Breastfeed, they are told, or your baby will be stupid and sick all the time. Start solids early so that they sleep. Don't start solids early or they will be fat. Put them on a schedule. Don't put them on a schedule. Give fruits before vegetables. Give vegetables before fruits. It goes on and on, and comes from all directions (doctors, friends, family, the Internet) with the advice-givers being very emphatic about their advice--even if it contradicts other advice.
And what makes this so hard is that feeding babies is so, well, primal. It's key for their survival--so it's really normal for parents to feel scared about doing the wrong thing.
So what is the right thing?
The truth is that there are a million different ways to give a child a healthy diet. But it's hard to turn that into practical advice. That's why a bunch of studies just released by the American Academy of Pediatrics are so helpful.
The studies come from the Infant Feeding Practices Study II, a longitudinal study that followed moms and babies from the third trimester of pregnancy through the first birthday--and then checked in with them again at the sixth birthday. While it doesn't tell us everything, and only tells us stuff through age six, it's information that is at least based on real evidence--and that's useful.
Here are seven highlights from the studies:
1. Children who were breastfed for several months are less likely to have ear, throat and sinus infections. They have the same amount of colds, other respiratory infections, and urinary tract infections as formula-fed babies--and they are just as likely to have food allergies.
2. Breastfeeding didn't lead to any significant difference in the "psychosocial" development of children. Children who were breastfed did have fewer emotional and behavioral problems, but when they looked at it closely, this wasn't because of breastfeeding--it had to do with parenting and family factors (underlining, yet again, that there is way more to parenting than breastfeeding).
3. Despite what everyone tells you, breastfeeding doesn't help get the pregnancy weight off--unless you were obese before the pregnancy, in which case it does help.
4. Children who were breastfed end up eating more fruits and vegetables and drinking more water instead of sweetened beverages--but they are just as likely to eat sweets and savory snacks.
5. Children who were given sweetened beverages during the first year of life are twice as likely to be obese, and twice as likely to still be drinking them at age 6, which means they at higher risk of staying obese (or getting more so).
6. Children who don't eat many fruits or vegetables in the first year of life still aren't eating many of them when they turn 6, although it's not clear whether they don't like them or whether their family just still isn't serving them.
7. This one is interesting: when mothers feed babies with bottles (of either formula or pumped breast milk), they are more likely to push their children to eat generally, such as wanting them to finish all the food on their plate. This puts a child at higher risk of being overweight.
So what are the take-homes?
1. Breastfeed if you can--but if you can't, your children can still be healthy, well-adjusted and smart if you nurture them, practice healthy habits like hand-washing and exercise, and give them a healthy diet.
2. Don't give your child sugar-sweetened beverages (or juice, really, because that's essentially a sweetened beverage). They don't need them and it's not good for them--it's a habit you should just skip.
3. Start giving your child fruits and vegetables in the first year of life--and keep it up. We should all be eating five servings a day--and if parents do, it makes it more likely that kids will too.
4. The "Clean Plate Club" is a bad idea. Don't force kids to finish bottles--or eat all the food on their plate. Let them listen to their own hunger cues; it will help them stay at a healthy weight as they grow. If you are worried that your child isn't eating enough, talk to your doctor.
My current favorite resources for nutrition advice are the website of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (www.eatright.org) and the USDA's great ChooseMyPlate website. For breastfeeding information and support, I like the website of La Leche League International. Check them out!
Photo credit: © 2008 Sami Keinšnen, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio