Nutrition of the child during the first 1,000 days of life, which is from conception to 2 years, is of prime importance in setting the stage for growth and development throughout life. There is increasing evidence to show that improper nutrition during this “critical window” period leads to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension in adulthood.
As recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), a baby should be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life, after which complementary foods are to be started, while continuing to be breastfed till 2 years of age.
The timing of 6 months of age for starting complementary feeding is critical. If this sensitive period is missed and feeding delayed, the child may develop poor chewing , and later be a poor eater. The biting movement of the jaw appears by 5-6 months, after which swallowing of food occurs. This is also the age that the infant develops hand to mouth coordination and enjoys mouthing, and the gums harden. By 8-9 months, they develop side to side movement of tongue, and are able to start chewing with gums, even in the absence of teeth.
It is important to make the weaning process an enjoyable one to ensure that the child does not end up as a “fussy eater”, a phenomenon which most parents struggle with at some point during the growing years.
Here are some tips to get your child interested in food and nutrition.
- Practice responsive feeding so that the child enjoys the feeding process. Talk and maintain eye contact while feeding the baby. Babies are known to have Neophobia, which means that they hesitate to try something new, any it may have to be introduced several times before they take to it. Avoid commercially available ready-made weaning foods as much as possible. Experiment with different tastes and textures. Avoid distractions like screens or mobiles to force the child to eat.
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- Encourage self feeding. Once the baby is old enough to sit upright in a high chair and pick up food with fingers and thumb (8-9 months of age), keep a tray of soft fruits/steamed vegetables or other bite sized morsels of family food like idli or chapati. Get the child involved in the family meal. Different colours on the tray will make the food more interesting.Allow baby to grab the spoon and feed himself. Be ready to clean up the mess after. As the old adage goes; short term pain for long term gain!
- For older toddlers/young children, let the child be involved in the preparation of the meal. Start by taking them shopping for food, so they see where the fruits and vegetables come from and learn the varied colors. Teach them that colorful food is healthy food, especially the GYOR colour spectrum; greens, yellow, orange and red. Having a kitchen garden is a great idea to keep the kids occupied and excited to see the vegetables grow and ready to be plucked. Keep the child in the kitchen at a safe distance from the stove, to observe how food is cut/prepared. Older toddlers can also “help” in preparing food, like rolling small rotis.
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- Lead by example: Remember that children love to nibble off their parents’ plates. Like sponges, they observe and absorb eating behaviors of those around them. So, if you want the best for your children, remember that you too have to make sacrifices and eat healthy yourself!