May 2017

Nutrition nuggets for your little baby

The most critical period of a baby’s life is from being in the mother’s womb to attaining the age of two. Science has shown that the “window of opportunity” - from the start of pregnancy to the first two years of life, has a major effect on the future of a child, the community and the nation. Investment in quality maternal nutrition and early childhood nutrition can go a long way in promoting inter-generational growth as well as give a big boost to the child’s potential to contribute to the nation.

Pregnancy is a very important period, and a crucial time when you must pay attention to what you eat. Here are a few health tips for pregnant mothers:

  • Contrary to the oft quoted saying, you do not have to “eat for two”, or double the amount of food you normally eat to factor for your baby’s needs. If you are an average built woman, you need to consume only 350 additional calories per day, besides your regular diet. One usually gains 12kg during pregnancy. Too little or too much of weight gain can affect the health of your baby.
  •  A healthy diet is one which includes foods from all five food groups. Vegetables, fruits, cereals and pulses should be consumed in abundance, accompanied by milk, cheese, yoghurt, egg, fish and meat in relatively small amounts.
  • Whenever possible try to source locally grown seasonal vegetables and fruits. These are less expensive, more nutrient-dense, fresh and safe from contamination.
  • Unrefined cereals such as dalia, whole wheat/multi grain atta, oats, cornflakes are good sources of fibre. The fibre prevents constipation, which usually occurs during pregnancy.
  • Vegetables and fruits are the best source of vitamins and minerals, including folate and iron, which are important to prevent you from becoming anaemic during pregnancy. Vitamins such as Vitamin C are needed by both, you and your baby. Since they cannot be stored in your body, it is important to eat plenty of vegetables such as carrots, spinach, fenugreek leaves, onions, cauliflower, etc. and fruits like orange, lemon, guava, apple, pear, melon, etc. on a daily basis.
  • In addition, vegetables contain many protective components like fibre and flavonoids that help us stay healthy. This is one reason why vitamin and mineral supplements cannot replace the vegetables we eat.
  • Dairy products are also a good source of protein and other minerals such as calcium and vitamins, including some B vitamins and Vitamin A. 
  • Beans, pulses, fish, egg and meat are important sources of protein and essential fatty acids and should be included in your diet during pregnancy.
  • Oil, ghee and butter are energy-dense and are required in small quantities in your diet, since they are required for absorption of fat soluble vitamins such as A, D & E. Ensure that you neither entirely miss out nor totally indulge in them.
  • Variety is the key! No single food is complete. Eating a wide variety of foods is especially good for your health and ensures the essential nutrients are supplied in your natural diet.

Important nutrients for expecting mothers:

Folic Acid: A good intake of folate greatly increases the chances of your baby being born without any abnormalities. Even those planning to become pregnant must include plenty of folate-rich foods such as spinach, cabbage, cauliflower. If need be, take your physician’s advice and consume folic acid supplements.

Iron: The best sources of iron are lean meats, especially liver and kidney. Some vegetables like green, leafy vegetables, cooked beans and peas are also a good source of iron. To absorb more iron from vegetables, eat foods rich in vitamin C, or acidic foods like lemon, guava, orange or lime at the same time. Tea and coffee reduce your ability to absorb iron, so try to drink them between meals rather than at the time of eating iron-rich foods.

Calcium: Calcium is important for healthy bones and teeth – of the mother and the baby. The best sources of calcium are milk and dairy products. Consider including til seeds and ragi in your diet for increasing calcium intake.

Vitamin D: Vitamin D is very important both to prevent rickets in your new-born baby and to keep the teeth and bones healthy. Try to spend adequate time outdoors in the early hours of the day, especially in sunny weather. Vitamin D is produced in your skin naturally when you are exposed to sunlight.

Lactation: It’s the most crucial phase for the child’s growth and development. Breast-feeding should consume an additional 600 calories till the child attains the age of six months, and 520 extra calories thereafter till the child is one year old.

Apart from keeping in mind the above important nutrition tips, women must try their best to breastfeed the baby for the first six months. Early initiation and exclusive breastfeeding during this period ensure a healthy start to the baby’s life. It is not only the best food for the baby, it is always clean, protects the baby from diseases, makes the child more intelligent, helps make a special relationship between the mother and baby, helps parents space their children and helps mothers shed extra weight.  

While mothers should ideally continue breastfeeding till the child turns two, complementary feeding is also of importance. Infants grow at a rapid rate. Complimentary feeding should start when the child is six months old. The staple cereal of the family should be used to make the first food of the infant such as suji, broken wheat, atta, ragi, millet, etc. Addition of oil and jaggery is of importance to increase the energy value of the food. One must remember that a thick porridge is more nutritious than a thin one - consistency of the meal is of prime importance. You would not want to fill the small tummy with water alone!

Mothers should include all five food groups discussed above while preparing meals for the baby. Since children have a small tummy, feed small frequent portions of a wholesome nutritious diet with the knowledge of nutrition guidelines above. 

Authors: Smriti Sharma and Lakshman Sivasubramanian

1.      National Guidelines on Infant and Young Child Feeding, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of Women and Child Development, Government of India, 2004
2.      Nutrient requirements and Recommended Dietary Allowances for Indians, Expert Group of ICMR, National Institute of Nutrition, 2010
3.      Healthy Eating during Pregnancy and Breastfeeding, World Health Organization, 2001