During the transition from infancy to toddlerhood there are a lot of changes happening with your child. Their brain is bursting with more than 100 trillion synapses, enabling them to perform complex and exciting new tasks—from walking, then running, jumping, and climbing, to listening and eventually speaking.
Now that they’re no longer solely reliant on breast milk or formula (which won’t meet all of their nutritional needs at this stage), you toddler is eating all new kinds of foods. It’s not surprising that this might be a time when vitamin and nutrient imbalances could begin to pop up.
According to researchers, there are a variety of important toddler nutritional needs you should pay close attention to, as they’re the most likely to be consumed in inappropriate amounts—either too little or too much. Here’s a look at a few of the nutrients that could be possible concerns in your toddler’s diet.
- Nine percent of toddlers 12 to 35 months old don’t get enough iron. By about 4 to 6 months old, your baby has diminished the iron stores accumulated in the womb. Children under 5 who drink more than 32 ounces of cow, goat, or soy milk a day may be at risk of not getting appropriate amounts of iron, as the milk may displace other iron-rich foods.
- Why is it important? Babies and toddlers need iron to support their healthy growth. It’s essential for healthy cell function and carrying oxygen from the lungs to the brain and throughout the body. Numerous studies have shown a link between iron and mental and motor development. But excess iron can be harmful, as well, so be sure to consult your pediatrician before starting your child on a supplement.
- What can you do? Iron-fortified formula can help provide appropriate amounts of iron. For children who are eating some solid foods and still on breastmilk or those solely eating solids, vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from plant sources. So in addition to including iron-rich meat, serve vitamin C–rich foods, such as melon, berries, tomatoes, and oranges when you have iron-fortified cereals or dark green veggies on the menu.
- Dietary fiber was low in the vast majority of toddler and preschooler participants in a large study—likely because they weren’t getting the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, which are natural sources of fiber. Among toddlers ages 19 to 24 months, about 23 percent ate no vegetables in a given day, and about 33 percent ate no fruit. (Among toddlers ages 15 to 24 months in the study, French fries were the vegetable most often eaten!)
- Why is it important? Fiber helps digestion and helps promote fullness.
- What can you do? Make fruits and vegetables part of every meal and snack—especially after your child grows out of the strained food stage and begins eating finger foods. Offer whole grain cereals and breads, as well, which are good sources of fiber.
- Early in life, babies absorb potassium from breast milk or formula, but toddlers may not get appropriate amounts. Because of this, it is important that their diets include healthy plant sources of potassium.
- Why is it important? This important mineral allows for proper cell functioning throughout the body. It plays a role in neural messaging, muscular function (particularly in the heart), and maintenance of healthy blood vessels.
- What can you do? Serve more fruits and vegetables, including leafy greens, vine fruits (like melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, and pumpkins), and root vegetables. It may require creativity to incorporate potassium into dishes; try adding zucchini to muffin batter or bake chips from roasted, sliced beets, or kale.
- For most children, fat doesn’t need to be restricted during the first two years of life, but after age 2, your toddler should get no more than 30 to 35 percent of their calories from fat (averaged over several days). Three-fourths of preschoolers in a large study consumed more than the recommended level of saturated fat.
- Why is it important? Babies and toddlers need healthy fats to help support brain development and growth, support the immune system, and help absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Saturated fat should be limited as it may be associated with health issues.
- What can you do? Switch to lower fat milk (1 percent or nonfat), reduced-fat cheese, and other low fat or nonfat dairy products as soon as your child’s doctor says it’s OK which is usually around 2 years old. Healthy fat choices also include avocado, eggs, nuts, and foods made with olive, safflower, or canola oils.
- Researchers found that 45 percent of 12- to 23-month-olds and 78 percent of 2- to 4-year-olds consumed more than the recommended sodium amounts in their diets.
- Why is it important? Sodium is important for maintaining the water balance in the body, regulating blood volume, and ensuring proper cell and tissue function. High sodium intakes may be associated with high blood pressure and increased likelihood for heart disease and stroke.
- What can you do? Check food labels for sodium content. In 2013, Centers for Disease Control researchers evaluated more than 1,000 food products for babies and toddlers, including cereal bars and crackers, and they found that most foods have high amounts of sodium. Serve fewer processed foods, which are high in sodium. Try to avoid bacon, hot dogs, and sausage—all high-sodium meats –as well as store-bought cookies, chips, and candy.
Feeding your child can feel like a moving target, but hopefully this information will help guide you when thinking about important nutritional needs for your toddler. We’ve compiled even more information about toddler nutrition and feeding your child during this time of transition.