Dairy’s role in infant nutrition
Children ages birth through 24 months need access to dairy products
For the first time ever, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans will include guidelines for nourishing children from birth to 24 months (B-24). This is an opportunity to showcase dairy’s unique nutrient package for this age group — including calcium, vitamin D and high-quality protein — that supports development of strong bones and teeth, builds and repairs muscle tissue, and supports overall growth.
During every stage of this dynamic period, dairy foods provide this unbeatable nutrient package and are an affordable, appealing source of nutrition. Let’s take a look at dairy’s contributions.
Dairy’s role during lactation
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusively breastfeeding for about the first six months through at least the first year. If breastfeeding is not an option, iron-fortified formula is recommended for healthy full-term infants.
Milk and milk products’ high nutrient density and bioavailability, as well as their widespread accessibility and consumption, play an important role in achieving the higher calories and nutrient requirements to support a mother’s lactation and the nutrition she is able to provide her infant.
Foods to complement breastmilk or infant formula are introduced at around six months. The goal is to provide additional calories and nutrients that are no longer met exclusively with breastmilk and/or infant formula and to expose infants to new tastes and textures to potentially prevent future food refusal. Unsweetened yogurt, cheese and cottage cheese are calcium-rich foods that can be introduced during this time to support bone health.
By seven to eight months, infants should be eating foods from all food groups. However, according to National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2005-2012 data, infants age 1 year and younger don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables.
Providing infants with a variety of foods from all food groups during this period is important not only to support normal growth and development, but also to help establish lifelong healthy eating patterns. The textures and flavors of unsweetened yogurt, cheese and cottage cheese can be combined to complement textures and flavors or other food groups — such as vegetables or whole grains — to assist with acceptance of a variety of foods from all food groups and help ensure nutrient recommendations are met.
Dairy during weaning
Twelve to 24 months is possibly the most important period in human nutrition. However, low-nutritional-quality foods are commonly offered to children during this period.
At 12 months of age, AAP recommends whole or reduced-fat cow’s milk be introduced to children’s diets to not only support bone health, but also provide a source of fat important for brain development. In the case of children with cow’s milk allergies, fortified soymilk can be used as an alternative to cow’s milk. However, other plant-based beverages are not recommended as they do not provide the same key nutrition that growing children in this stage of development.
The importance of healthy beverages in infants’ and children’s diets was recently emphasized in new beverage guidelines for children birth to 5 years from experts at the AAP, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and American Heart Association. These guidelines recommend children ages 12-24 months consume only whole milk and plain water and children ages 2 to 5 years consume only fat-free or low-fat milk and plain water. Additionally, they recommend limiting 100% fruit juice consumption and avoiding plant-based/non-cow’s milk consumption.
As the dairy community, it is our job to communicate the unique, important role dairy foods play in nourishing the growth and development of children B-24.