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Feeding and Nutrition

Angela Oswalt, MSW

Just like older children and adults, infants need food and water to survive, to grow, and to thrive. Their bodies use the same nutritional building blocks that adult bodies use. During the first two years, they need to receive this nutrition in ways their developing digestive systems can handle, either through breast milk or baby formula in the first months and through prepared baby foods after about age six months. This section of this article will discuss how parents and caregivers can feed their babies in the first two years, what they can feed them throughout appropriate stages, how much they should feed their babies, and how dinner time can be turned into learning time.

What to Feed

For about the first five or six months of life, babies get all their nutrients from the milk they drink. New parents have a few options about how to feed their infants. They can choose to breast feed, to pump breast milk to feed by bottle, or to bottle-feed using specialized baby formula. Infants do not need any other food or water outside those three sources.

Most medical experts recommend that feeding breast milk is best because it contains the perfect combination of nutrients that build a baby's immune system unlike anything else. The mother's first milk, known as colostrum, is loaded with white blood cells and infection-fighting proteins. As well, breastfeeding allows immediate flesh-to-flesh contact, which encourages bonding even more. Research has shown many health benefits to babies as a result of breastfeeding such as better vision, fewer ear infections, better teeth alignment, improved digestion, leaner bodies, less diabetes, and more secure independence and mood. Research has also shown many health benefits for mothers too, such as less depression, less osteoporosis, less breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer, and faster postpartum weight loss.

If mothers have certain infections, such as HIV, or need to take certain medications, they may not be able to provide their infants with safe breast milk. As well, sometimes a baby's own medical condition requires them to use specialized formulas. It's important that mothers consult with their babies' pediatricians and their own doctors. Furthermore, some mothers find they need or want to return to work before their babies turn to solid foods. This can make breastfeeding difficult to schedule, and is often when mothers choose to pump and to store their milk to allow other caregivers to feed their babies.

Different families choose how to feed their baby for a wide range of medical, personal, and practical reasons, and it should be an educated decision a new family makes along with their doctor's input and supervision. Many families may use a combination of all three feeding methods before their children begin eating solid foods, so it's important to understand how each works and can be used.

When parents choose to bottle-feed, they first need to choose what kind of formula they want to give their infants. This decision should be made with close advice and supervision by a baby's pediatrician. Because of the Infant Formula Act, the Food and Drug Administration regulates all infant formula production. All infant formula meets the nutritional standards babies need. However, caregivers can choose what brand and form they want to buy. Formula can come in powder that needs to be mixed with water; liquid concentrate that needs to be mixed with water; or fully prepared formula. Parents and caregivers should select the formula form that is best suited to the needs of their baby and the family lifestyle.

As well, formula can be made with cow's milk or soy milk. Both are healthy for babies, but some parents choose the soy formula if their babies cannot digest the lactose in cow's milk or do not react well to formula made with cow's milk. Often, the final decision about what formula to use will come from experimentation until a formula is found that babies react best to and work best with the family's lifestyle. Moreover, any formulas enhanced with DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and ARA (arachidonic acid), are especially beneficial for babies because these are fats found naturally in breast milk and help promote brain development.

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