Babies are very special little people who need the best care available to them. It is especially important that they have a healthy start in life. As their early years are the crucial years for growth and development, the right foods in the right amounts are necessary for their long-term health. Breast milk is preferable as the sole source of nutrition up until about 6 months, or infant formula if you are unable to breastfeed.
The Dietary Guidelines for Children and Adolescents developed by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) state that at 6 months of age, your baby needs additional iron from food and is physically ready to take on the challenge of learning to eat. Breast milk or formula, however, continues to be the most important source of nutrition.
In recent years there has been increasing awareness of the importance of perinatal nutrition in terms of the development of disease in adulthood; this is known as the foetal origins of disease or Barker hypothesis. In addition, there is increasing evidence of the importance of growth and nutrition in relation to cognitive development. Growth during infancy also influences future bone mass.
Children between the ages of 1 and 5 years are still considered nutritionally vulnerable, although their growth rate is slower than in infancy and their nutritional needs in relation to their body size are proportionally reduced. Relative to their body weight, however, children’s nutrient and energy requirement are still greater than those of adults.
Compared with adults, young children are unable to exert as much control over what they eat. Too little or too much food, or an imbalance of nutrients or energy over a period, can alter the natural progress of physical growth. A child’s rate of growth is a fundamental indicator of dietary adequacy and health, and parents and other carers must be aware of and responsive to the developmental and nutritional needs of children. Growth is the most important indicator of good nutrition.
Childhood is a period of continuous education about eating and good nutrition, and appropriate use of food is important in establishing lifetime nutrition practices.
(Source : NHMRC Dietary Guidelines for Children and Adolescents in Australia)
Protein is an important nutrient needed by everyone on a daily basis. It is made up of essential and non-essential amino acids, which are the "building blocks" for healthy bodies. Essential amino acids are amino acids that the body needs but is unable to synthesise; therefore they must come from the diet. Protein has a number of different roles in the body including the following:
Found naturally in human breast milk, nucleotides are non-protein nitrogenous compounds that play a role in almost all biological processes; they are the building blocks for DNA and RNA. Nucleotides have been identified as conditionally essential nutrients during periods of rapid growth, like infancy, in order to achieve optimal function in rapidly growing tissues. Nucleotides have been shown to improve the maturation of the immune system and the gut, and are vital for the growth and repair of tissues.
One of the more abundant whey proteins found in human breast milk. Lactoferrin is also found in the milk of many other mammalian species and in other exocrine fluids like saliva and tears. Research has shown lactoferrin to have a range of biological functions including antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and immunomodulatory effects.
One of lactoferrins key pathogen-fighting properties is its ability to sequester iron. Many pathogenic bacteria thrive on iron, and lactoferrin stops the bacteria's progress by making iron unavailable to them. It also functions as a natural antioxidant by binding to free ferric ions and inhibiting the formation of free radicals.
Lactoferrin also has a demonstrated inhibitory effect on a number of viruses and is thought to bind directly to viral particles and inhibit their replication. It has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects.
Taurine is the most abundant free amino acid in human breast milk and research suggests that it may be essential during periods of development. Taurine plays a role in fat absorption and liver function, and may also play a role in nerve protection particularly in the eyes and ears. Taurine is also found in high concentrations in the developing brain.
Dietary fat is an important component of infant’s diet for a number of reasons. It provides a concentrated source of energy, supporting the infant’s high energy needs and small stomach capacity. Fat is also vital to the development of the nervous system, aids in the absorption of the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and supplies the essential fatty acids linoleic (omega 6) and α-linolenic acid (omega 3). The essential fatty acids should make up around 15% of an infant’s total fat intake. Breast milk is naturally rich in essential fatty acids. The essential fatty acids are also precursors for the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, arachidonic acid (ARA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
DHA and ARA have very important roles for the growing infant including optimal development of the nervous system, especially the brain and eyes. DHA and ARA are rapidly accumulated in the nervous tissue of brain and retina, which takes place primarily from the last trimester of pregnancy to up to 2 years of age. While the omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids can be converted to DHA and ARA by humans, evidence exists that suggests that this process is insufficient to achieve optimal accumulation of DHA and ARA in infants and a dietary source is required to meet demand.
Breastfeeding has long been associated with cognitive and visual advantages for the infant. Breast milk is a natural source of DHA and ARA. Trials conducted on infants show that diets containing DHA and ARA may have beneficial effects on their visual and cognitive development. The benefits of DHA and ARA appear greatest when present in combination.
Carbohydrates provide infants with an additional source of energy to support their growing bodies' needs and spare protein as a source of energy allowing the protein to be used as a building block for growth. In their simplest form a carbohydrates are called sugars, these sugars combine to form more complex molecules which are essentially chians of sugar. Oligosaccharides are chains of 3 to approximately 10 sugars.
Human milk oligosaccharides play an important role in the development of an infant's immune system and may explain the reduced incidence of allergic disorders in breastfed children. Oligosaccharides resist digestion in the digestive tract and are instead fermented in the large intestine stimulating the production of microflora (the good bacteria), in other words they have prebiotic effect on the intestine. The microflora serves as a defence mechanism against invading pathogens. Oligosaccharide mixtures of short-chain galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) and long-chain fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) have been developed to resemble the human milk oligosaccharides. Supplementation with FOS & GOS in infants has been shown to effectively stimulate the turnover of the appropriate bacteria in the large intestine which in turn stimulates and enhances the mucosal immune system.
There are 13 vitamins and 16 or more minerals known to be essential to the human body, each with its own biological function. Achieving optimal vitamin and mineral status is essential for optimal growth and development and the prevention of deficiency disorders. Breast milk contains all the essential vitamins and minerals babies need to grow and develop; if the decision not to breastfeed has been made infant formula provides a nutritionally complete substitute.
Carotenoids are a group of micronutrients with a range of biological functions, including functioning as an antioxidant. Humans are unable to synthesise carotenoids and therefore must obtain them from food. Fruits and vegetables are the primary source of carotenoids for adults; infants obtain them from breast milk and fortified formula. Some key carotenoids relating to infant health are β-carotene and Lutein.
A carotenoid with strong antioxidant properties, one of the functions of β-carotene includes protecting cells from oxidative damage which is a feature of many human diseases. Lower rates of cancer and heart disease are seen in populations consuming diets rich in β-carotene. In essence, β-carotene enhances the immune system, and may provide long-term protection from chronic disease.
Another feature of β-carotene is its provitamin A activity, meaning it can be converted to Vitamin A after ingestion. Vitamin A plays an important role in normal vision, growth and physical development, and immune function.
Lutein is a carotenoid that plays an important role in vision and eye health. Lutein is one of the only carotenoids normally found within the tissues of the eye. Lutein protects the retina of the eye via two main pathways. Firstly, it functions as an antioxidant protecting the retina from oxidative damage, a feature particular important for infants as they are unable to down-regulate blood flow in the vessels of the eye which leads to an excess deliver of oxygen to the retina and increases the risk of oxidative damage. Secondly, lutein functions as a light filter protecting the retina from light damage and improving vision.
Choline is important for the synthesis of phospholipids (involved in cell-membrane signalling), neurotransmitters and lipoproteins (involved in lipid transport), and also plays a role in metabolism. Research has shown choline to play an important role in brain and memory development, particularly in the perinatal period, and appears to reduce the risk of neural tube defects.
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