t have their full 6 months worth of iron.
What this boils down to is that iron-rich foods need to be introduced quite early on in your baby’s weaning journey, as soon as those first vegetables and fruits have been accepted.
The best iron rich food source is red meat like beef, dark poultry meat, lamb or liver, these are what are known as haem iron sources. These foods contain iron which is more easily absorbed by the body. I recommend that after the first few weeks of veggies, meat should be introduced as one of your babies first foods. Liver can be casseroled and pureed but should be limited to just once a week as its very high in vitamin A. Slow-cooked strips of beef or lamb are an easy to manage texture and minced beef can be pureed with veggies with a hand blender or made into meatballs or nuggets for ideal finger foods.
Other good sources of iron are egg yolks, and if you follow a vegan or plant based diet fortified unsweetened breakfast cereals and pulses like lentils, beans and soya can be helpful too. These are what we call non-haem iron sources, and whilst they are rich in iron, they aren’t absorbed as well by the body so combining haem and non haem sources of iron is a good idea to maximise your baby’s iron intake.
Spinach and other green leafy vegetables do contain iron but not as much as Popeye suggests! Dried fruits like raisins, sultanas and apricots are also good for iron and can be combined with other foods to make delicious baby food like lamb tagine, chicken with apricots or baked apples.
If you are bringing your baby up vegan or vegetarian, you’ll need to pair non-haem iron with vitamin C containing food as this helps your baby absorb iron. Vitamin C is found in fruit and vegetables.
I recommend that iron-rich foods are given twice a day from very early in weaning or if you are vegan or vegetarian, three times a day.
Incidentally, breast milk contains only a little iron but it is very well absorbed, and although infant formula is supplemented with lots of iron it’s poorly absorbed by your baby’s body and is pooped out!
Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid, it’s called ‘essential’ because your baby’s body can’t make it and it can only be obtained through food.
Omega 3 (or its sub types EPA and DHA) are mainly found in oily fish. An alternative vegetarian form of omega 3 (called ALA) is found in walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, sesame, rapeseed and edamame beans. However, ALA is poorly converted by the body that it’s difficult for babies to meet their nutritional needs from these sources, so it is best to get your omega 3 from oily fish.
You can also get omega 3 rich eggs which come from hens who have been fed an omega 3 rich diet, but these are not widely available in supermarkets.
If you are vegan or vegetarian I’d recommend you consider an omega 3 supplement based on algal oil as this contains vegan sources of EPA and DHA.
Omega 3 is responsible for vision and healthy development of the eye and it is also essential for the growing brain. Babies who don’t get enough DHA can have affected vision, and there are suggestions it may affect cognitive abilities and intellect. Including oily fish in your baby’s weaning diet once or twice a week (but no more) is the best way to guarantee enough DHA.
If you are breastfeeding, DHA passes through your breast milk to your baby so breastfeeding mums should eat oily fish too! Mums, babies and all young children shouldn’t eat more than 2 portions of oily fish per week as unfortunately, fish can also contain contaminants which can be harmful in large doses.
Fats and oils are the most concentrated energy providing foods and despite their reputation for causing adults to become overweight, they are actually very healthy (and important) for babies, as 50% of your baby’s daily energy needing to come from fats and oils. This is to ensure they have enough calories for the huge growth and developmental spurt that happens during their first year of life. Fats and oils are needed also for brain myelination and a lack of it can affect cognitive development. Babies should therefore not follow a low-fat diet and it’s important to avoid ‘light’ or ‘diet’ versions of food and choose ‘full fat’ varieties.
Getting enough energy can be tricky as babies tummies are so small and their appetites can be variable. Therefore every bite of a meal counts and needs to be as high in energy as possible. This is why it’s important to offer whole or full-fat versions of dairy foods like whole milk, cream, full-fat yoghurt and cheese and do cook with oil or use an olive-based spread wherever you can.
Don’t be afraid to add high-fat foods to your baby’s weaning foods, if she likes slices of peaches serve them with a pot of cream for her to dip them into, you can add melted butter to vegetables before serving and try sautéing, roasting and frying foods.
Avocado and nut butters are great vegan energy providers too. The best oils to cook with are rapeseed and olive oils as these are high in monounsaturated fatty acids which promote heart health.
Vitamin A, also known as retinol, has lots of important functions in the body. One of the key things it does is help your baby’s body develop a natural defence system against illness and infection (building their immune system). In addition, it’s also key for keeping her skin healthy and helping her have good vision. Good sources of vitamin A include cheese, eggs, oily fish, milk and yoghurts and fortified spreads. If you are vegan focus on include sources of beta-carotene in the diet, which the body can change into Vitamin A. This can be found in spinach, carrots, mango and apricots.
Vitamin C is a really important vitamin for your baby’s general health and boosting her immune system. In addition, as I mentioned earlier vitamin C can help her body absorb iron, so it’s a really good idea to serve iron rich foods with a source of Vitamin C. Good sources include oranges, kiwi fruit, strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes and peppers.
Vitamin D is not actually a vitamin, it’s a hormone and is naturally produced when sunlight hits the skin. It’s needed by your baby for bone strength and growth and it also plays a role in developing a healthy immune system.
We can’t get enough vitamin D from food, the few foods that contain do vitamin D are oily fish, egg yolks and foods that have vitamin D added during manufacturing like some margarines, some brands of milk and certain breakfast cereals. Look out on the food label to check if foods have been fortified with iron.
It’s recommended that babies between 6 months and 5 years, who are breastfed or having less than 500 ml of formula a day, take a supplement of Vitamin A (200 μg Vitamin A daily), Vitamin C (20 mg daily) and Vitamin D (8.5mcg to 10mcg daily). Nature and Nurture Vitamins are the only baby vitamin supplements available that contain the recommended dose of all three vitamins. I have an affiliate link to buy these via Amazon here
When planning your baby’s meals, bear in mind the foods that contain all of those critical nutrients we’ve just talked about. To ensure the right balance follow my 5 step rule:
Start with an iron-rich protein food (meat or plant based) like some slow-cooked lamb, a minced beef meatball, a lentil puree or ½ a boiled egg.
Add a vitamin C rich food, for example, a broccoli floret or a couple of strawberries halved.
Finish with an energy rich food like a soldier of buttered toast or sweet potato mashed with butter.
Consider the range of colours, textures, smells. The sensory experience is just as important as the nutritional one.
Ensure you’re giving a vitamin supplement containing A, C and D daily (if you are breastfeeding or if your baby is having less than 500ml of formula) such as Nature & Nurture Baby & Child vitamin drops.
Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist