An age-by-age guide to your baby's eating habits

Your kid's eating habits will change a lot within the first three years. Here's what you need to know.

Birth to three months
Everyone knows newborns need feedings day and night. But what may surprise new parents is how often the baby gets hungry. Lactation consultant Karyn-grace Clarke says: “Many newborns will have a day or two of nursing around the clock, and then they tend to fall into a pattern of nursing every two to three hours. But there are huge variations among babies.”

Remember that your baby will likely double his birthweight by about five months — how often would you need to eat to double your weight in that period of time?

Clarke says it’s important to feed your baby on demand (also known as cue feeding) because it helps the baby be in control of intake. “Sometimes an infant is hungry for a meal, other times he just wants a little snack, and later he might be thirsty and just need a few sips of milk,” she points out.

But what about your neighbour’s baby, who only nurses every four hours and is gaining weight beautifully? Clarke explains that every mother has a milk “factory” and a milk “warehouse,” and both are unique to her. The factory is where the milk is made, and the warehouse is where it’s stored between feedings. When a baby begins to nurse, he first empties the warehouse and then signals the factory to start making more milk. Some women have a large warehouse and some have a small one, so the amount of milk their babies get varies. “Naturally, those babies who get a smaller serving size when they nurse will want and need to breastfeed more often,” says Clarke. Your baby’s rate of growth, stomach size and energy level affect feeding frequency as well.

Three to six months
Just as you get used to your baby’s nursing patterns, everything changes again. While in general older babies eat less often than younger ones, there are a lot of variations. Michelle Raghubar of Brampton, Ont., says her five-month-old daughter, Ava-Riley, breastfeeds more often now than she did a couple of weeks ago. “Right now, she nurses about every hour and a half or two hours during the day, and usually twice during the night as well. A few weeks ago, she was usually at least two hours between feedings, and only once at night.”

Is she concerned? “No, I’m not worried,” says Raghubar. “I figure she’s going through a growth spurt again, and this is her way of getting more milk when she needs it.” And Ava-Riley’s regulation of her mother’s milk production seems to be working just fine so far. Born weighing six pounds, nine ounces, she’s now over 16 pounds.

The biggest problem Raghubar’s facing: Ava-Riley has become very easily distracted. While once she was so focused on nursing that she’d keep going no matter what else happened, now she’s likely to stop nursing to look around at the slightest noise or movement in the room. “It makes feedings take longer than they used to,” says Raghubar. “I’ll spend 20 or 30 minutes nursing her, but with all the stopping and starting, she actually nurses for only 10 minutes out of that time.”

With these changing feeding patterns and seeming disinterest in nursing, parents sometimes think that it’s time to start solids. Susan Evers, a professor of family relations and applied nutrition at the University of Guelph in Ontario, explains that research shows it’s better to wait until the recommended six months. Starting solids earlier won’t make the baby sleep longer at night, as many parents hope it will. Studies have shown that adding solids earlier than six months increases the baby’s risk of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections—so it’s worth holding off.

Six to 12 months
Six-month-old Rune, son of Alison Stalker in Guelph, Ont., was showing all the signs of being ready for solid foods. He could sit up in his high chair, was eager to put things in his mouth, and was watching his family eat with deep interest.

“One day Mario and I were eating some lovely organic squash,” says Stalker. “Rune was watching, watching, watching as I was eating, as he always did, so I put a little of the mashed squash on my finger and offered it to him. He loved it!”

That was Rune’s first solid food. Now at nine months, he usually eats two meals of solid foods each day, and breastfeeds frequently both day and night. He’s not too keen on green peas, Stalker says, but likes most of the foods he’s tried. “I purée foods and freeze them in ice cube trays for him,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll mix in a little of what the rest of us are eating, if it’s something he can have.”

“Squash, sweet potatoes, carrots and beans are often appealing to babies starting solids,” says Evers. “But even at this age, babies have different preferences. One likes rice cereal; another hates it.” This, adds Evers, can mean some trial and error for parents.

She suggests starting out with small amounts, as Stalker did, and gradually increasing them. Evers adds that the texture of food is a big deal for many babies. Some want their food puréed; others prefer it chunkier. Parents sometimes need to get a little creative to make a food more acceptable to the baby. “For example, many babies gag on the texture of prepared baby-food meats,” she says. “But mix it in with a little mashed sweet potato, and they might like it.”

While Rune was right on schedule by showing interest in solids at six months, Evers reminds parents that “six months is only a guideline and some babies are not quite ready at that age.” If you offer your baby a tasty spoonful of oatmeal and he spits it right back at you, Evers says it’s nothing to worry about: “Just wait a week or so, and try again.”

Whether your baby is enthusiastic about adding solids to his diet, or takes only a spoonful or two each day, it’s important to keep mealtimes relaxed and pleasant, Evers says. Don’t try to force your baby to eat more than he wants, even if it doesn’t seem like much. Your baby is the best judge of how much he needs.

One to three years
Three-year-old Libby Dufton has some quirks when it comes to food, says her mother, Sarah, also of Guelph. “She will go for days when all she wants is meat and cheese,” Dufton says. Libby’s not always so inflexible — sometimes she’s quite open to trying new things — but when she’s going through a meat-and-cheese jag, she gets pretty determined.

She’s also gone through stages when she eats very little. “She’s a tiny girl anyway,” says Dufton, “so I’ve always tried not to compare her appetite to her brother’s. My doctor said that many kids go through periods of not eating very much, and not to worry if she stays healthy.”

Dufton handles these stages by offering Libby breads, fruits and vegetables at mealtimes, but not commenting if they don’t get touched. She does use a little creativity to make things more appealing: melting the cheese Libby loves on bread, cutting fruit and veggies into bite-sized pieces and serving them with a dip, and giving her some pure fruit juices to drink. “I also let her snack frequently, by just setting food out where she can access it,” Dufton adds.

“This age can be quite frustrating for parents when it comes to eating,” says Evers. “Toddlers often go on these food jags when they’ll only eat certain things and reject others.” She agrees with Dufton’s relaxed approach, adding: “If a child pushes away or ignores the food you’ve offered, don’t make a fuss or plead or bargain to get her to eat it. Just offer it again another day, maybe prepared in a different way.”

While infants are trying to eat enough to triple their birthweight in a year, it’s natural for a toddler — who may gain only a few pounds between her first and second birthday—to have a smaller appetite. “Clean your plate isn’t a good mantra,” cautions Evers.

“Probably one of the most important lessons your child learns during these early years is to listen to her body about how much or how little she needs to eat,” says Evers. “Parents tend to panic when their children’s appetites decrease or they go on food jags, but all these fluctuations and changes are normal. Just keep offering healthy foods and set a good example yourself by eating well, and your children will do just fine.”

Appetizing tips
1. Let the baby tell you how often he needs to nurse and for how long. Responding to his cues will help to build and maintain your milk production to match your baby’s needs.

2. If you’re bottle-feeding, watching your baby’s signals is also important. For example, don’t try to get the baby to finish the last ounce or so in the bottle if she’s not interested.

3. Try not to compare your baby with other babies. All babies have their own individual feeding patterns suited to their rates of growth.

4. If your baby is asking to nurse more frequently than in the past, she may be going through a growth spurt or fighting off an illness. While you may feel as if you don’t have enough milk to meet her needs at first, don’t worry — after a day or two, your milk production will catch up.

5. If your baby is easily distracted (like most babies this age!), look for a quiet spot to minimize interruptions. A fan (facing away from the baby) can blot out other noises. Or try nursing the baby in a sling, with the fabric pulled up behind her head so she doesn’t hear and see everything going on around her.

6. Even if your baby is happy to be fed from a spoon at first, most babies will soon be interested in finger foods, and some prefer them right from the start. Prepare small pieces of soft food (banana, for example) that the baby can pick up to feed himself.

7. Expect mealtimes to be messy. Don’t be surprised if more food seems to be spread over baby’s face and the high-chair tray than actually goes into baby’s mouth. That’s part of the learning experience!

8. Keep sugary, high-fat treats like candy, ice cream and cookies to a minimum, especially if your child has a small appetite. You want to be sure she’s getting the maximum nutritional value from the foods she does eat.

9. Since toddlers still have small tummies, they usually do better eating five or six times a day (three meals and two or three snacks) rather than three larger meals. Just make sure the snack foods are healthy ones too.

10. Presentation counts! Toast cut in triangles may be acceptable when toast cut in squares is soundly rejected. Mashed potatoes touching the peas might cause a serious meltdown, and fruit salad arranged to look like a rabbit with raisin eyes might be gobbled right up. You will soon learn your child’s individual food quirks.

11. Worried that your child is eating too much? Don’t put her on a diet, but do focus on offering nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lower-fat protein sources. (Remember, though, that children under two should have whole milk, not skim or low-fat.)

Toddler-sized portions (from Canada’s Food Guide)
There’s a lot of variation among children, but typical portion sizes for toddlers are:

½ slice bread
1/3 cup (75 mL) cereal
¼ cup (50 mL) fruit or vegetables
¼ cup (50 mL) fruit juice
4 crackers
25 g (1 oz) meat
¼ cup (50 mL) cooked beans

Want to know what a serving size of poultry or fish for a toddler looks like? Picture a nine-volt battery.

Read more:
10 tips for going back to breastfeeding
Essential tips for do-it-yourself baby food
Feeding baby: 5 first-food myths

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