This article was published in the first 2007 issue of Playgroup NSW's Totline magazine. Click here to download (warning - large file)
Whilst good nutrition is one of the most important aspects of a child's health, what we give our kids to drink is just as significant as the quality of food we give them to eat.
Breast Feeding vs Formula Feeding
From birth to around 6 months of age of course, there's little doubt that breast milk is the best thing for babies to consume. Infant formulas offer a nutritionally adequate substitute but do not offer the benefits for a child's immunity provided by breastmilk..
Studies have found that the younger an infant is exposed to formula, the greater their risk of developing problems related to their immune system such as allergies, eczema and asthma later in life. There are reasons why breast feeding may simply not be possible of course, but unless this is the case, it should always be preferential over the bottle.
Whilst it's important to start introducing solids at around 6months of age, it is ideal to continue breastfeeding as well (if possible) up until about 12 months. If this is simply not an option, then formula is definitely the best fluid for a child of that age to be consuming. Cows milk should not be introduced until after12 months. This helps to avoid the potential for an allergic reaction; and ensures a better nutrient intake for the child as cows milk is a poor source of certain nutrients such as iron (which are added to formulas).
After 12 months, you can progress to either cow's milk or infant formula. As many parents are probably aware it is recommended to provide full cream milk (around 4% fat) at this age as it is an important source of the fats needed for growth and development for a toddler.. The Australia dietary guidelines recommend that low fat dairy foods are encouraged for children over the age of two years. It is important to consider the individual nutritional needs of your child.
Alternatives to Milk
As a general rule of thumb, plain cows milk is the best choice for young children, though sometimes certain children either can't tolerate milk or simply don't like the taste of it. Food allergies occur in about 6% of children under 3 years, with nearly half of all cases being attributed to cow's milk. The good news is that approximately 80% of them will outgrow the allergy by the age of 5. Young children with cow's milk allergy will have to rely on a substitute eg goat's milk or soy milk. Make sure that any allergy or intolerance is properly diagnosed by a doctor using medically approved allergy testing methods. It is important to diagnose allergy correctly and avoid limiting foods in a child's diet unless it is truly necessary. If you suspect your child may have a food allergy seek advice from your doctor.
Unlike popular belief, A2 milk will still cause allergic reactions in children allergic to cow's milk. Goats milk or soy milk (fortified with calcium) are generally acceptable alternatives, though allergies to these milks can also occur in rare cases. Rice milk is also available and generally has added calcium, though due to its low fat and protein content, should not be considered an alternative to cow's milk or formula among children under two.
Flavoured milks are often preferred by children but these contain a lot of added sugar which means extra kilojoules, and encourages children to prefer sweetened drinks.As long as you limit the amount of flavoured milk to avoid too many extra kilojoules, flavoured milks can help to provide enough calcium for a child, though of course other dairy foods (such as custard, yoghurt and cheese) are also good sources.
Up until the age of 12 months, breast milk or formula should be the major fluid an infant receives. After that it is still important to make milk or toddler formula an important part of a child's fluid intake, (around 600ml's of milk per day) though throughout this second year of life, the most important fluid contribution should come from the best fluid of all – water.
Water is needed for an enormous range of chemical functions in our body, and many people simply don't drink enough of it; including children. It is recommended that children under five consume approximately 4 glasses of water and 600ml of milk every day. There are other conditions which will affect how much water a children needs to drink, though these are general recommendations for most children, so it's best to speak to your doctor about any other specific circumstances.
Kids will need even more water during hot weather, if they are very active as well as when they are sick eg with vomiting, fever and diarrhea, which all cause extra fluids to be lost. With excessive fluid loss with illness it may be necessary to give your child special electrolyte supplements (ask your doctor/pharmacist about this) to help prevent dehydration. Children can become dehydrated quickly through illness, so if you suspect that your child may be dehydrated, seek medical help immediately. Signs of acute dehydration include cool skin, dry mouth, fatigue, sunken eyes, swollen tongue and poor circulation.
Sometimes, people worry about the safety of our water supplies because of concerns about the chemicals added. It is important to know that the water we drink from the tap is very strictly regulated to ensure that our drinking supplies are perfectly safe. Unnecessary fear has resulted in booming sales of bottled water across the country. Other than price, the only real difference between bottled water and tap water is that bottled water does not contain fluoride; an important mineral needed to strengthen children's teeth to protect against decay. Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral found in varying concentrations throughout the world and it is added to water supplies in many, (but not in all) areas of Australia. There are lower rates of tooth decay among children in areas where drinking supplies contain fluoride at around 1 part per million; the concentration at which most areas across NSW ensure their tap water is providing.
What about other beverages?
Some of the other common drinks children consume include fruit juice, cordials and soft drink. The major problem with these drinks is that they contain a lot of sugar which not only provides excess kilojoules (Calories) but encourages tooth decay. This is more likely to happen when a sugary drink is consumed between meals compared to when it is consumed with meals. Chewing food at mealtimes produces saliva which helps to protect teeth against dental decay and dental erosion.
Soft drinks are perhaps the worst offenders, as in addition to providing a large dose of sugar, they are a rich source of phosphoric acid which further breaks down tooth enamel and promotes calcium loss from the bones. Diet soft drinks use non-sugar sweeteners which are less problematic than the sugary versions, though still contain phosphoric acid. Cordials do not contain phosphoric acid, but do contain large amounts of sugar, so these drinks are not a very healthy choice for anyone let alone young children.
Many parents worry about the chemicals in processed foods including sweetened drinks which has encouraged drink (and food) manufacturers to make versions with all “natural” ingredients which claim to have “no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives”. Remember that all these drinks still offer the high sugar levels and/or the high acid content which is not good for your child. Using the word ‘natural' is a marketing gimmick food companies use to lull parents into feeling safer about giving these products to their children. Buyer beware!
What about juices?
There's no doubt that fruit and vegetables are among the healthiest foods there are, with most children not reaching their daily recommended intake of 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables. Many of the nutrients found in fruits and vegies are in the fibrous roughage of the food – the part which is thrown away in the production of juice. Even with no added sugar, a 250ml glass of orange juice contains about as much sugar as 3 whole oranges, but lacks the fibre. Although juices contain more nutritional benefit than soft drink and cordials , water is by far the better option!
More information about healthy eating (and drinking) for families is available in publications produced by Nutrition Australia , such as “ The Secret of Healthy Children ” and “Food and Play, 2-5 years ”. For more information, call the Nutrition Australia NSW Division on (02) 4257 9011, or visit the Nutrition Australia website : www.nutritionaustralia.org.