Breast milk is the best food for the healthy growth and development of infants. Infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health. After six months, they should be fed adequate and safe complementary foods while continuing breastfeeding for up to two years or beyond.
Complementary foods should be rich in nutrients and given in adequate amounts. At six months, caregivers should introduce foods in small amounts and gradually increase the quantity as the child gets older. Young children should receive a variety of foods including meat, poultry, fish or eggs as often as possible. Infants can eat pureed, mashed and semi-solid foods beginning at 6 months, from 8 months, most infants can eat ‘finger’ foods, and from 12 months, most children can eat the same types of foods as consumed by the rest of the family. The consistency of foods should be appropriate for the child’s age. Complementary foods should be given 2–3 times a day between 6–8 months, increasing to 3–4 times a day between 9–11 months. Between 12–23 months of age, 3–4 meals should be given. Also, depending on the child’s appetite, 1–2 nutritious snacks can be offered between meals.
In addition to providing an adequate variety, amount and frequency of foods, it is important that caregivers practice responsive feeding. That is, they should feed infants directly and assist older children when they feed themselves; feed slowly and patiently and encourage children to eat, but not force them; and when children refuse to eat, experiment with different combinations of foods. Feeding times are periods of learning and love – they are a time for caregivers to talk to the child, making eye to eye contact.
Lack of appropriate feeding in early childhood is a major risk factor for ill-health throughout the course of life. The life-long impact may include poor school performance, reduced productivity, impaired intellectual and social development, or chronic diseases.