Feeding your child: Separating fact from fiction

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- Ask any mom what lengths she'd go to in order to protect her child, and you'll probably hear some impressive answers.

Yet, when it comes to providing good nutrition for infants and toddlers, an extreme approach to good health may do more harm than good.

Over the years, I've worked with parents who were clearly invested in their children. They read popular books, searched the internet, consulted with friends and family members, and worried constantly about their children's health. Thinking they were helping, they placed their children on unconventional diets that delayed their growth and deprived them of important vitamins and nutrients. They weren't bad parents. It's just that what they thought was fact turned out to be fiction.

These days, most of us can spot a phishing scam a mile away, but it's much harder to sift through well-designed websites full of convincing "facts" and emotionally-charged personal anecdotes and discern what is true and what is "only mostly true" (to coin a phrase from The Princess Bride).

As a culture, we tend to question the established wisdom and search for answers in uncharted or obscure places -- just look at the advertising themes for weight-loss aids and nutritional supplements. But when it comes to your child's health, maybe the established wisdom isn't such a bad option.

Although no one has all the answers and each child is unique, I've found there are some basic guidelines that virtually every parent can follow to optimize their children's growth and development. Many of them are just common sense. Keep reading below for a few of the most important.

Guidelines for Good Nutrition for Children younger than 1:

- Don't place your child on a restrictive diet -- gluten-free, dairy-free, low-fat, sugar-free -- without talking to your pediatrician, family medicine provider or registered dietitian first. Although popular, such diets may not be indicated for children and could slow or even stop your child's growth if not built correctly. This would be especially tragic if the diet was not warranted in the first place.

- If using formula, follow the directions. Adding too much formula can make it thick, plug the opening of the nipple and make it hard for the baby to swallow. Adding too little can fill your baby up but not provide enough nutrition.

- Avoid giving your infant water or juice. While water is great for adults, children under 1 year have tremendous growth needs and rely heavily on fluid intake to meet those needs. Water is unnecessary since most children receive plenty of water from their milk or formula to stay hydrated. Juice provides some calories, but lacks the protein and many of the vitamins and minerals found in breast milk and formula.

- Breast feed or formula feed exclusively until between four and six months of age. Most pediatric guidelines recommend introducing single-ingredient foods between 4 and 6 months of age. The new foods introduced at this stage are called "complementary" foods because they complement the breast milk or formula the infant continues to receive.

- Don't delay introducing "complementary" foods. Some studies suggest that delaying the introduction of solid foods beyond 6 months may actually increase your child's risk of food allergies or eczema. It can also prevent your child from receiving the calories, protein and other nutrients they need for optimal growth.

- Don't introduce new foods all at once. Try giving one new food every three to five days. Complementary foods may include rice or oat cereal, yellow or orange vegetables -- sweet potato, squash and carrots -- fruits -- apples, pears and bananas -- green vegetables, and then age-appropriate staged foods with meats. These foods should be pureed.

- When preparing cereals for your infant, use formula or breast milk as the fluid, not water. This will increase its nutritional value considerably. Begin with about 1 teaspoon pureed food or cereal and mix it with four to five teaspoons of breast milk or formula. Don't worry, it'll be very runny. Gradually increase the amount to 1 tablespoon of pureed food or cereal mixed with breast milk or formula, twice a day. Gradually thicken the consistency by using less liquid.

- Don't panic if your child doesn't like new foods on the first try. It can take as many as 15-20 tries before a child becomes familiar with a food and accepts it. Be patient and don't give up.

- Parents who make their own baby foods should be extra careful to practice good sanitation and food safety techniques to avoid food-borne illness. Don't thaw then refreeze foods, and don't use opened bottles or baby food stored in the fridge more than 48-72 hours. If you prepare meats, make sure they are cooked to proper temperatures before pureeing.

If you have questions about your child's diet or are concerned about their growth or development, contact your pediatrician, family medicine provider at the clinic or the registered dietitian located in the health and wellness center.

Separating fact from fiction may be the best thing you can do to ensure your child stays healthy and strong.