Babies are generally born liking the taste of sweet foods, so we get why parents enjoy giving them to their little ones. The problem is, the earlier you introduce added sugars, the more likely your baby or toddler is to prefer and choose sweet foods into childhood and throughout the rest of his life. Eating foods that are high in sugar throughout childhood can lead to preventable diseases, such as heart disease, obesity and high blood pressure. That’s why the American Heart Association made the recommendation to avoid added sugar before age 2.
Research shows that nearly half of all 7- to 8-month-olds have already had some type of dessert or sweetened drink. Although you might think a little sugar doesn’t hurt, introducing sweets this early can shape your little one’s taste preferences. Now is the perfect time to expose your baby to a variety of healthy foods to help her develop a taste preference for them. If sweet drinks and foods are readily available to your little one, she’s going to prefer eating those, and there won’t be any room left in her little stomach for the nutritious foods you want her to eat.
Think your child will be deprived if you don’t give her all of the tasty foods with added sugars? Think again. Until they’ve had the sweetened foods and drinks, babies and toddlers don’t know what they’re missing. If your child already has sweets, it’s not a lost cause, but it’s still important to reduce her intake as much as possible.
The food industry makes it really difficult to find foods that aren’t made with added sugar. Even foods that are considered healthy, such as whole-wheat bread, have some added sugar. That’s why it’s so important to avoid the foods and drinks that are packed with added sugar. Here are some recommended swaps to limit your baby or toddler’s added sugar intake:
- Instead of sugary drinks, stick to water or plain milk.
- Instead of juice, offer soft fruits, such as bananas, ripe peaches and drained canned fruit (packed in water or 100% juice, not syrup).
- Instead of fruit snacks, offer freeze-dried fruit with no added ingredients.
- Instead of ice cream, offer a whole-milk yogurt parfait with fruit.
- Instead of sugary cereal, offer plain toasted oats.
- Instead of cookies or a toddler protein bar, offer a whole-wheat mini bagel with cream cheese (for toddlers).
- Instead of a packaged toddler meal (which are surprisingly loaded with added sugar), offer whole-wheat pasta with a little sauce, ground meat and veggies.
Even though 100% fruit juice doesn’t technically have any added sugar, it still has as much natural sugar as soda has added, and it lacks the dietary fiber found in whole fruit. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no juice before age 1 because juice consumption in babies can lead to:
- Poor nutrition
- Increased risk of tooth decay
- Increased risk of diarrhea, gas and bloating
- Increased risk of exposure to bacteria in unpasteurized juices
While you may not allow your child to have food and drinks with added sugar at home, making sure the same is done when you’re not around is also important.
- Grandparents: Let them know that you’re working really hard to help your child learn to like healthy foods. For now, sugary treats are off the table, but they can still spoil her with attention and fun non-food treats, such as stickers, books, playtime and more.
- Day care provider or caregiver: It’s also really important that your child care provider understand and respect your parenting decisions, especially since they spend so much time with your child. Start by explaining why it’s important to you that your child not be served any sweet drinks or foods. Let the caregiver know that you understand all parents are different, and some may be OK with added sugar, but you’re not. After you explain that you’re trying to avoid tantrums and protect your child’s teeth, they should respect that and do as you ask.
Don’t ever feel as though you’re the “mean parent” for not allowing foods and drinks with added sugars. Your little one needs you to keep her healthy from the start.