The Importance of Nutrition During Infancy and Toddlerhood to Prevent Developmental Delays

The Importance of Nutrition During Infancy and Toddlerhood to Prevent Developmental Delays
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The importance of nutrition during the infancy and toddlerhood period should not be underestimated. Undernourishment and malnutrition occurs in infants and toddlers in every country of the world – including well-developed countries. Providing youth with a well-balanced diet full of nutritious foods is the key to healthy babies and children is important for daycare providers to know.

Nutrients and Development

Fetal Development

The benefits of good nutrition start before birth, during fetal development. The fetus will take needed nutrients from the mother’s

body, even if doing so leaves the mother deficient. If the mother’s body does not have enough nutrients to give, however, the fetus has no way of getting the required nutrients. Brain development can suffer during the fetal period if the mother is malnourished.

Infant and Toddler Development

Meeting nutrient requirements is important throughout the lifespan but, the proper nutrients are especially important to infants and toddlers – more than for any other age group. Tremendous growth and development occurs in infants and toddlers. Approximately 25 percent of an infant’s caloric intake is utilized for growth. At one year old, the average infant has increased in length by 50 percent and by two years old, a toddler is approximately 75 percent taller than at birth.


Nutrient intake before birth and during the first few years of life greatly affects overall health, growth and cognitive ability. Undernourishment can stunt growth and cause developmental delays. Cognitive development is the first to suffer. When the body is not receiving enough nutrients it goes into survival mode and dedicates available nourishment to survival, then growth, and lastly cognitive development. [Sagan, C., A. Druyan]

Detrimental effects from malnourishment may or may not be reversible. Nutrition intervention is most successful when applied during the first few years of life. After the first few years of life, nutrition intervention, although important, may have reduced benefits.

Specific Nutrients That Cause Impairments

Nutrition for growth and development is a complex issue. There are many micronutrients that are essential to development; studying each individual micronutrient requirement is difficult. deficiencies of certain nutrients have been identified as a causative factor for some impairments.

  • Iodine and iron-Deficiency anemia affect behavioral and cognitive development. Four to nine percent of toddlers in the United States have iron-deficiency anemia. [California Food Policy Advocates] Iron is crucial for brain development. A deficiency in iron can lead to behavioral and cognitive impairments.

  • Vitamin D and calcium are essential for bone development. Low levels of vitamin D and calcium can prevent proper bone formation, cause weak bones and increase the chances of osteoporosis in later life.

  • Zinc is plays an important role in cognitive development. Exactly how zinc functions in the brain is not fully understood. It is found in the brain, bound to proteins and in high concentrations in synaptic vesicles in neurons in the forebrain. Zinc deficiency can affect attention span and short and long-term memory**.** [British Journal of Nutrition; 2001 May;85 Suppl 2:S139-45]

  • Fruits and vegetables are an important part of the daily diet. Children who consume very little fruits and vegetables have an increased risk of certain cancers, such as colon cancer, and cardiovascular disease in adulthood.

Good nutrition during infancy and toddlerhood is best achieved through a healthy diet. Daily caloric requirements and feeding frequencies change at different age levels. Each infant and toddler has different caloric requirements, appetite levels and energy levels. The following age-appropriate feeding requirements list the average feeding times and quantities; feeding schedules and amounts may need to be adjusted for a particular child:

0 - 4 to 6 Months: Infants should only be fed breast milk or iron-fortified formula for the first 4 to 6 months of life. Newborn breastfed infants should be fed on demand or about 8 to 12 times a day. Newborn infants fed iron-fortified formula should be fed 2 to 3 ounces of formula, 6 to 8 times a day. Once a baby reaches about 2 months old the amount of feeding times a day decreases, while the amount fed at each meal increases. Breasted babies will determine how much to eat per feeding. After 2 months of age, bottle fed babies should be offered a bottle 4 to 6 times a day or more often if the baby demands it and will gradually increase to eating 6 to 8 ounces of formula per feeding.

4 to 6 Months: At 4 to 6 months of age, infants have higher energy requirements and become capable of swallowing simple foods. Feed babies at this age baby cereal, mixed with breast milk or formula, twice a day. Start with 2 tablespoons of dry cereal mixed with enough breast milk or formula to hydrate the cereal. Gradually increase the amount of cereal to 4 tablespoons, mixed with breast milk or formula.

6 to 8 Months: At between 6 to 8 months of age, start introducing new foods such as mashed fruits and vegetables. Gradually introduce one new food every three days. Feed four - 2 to 3 tablespoon servings of fruits and vegetables over the course of a day, divided into 3 meal times. Continue to breast or bottle feed 3 to 5 times a day. Between meals, limited amounts of appropriate age-based finger foods, such as baby biscuits can be offered.

8 to 12 Months: Between 8 and 12 months of age, infants should breast or bottle feed 3 to 4 times a day. Fruit and vegetable intake should increase to a 3 to 4 tablespoon size serving four times a day. In addition, one - 3 to 4 tablespoon serving of pureed meat should be fed a day. Gradually introduce meats into the diet, one at a time, once a week. Egg yolks can be fed as a meat replacement 3 to 4 times a week.

1 to 2 Years: Once a baby reaches one year old, solid foods should make up the majority of caloric requirements. After one year old, formula should be discontinued and water placed in the bottle if necessary. Breastfed babies can continue to breastfeed along with solid foods. The types of solid foods should be varied to include whole grains (wheat bread and oatmeal), dairy products (whole milk, cheese and yogurt), fruits and vegetables and meat. Toddlers tend to eat small amounts per meal and require 4 to 6 feedings a day, meaning they should be fed 2 to 3 snacks a day, in addition to meals.

2 to 3 Years: Children between the ages of 2 and 3 years old require between 1,000 and 1,400 calories a day, which amounts to approximately 4 ounces of whole grains, 1-1/2 cups vegetables, 1-cup fruit**,** 2 cups of dairy and 3 ounces of meat or other protein sources such as beans. Children at this age tend to do well having their caloric requirements divided up between three meals and 2 to 4 snacks a day.

The USDA offers Choose My Plate as a way to plan meals for every age group.

The USDA Food Pyramid for Kids lists daily food serving and exercise requirements.

Tips for Caretakers and Educators

Because many infants and toddlers spend a significant amount of time in childcare and educational facilities, it is important for caretakers and educators to provide nourishing foods. Caretakers and educators can also strongly influence how a child perceives food. Children who are educated about eating healthy are more prone to eat healthy. The following tips are designed to help childcare providers, educators and parents during meal and snack times:

  • Kids are not born liking or hating certain foods. Dietary preferences are a learned experience. It may take tasting a new food several times at different occasions, before a child becomes accustomed to the taste and texture.

  • Hang up pictures of fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods to spark interest in toddlers.

  • Make meal and snack times fun. Spark up a light-hearted conversation and tell jokes during meal and snack times.

  • Infants and young children thrive on routine. Make a regular schedule for meals and snacks.

  • Offer simply prepared foods. Infants and young toddlers tend to like blander tasting foods, instead of complex, highly spiced meals.

  • Cut foods up into easy to handle sizes. Toddlers love foods they can hold in their hands.

  • Be a good example. Eat healthy foods in front of children.

  • Regularly provide a new type of food alongside regularly offered foods. Do not force children to eat the new food. If they do not eat it, simply take it away when they are done eating. It may take many times of offering food before a child decides to try it.

  • Infants and toddlers know when they are hungry and full. Allow their natural appetites to guide the amount of food offered. If they are still hungry, offer more food. Do not force them to finish their plates if they are full. Do not encourage them to finish their plates to get dessert; this only teaches behavioral overeating.

  • Do not put overweight infants or toddlers on a strict or low-fat diet. Overweight infants do not necessarily turn into overweight adults. In addition, overweight children can be malnourished. Excess caloric intake of low nutritious food items can lead to malnutrition. Feed overweight kids nutritious and healthy foods and encourage weight loss through fun playtime activities.

Understanding the importance of nutrition during the infancy and toddlerhood period is the first step to making a difference to a child’s health. Using the above childcare setting tips, caretakers and educators can help create healthy habits in children that will follow them into adulthood.


  • Sagan, C., A. Druyan; Literacy - The Path to a More Prosperous, Less Dangerous America; Parade Magazine; March 6, 1994
  • Bhatnagar, Shinjini, Taneja, Sunita; Zinc and Cognitive Development; British Journal of Nutrition 85, Suppl. 2, S139-S145; All India Institute of Medical Sciences; 2001
  • MedlinePlus: Age-Appropriate Diets for Children.
  • Boyle, Maria, Kavanagh, Colleen; The Importance of Nutrition for Health and Disease Prevention in Children Ages 0-6; California Food Policy Advocates