Many U.S. babies and toddlers still don't have a balanced diet
The more chances infants and kids have to see and taste fruits and vegetables, the more receptive they will be
Despite some recent improvements in how U.S. parents feed young children, more than half of babies aren't getting any breast milk and many toddlers don't eat enough fruits and veggies, a new study suggests.
About two in five infants consume breast milk, which doctors recommend for the health of mothers and babies alike. That statistic didn't change much over the study period from 2005 to 2012. But more parents stopped giving infants solid foods before six months of age, a practice doctors discourage because solids are harder to swallow and can be less nutritious and higher in calories than breast milk or infant formula.
At least nine in 10 toddlers consume at least a little bit of either fruit or veggies on a typical day, and this didn't change much during the study period, researchers report in Pediatrics. But the most common veggie was potatoes, and the least popular option was dark green vegetables.
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"We knew from previous studies that more work was needed to improve feeding habits in this age group, and we observed many of the same trends in our study: a substantial proportion of American infants are not breastfed, vegetable consumption is lower than desired, and consumption of sweetened beverages and sugary snacks is prevalent, said study co-author Gandarvaka Miles, a public health researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
However, we did observe some trends in the right direction, Miles added by email.
Pediatricians recommend that mothers exclusively breastfeed infants until at least six months of age because it can reduce babies' risk of ear and respiratory infections, sudden infant death syndrome, allergies, childhood obesity and diabetes.
Mothers can benefit too, with longer periods of breastfeeding linked to lower risks of depression, bone deterioration and certain cancers.
From 2005 to 2008 and again from 2009 to 2012, researchers surveyed parents about infant and toddler eating habits. For the new study, they compared data collected from a total of 2,359 participants.
The proportion of babies under six months of age who were breastfed, exclusively or not, was little changed during this
time and was about 36 per cent by the end of the study period.
In this age group, however, there was a meaningful reduction in use of infant cereals and fruit juices for babies, which were being fed to 26 per cent and 7 per cent, respectively, by the end of the study. Pediatricians recommend delaying fruit juice until after age one.
With the older children in the study, researchers found toddlers were more likely to consume fried white potatoes than
green vegetables. Consumption of green veggies fell by half during the study to only about 8 percent of toddlers by the end.
"The rates for vegetable consumption are disappointing, as most parents will know that vegetables are healthy but this
isn't translating into consumption rates in their children," Dr. Helen Coulthard of De Montfort University in the UK, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.
Early eating habits
One limitation of the study is that parents' ability to accurately recall and report on how they fed their children during infancy and early childhood isn't always reliable, the authors note. Researchers also didn't account for portion sizes.
Still, the findings suggest that parents who struggle to feed their kids the way doctors recommend may be in good company, said Dr. Myles Faith, a researcher at the University at Buffalo who wasn't involved in the study.
One of the best ways to get kids to try more foods is to stick with it, and keep putting different things in front of them to taste, Faith said by email.
"Repeated exposure to foods increases children's preferences and intake," Faith added. "So, the more opportunities infants and children have to see, taste, and experience fruits and vegetables, the more receptive they should become over time."
These efforts matter because they can influence children's eating habits and health later in life, said Dr. Elise Mok of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Center in Montreal.
"Early diet has been associated with weight status during childhood and cardiometabolic health in adulthood," Mok, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.