Rohane Hamilton / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

USDA's New Dietary Guidelines Include Babies & Toddlers For First Time In 35 Years

"The time from birth until a child’s second birthday is a critically important period for proper growth and development."

by Morgan Brinlee

For the first time in 35 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has included babies and toddlers in dietary guidelines. Traditionally, the guidelines, which are released every five years and often used by healthcare professionals and policymakers, focus only on people 2 years of age and older.

"The science tells us that good nutrition leads to better health outcomes, and the new dietary guidelines use the best available evidence to give Americans the information they need to make healthy decisions for themselves and their families,” Health & Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement released Dec. 29 alongside the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. "USDA and HHS have expanded this edition of the dietary guidelines to provide new guidance for infants, toddlers, and pregnant and breastfeeding women, helping all Americans to improve their health, no matter their age or life stage.”

Why Are Infants & Toddlers Included Now?

Since 1985, the USDA focused on sharing nutrition and dietary recommendations for individuals 2 and older, but the Agricultural Act of 2014 mandated the agency expand its dietary guidelines to include recommendations for infants and toddlers as interest and research into the importance of good early nutrition grew.

"The time from birth until a child’s second birthday is a critically important period for proper growth and development," the USDA's latest dietary guidelines note. "It also is key for establishing healthy dietary patterns that may influence the trajectory of eating behaviors and health throughout the life course. During this period, nutrients critical for brain development and growth must be provided in adequate amounts."

From avoiding added sugars to introducing potentially allergenic foods like peanuts at a young age, here's what the USDA's dietary guidelines suggest now.

Natee Jindakum / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

Start Introducing Complementary Foods Around 6 Months Old

The USDA recommends infants receive breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life, or, if that is not possible, an iron-fortified infant formula. While the USDA recommends parents continue to feed infants breast milk or formula for at least a year, the agency also recommends infants be introduced to nutrient-dense complementary foods rich in iron and zinc starting around six months of age. Additionally, the USDA does not recommend introducing complementary foods before infants are at least four months of age.

"About one-third (32%) of infants in the United States are introduced to complementary foods and beverages before age 4 months, highlighting the importance of providing guidance and support to parents, guardians, and caregivers on the timing of introduction to complementary foods," the USDA noted.

To determine if an infant is ready to receive complementary foods, the USDA recommends noting whether or not they can control their head and neck, sit up alone or with support, grasp small objects, bring objects to their mouth, and swallow food as opposed to pushing it back out of their mouth and on to their chin.

Introduce Potentially Allergenic Foods At 4 To 6 Months

The USDA recommends introducing infants to potentially allergenic foods like peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, cow milk, wheat, shellfish, and soy around four or six months of age. Doing so reduces the chance the child will develop an allergy to the food introduced later on in life. That being said, the USDA recommends that parents discuss the introduction of a potentially allergenic food with their child's healthcare provider ahead of time to determine whether an allergen test should be done beforehand.

Avoid Giving Infants Added Sugars & Lots Of Sodium

While the USDA recommends introducing infants to a variety of foods from all food groups, the guidelines stressed that infants and young children should not be given added sugars. "Complementary foods need to be nutrient-dense and not contain additional calories from added sugars," the guidelines noted. "In addition, low- and no-calorie sweeteners, which can also be called high-intensity sweeteners, are not recommended for children younger than age 2."

Infants age six to 11 months are also recommended to consume no more than 370 milligrams of sodium each day. For reference, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a bowl of cereal with skim milk contains around 250 milligrams of sodium, while most fruits and vegetables, like bananas, are low in sodium.

Provide Supplemental Vitamin D ASAP

The USDA recommends giving infants supplemental vitamin D shortly after birth. "Human milk can support an infant’s nutrient needs for about the first 6 months of life, with the exception of vitamin D and potentially iron," the guidelines noted. You can find the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations for vitamin D supplements for babies here.

Make Early Food Choices Healthy Ones

Food preferences an individual develops early in life influence the dietary choices they make as adults, according to the USDA. "Parents, guardians, and caregivers play an important role in nutrition during this life stage because infants and toddlers are fully reliant on them for their needs," the USDA noted. "In addition to 'what' to feed children, 'how' to feed young children also is critical...Repeated exposure to foods can increase acceptance of new foods. Another important concept is responsive feeding, a feeding style that emphasizes recognizing and responding to the hunger or fullness cues of an infant or young child."