Breastmilk is the natural source of food for newborn babies and breastfeeding is recommended to keep them healthy (or failing breastmilk, formula). But just how long should a woman breastfeed (or give formula)? What other foods does a baby need while having breastmilk (or formula)?
These are all important questions as the food a baby gets in their first two years of life provides a foundation for healthy growth in childhood and adolescence. Introducing solid foods to complement breast or formula milk at the right stage of baby’s nutritional, physical and emotional development provides them with the best nutritional start in life. And this won’t just help ensure their future nutritional health- it will also provide the building blocks for healthy emotional and physical growth.
What should your baby eat?
What your baby should eat really depends on their age.
Breastmilk is considered the best food for babies less than six months of age because it is specially prepared by your body to provide all the nutrients and other goodies (like immunoglobulins) that your baby needs. However, some women are unable to breastfeed for one reason or another. In these cases infant formula can provide a small baby with the nutrients it needs. Until six months of age, breastmilk or iron-fortified formula milk alone provide all the nutrients your baby needs- they do not need to eat anything else.
Whether breast or bottle feeding you baby, the most important thing to be aware of is that your baby should not consume any solid food until it reaches six months of age. In fact they should not consume any other food at all. Even liquid foods fall under the umbrella of solids when it comes to baby feeding talk . Until six months of age, all you should give your baby is breast milk or infant formula- this feeding pattern is often referred to as ‘exclusive breastfeeding’.
From 7 months to 2 years solid foods should be introduced in addition to breastmilk or formula feeding. These foods complement breastfeeding rather than replacing it; formula or breastfeeding should continue. Energy and protein requirements are highest in the first 6-12 months of life and babies aged 7-12 months should get about half their daily energy requirement (calories) from breastmilk or infant formula.
Breastmilk continues to be the source of up to one third of a baby’s total calorie intake until they reach 24 months. You should continue breastfeeding frequently and according to your baby’s demands, until they are two years of age or older. In the second year of your baby’s life, breastmilk may become a particularly important source of energy in times of illness when baby does not want solid foods. If you stop breastfeeding, your supply of milk will dry up, so continuing to breastfeed every day is the best way to make sure the milk is there when your baby needs it.
There is no nutritional requirement to breastfeed once a baby has reached two years, it is both mother and baby’s decision how long they want to continue. The world average duration of breastfeeding is 4.2 years old.
Baby feeding guidelines
You may have heard rumours that you should start feeding your baby solids before they reach six months of age. It can get a bit confusing because different countries have different recommendations.
In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council and Australian Breastfeeding Association recommend exclusive bottle or breastfeeding (giving breastmilk or infant formula only) until your baby is six months old. Complimentary foods should not be introduced earlier or later except under your doctor’s advice.
Internationally the World Health Organisation also makes this recommendation because there is no evidence that babies grow better when solids are introduced earlier than six months. The WHO advises that solid foods should be introduced at age six months (180 days) to meet your baby’s nutritional needs as well as their developmental needs.
In other countries
In some countries like the United States guidelines recommend introducing solid foods between 4-6 months of age.
Exceptions to baby feeding guidelines
There are often exceptions to even the most golden rules and in this regard, breastfeeding rules are similar to all others. While the vast majority of babies should be fed exclusively with breast or formula milk, there are a few exceptions to the rule, for example if the baby was born prematurely or if the mother has a nutritional problem.
What else do you need to do to feed a baby properly?
So now you know how long to breastfeed and when to introduce solids…but wait, there’s more.
Like most other parts of raising a baby, feeding a baby properly can be complex. It’s not just about ensuring that you give them the right foods at the right time, it’s also about making sure they get the correct combination of nutrients, and the help they need to get it down.
Even when they’re hungry, newborn babies sometimes don’t want to feed and when they’re a bit older they might have so much fun playing with the soft mushy stuff you are trying to feed them that they forget to eat it. Bear in mind that encouraging your baby or toddler to eat is also an important part of correct feeding, whether that means helping baby to latch onto your breast or making sure that the spoon they’re having so much fun with actually puts some food in their little mouth.
Why is feeding baby the right foods important?
Making sure your baby gets all the right foods at the right time is a vital step in making them a happy, healthy baby. That’s right, proper feeding not only ensures your baby gets the best chance to develop physically, it also impacts on their emotional health and development.
Introducing solid foods and reducing or stopping bottle or breastfeeding early, may mean your baby misses out on important nutrients and this may in turn affect their health and development, now and in the future. They will miss the learning and development opportunities that come with learning to eat solid foods at the right time. Even though it may drive you crazy when it happens, the tendency babies have to want to feed themselves with a spoon (i.e. make a big food mess) is an important part of their development and learning about food.
Physical growth and development
Breastmilk (or formula) is a much richer source of energy and nutrients compared to ordinary food. It needs to be because a baby needs lots of nutrition but has a very small stomach and can only eat small quantities. So exclusive breastfeeding (or failing that, formula feeding) until six months of age is the only way to ensure your baby gets all the nutrients it needs to grow properly. After six months of age, breastmilk is not enough and your baby’s growth may be slow if you don’t start solids.
A baby’s brain grows at a phenomenal rate during infancy and makes connections with all the parts of the body that allow it to do all the things it needs to function as a human. Everything humans do is influenced by their brains. By three years of age the brain has completed most of its development, and should have reached about 90% of its adult size. If there are delays or interruptions in these early years, they cannot be reversed and your baby’s brain may not develop as much as it should. Ensuring your baby is properly nourished is a great way of giving its brain the best possible chance to develop.
If you’ve noticed that breastfeeding your baby exposes you to a range of new feelings, emotions and sensations, you’re not alone. Your baby is also experiencing the joys of breastfeeding and developing emotions like love and trust in this special time. But as it grows up, different types of feeding are important for your baby’s emotional development, for example the independence of feeding themselves with a spoon, the sensation of tasting new foods or the social experience of eating with other family members.
|Find out more about starting your baby on solids|
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