By Susan Laster, MD, a primary care physician with the Pediatric Physicians’ Organization at Boston Children’s who practices in Brookline, Mass.
hen your baby is born, one of the first responsibilities you’re faced with as a new parent is feeding her. But feeding decisions can cause anxiety for new mothers and fathers who are unsure about what the healthiest options are for their newborn.
“Should we breast feed or bottle feed?
Can I pump my breast milk?
Is it OK to offer breast milk in a bottle?
Is it the right time for her to eat this?”
Unfortunately, like most child-rearing, there is no such thing as a universal, one-size-fits-all answer to many of these questions. But, with some guidance and a little homework, you can make confident, informed feeding decisions that work best for your family.
One way to look at feeding is to view it as the first stage of your child’s lifelong relationship with food. And as a parent, it’s your introduction into meal planning, which will become something you’ll think about throughout her entire childhood. If our ultimate feeding goal is to raise kids who become adults who enjoy eating and can prepare tasty, healthy meals, then the foundation of that relationship starts in infancy.
When your baby is born, and even while you are pregnant, you will probably hear a lot of information about the benefits of breast-feeding. While breast-feeding is often the healthiest choice for young children, if and when this works will vary for every family. For instance, many studies say that it’s ideal for babies to breast-feed for their first 12 months. However, work, family obligations or conflicting cultural or biologic factors may make this an unrealistic option for many families, requiring adaptions to science’s recommendations. For one, you can always supplement your breast milk with bottles. In fact, some studies say that part-time nursing makes it more likely that your baby will continue to nurse until the recommended year of one.
In addition, some women decide not to nurse at all for a variety of reasons. In the long run, the goal for optimal health is to choose nutrition that will keep your baby growing and developing. If you are unsure about whether breast-feeding is the right option for you, discuss it with your pediatrician at a prenatal visit. By addressing your concerns early, you can have a plan firmly in place when the baby is born.
As a baby gets older it’s likely you’ll receive (or search out) advice on solid foods. General recommendations are that children are ready for solids somewhere around 4 to 6 months, and at that age, they are typically ready to eat puréed or whipped versions of the foods the rest of the family eats.
This stage is when meal and snack planning becomes even more important. The healthiest options are generally natural selections: fruits and vegetables, some starch (preferably whole grain), lean meats, two to three servings of dairy and a small amount of healthy oils and fats. Ideally, you’ll eat together as a family, at the table. When it comes to snack time, your child should be eating the same type of food you would consider feeding her as a meal, just smaller portions.
When planning and preparing these meals and snacks, try to remember that food and sharing it with loved ones, is meant to be enjoyable, not pure work. So, even if your toddler’s meal lasts for a whopping 10 minutes—and most of it ends up on her face or the floor—it’s OK, there’s always another meal where that came from.
As your child gets older, involve them in the food shopping, meal planning and preparation. That engagement with how they eat will make it more likely that they’ll become adults who enjoy food and can plan and prepare their own healthy meals.
In almost all cultures, eating together with friends and family is considered one of life’s great joys. You don’t need to be born with a great cooking talent, have gobs of money or time to enjoy family eating, but it does require some planning and a little extra work—which is probably true of most of life’s real pleasures.