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A nutrient-rich diet is important for healthy development in babies and toddlers. Nutrients play an important role in brain development, eyesight and the growth of your child.
Breastmilk or formula has all the nutrients that babies need until they are about 6 months old. From around the age of 6 months, babies and toddlers need different nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals that are found in a range of foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, meat and
When unhealthy food choices (foods that are high in salt, fat or sugar) replace nutrient-rich foods, it can lead to long-term health consequences like obesity, tooth decay and iron deficiency.
A healthy diet with the right nutrition also plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy weight in babies and toddlers. Eating patterns established in childhood continue into adulthood, so the more healthy choices children are offered, the better.
Symptoms of nutritional deficiencies can include:
Nutrient deficiencies may occur in children who do not eat a balanced diet, which often results in inadequate intake of fibre, vitamins and minerals. Some common problems that affect a healthy diet in young children include:
While dairy products (e.g. cow’s milk, cheese, natural yogurt) are an important source of calcium for toddlers, they should be given in moderation as part of a balanced diet.
Toddlers who drink lots of cow’s milk (more than 500ml in 24 hours) can become low in iron and fibre, often because they don’t eat as much food as they should because they are full on milk. This means they miss out on key vitamins and minerals found in healthy foods. Having too much milk with
meals may also prevent the body’s ability to absorb iron from food.
Fibre keeps the digestive and immune systems healthy. If your child doesn’t eat enough whole grains, fruits and vegetables, they may not get enough fibre. Low-fibre diets can cause constipation, and put children at greater risk of developing bowel cancers and heart disease later in life. Having
adequate amounts of fibre in the diet can also be protective against excess weight gain and type 2 diabetes.
Fruits and vegetables are also a good source of Vitamin C, which is needed by the body to assist with iron absorption, fighting infection and wound healing.
Choosing a variety of different coloured whole fruits and vegetables (yellow, red and green) and including these as part of your child’s normal diet can help prevent problems associated with nutrient deficiencies.
Often parents think their children are eating healthily because they buy products marketed as ‘low-fat’, ‘no added sugar’ or ‘containing fruit’.
Store-bought juices, purees and products that say they contain fruit and vegetables (e.g. bars, fruit straps, vegetable chips) are generally high in sugar or fats. Some foods marketed at children (e.g. chicken nuggets, fish fingers, hotdogs) and pre-packaged snack foods (e.g. puree in
pouches) are low in nutritional value and should be given sparingly.
Reading food labels is the best way to know how healthy a product is. Always look for the fat and sugar values, as these will guide you in making good choices. It’s helpful to know that:
There are resources and apps that can help understand labelling. Try
Eat for Health or the
Cutting out food groups to prevent allergies is not recommended without the advice of a doctor. There is no need to delay or avoid giving your baby foods like egg, peanuts, wheat, cow’s milk and fish to prevent food allergy. In fact, eliminating food groups at an early age can lead to
unhealthy eating habits later in life.
Babies or toddlers who have been diagnosed with food allergy or intolerances should have their diet modified or supervised by a dietitian to ensure they get the nutrients required for healthy growth and development.
Generally, most nutritional deficiencies can be managed at home with minor changes to diet. Making healthy food choices and knowing how many serves your child needs for their age can be helpful. See more at the
Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.
Some other things you can do:
You should take your child to see your GP if you are unsure about your child’s general health, weight or diet. Your GP will be able to refer you to a dietitian for additional support to ensure your child has a balanced diet.
You should take your baby or toddler to see your GP if:
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.