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Children's Health 2019

Feeding and growing in the first year of life

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Catherine Carroll

Registered Dietician, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant

The first year of life is a time of dramatic growth and development for a baby. They will double their length, triple their body weight and experience brain growth at a rate that is never replicated again at any other age! Good nutrition is essential during this sensitive time period so that all this can be achieved.


Breast milk contains many health-conferring properties that science is – as yet – unable to fully elucidate or will ever be able to replicate. The milk a mother produces is unique to that baby and specifically tailored for every stage of its development. It is the perfect source of nutrition to support the rapid growth and development experienced during the first years of a baby’s life.

Interestingly, the health benefits of breastfeeding have been proven to even extend long past the period of actual breastfeeding and into adult life. So, breastfeeding a baby will optimise their growth and development potential both now, and later in life.

The HSE national infant feeding guidelines recommend exclusive breastfeeding until six months of age, followed by the introduction of appropriate complementary foods and continued breastfeeding to the age of two years and beyond.

How to support breastfeeding

In the early days, good support is crucial to help a mother learn how to position and attach baby correctly and establish a full milk supply. Ongoing positive support for the breastfeeding mother and baby from within their own family and from healthcare professionals (HCPs) will help prolong the duration of that breastfeeding relationship.

The HSE have developed a number of excellent, evidence-based resources for both parents and HCPs on a range of breastfeeding topics. All the information for parents is now accessible through mychild.ie. It also has an ‘ask our breastfeeding expert’ facility where you can send any breastfeeding questions you may have or have a live chat. It also lists all the community breastfeeding groups available around Ireland that are an invaluable support to breastfeeding families. HCP breastfeeding factsheets can be accessed through hse.ie.

Formula feeding

Some families may decide to use powdered infant formula to feed their baby. This decision should be an informed one, ideally after a discussion with a suitably qualified HCP. A whey-based first infant formula is the best choice for all infants up the age of one year.

The composition of infant formula is regulated by the European Food Safety Authority to ensure that all products contain sufficient amounts of nutrients so that a baby can grow. While different brands will make claims on the ingredients in their product, it is important to know that if a certain ingredient had been scientifically proven to be of benefit to a baby, it would have to be added to all products by law.

There is no scientific evidence to support the use of ‘follow-on’ and/or ‘stage 2’ formula or formula marketed for ‘hungrier babies’. For further information on formula feeding visit mychild.ie or the website firststepsnutrition.org for excellent, independent, evidence-based advice.

Introducing solids

An exciting milestone in your baby’s first year of life is the introduction of food around the age of six months or 26 weeks (and no earlier than 17 weeks). It is important to wait until the right time so that the baby is physically ready to participate in the feeding process and that their body can process the food without strain on their digestive system or kidneys. Here are some of the signs that a baby might be ready to start on solids:

  • Baby is able to sit up with support and can control their head movements
  • They are able to co-ordinate their hands to their mouth so they can pick up and eat food themselves
  • they are able to swallow food

Foods and textures to offer

It is recommended that you start with a smooth, pureed vegetable. You can introduce a new food every second day and slowly build up the number of spoon feeds per day. Try to offer a range of foods and different tastes so as to develop the baby’s palate.

It is also recommended that all babies and those with milk eczema have exposure to known food allergens such as milk, egg, fish, gluten, peanut (in the form of nut butters that are salt and sugar free) and tree nuts. Avoiding these foods will not prevent a food allergy.

By waiting until around six months of age it means that the baby will be ready to move forward on the food consistency at a quicker pace. By seven months of age they should be offered safe, finger foods and foods that are of a mashed consistency. Minced and chopped foods are recommended from 10 months of age onwards.

Try to keep meals homemade

By 12 months of age, babies should be receiving a wide range of foods in line with what that the rest of family is eating. Commercial baby foods in jars and pouches are generally expensive, less nutritious and lack variety in taste and smell. By offering homemade foods the baby will get exposure the range of different flavours and textures found in regular family foods.

For more in-depth information on weaning please visit safefood.eu and look for the ‘Feeding your baby: Introducing family meals’ booklet.

The first year of life is an exciting time for both a baby and its parents. Making well-informed decisions on how best to feed your baby will have a lastly impact on their health. Utilising the range of resources available listed above will help you on that amazing journey.

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