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Common Toddler-Feeding Pitfalls

Pitfall #1

"My children hate meat, so I make sure they get enough protein by giving them plenty of peanut butter."

Sure, it tastes great, but peanut butter shouldn't be your kids' sole source of protein. It's actually only about 25 percent protein--and a hefty 48 percent fat. And it's low in key minerals (like zinc and iron) contained in complete animal proteins. Better nonmeat protein foods include dairy products, eggs, tofu, soy milk, and beans. But as long as your kids regularly drink milk and occasionally eat cheese, eggs, or chicken, they're likely to be meeting their protein needs, says Susan Moores, R.D., an American Dietetic Association spokesperson.

Like every other food, peanut butter is best in moderation. Also, avoid giving it to your toddler, who can easily choke on a big glob of it. In addition, childhood allergies to peanuts are on the rise, points out Ronald E. Kleinman, M.D., chief of the division of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, in Boston. If you have a history of allergies in your family, hold off on serving your child peanut butter until she's at least 3 years old, when the risk of a severe or potentially deadly reaction drops.

Pitfall #2

"My preschooler drinks plenty of juice, so I don't worry about serving fresh fruit."

One 4- to 6-ounce serving of 100 percent apple, grape, or orange juice per day is fine. But giving your child more than that could pack on calories, leading to weight gain and ruining her appetite for healthier foods, says Jennifer Orlet Fisher, Ph.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. Juice also lacks the fiber and micronutrients of whole fruit--components that may help reduce the risk of heart disease and some types of cancer later in life. Be sure to give your child one or two daily servings of the real thing, such as a banana, an apple, a pear, or a bunch of blueberries. To scale back your child's juice intake painlessly, serve it diluted with water. Gradually increase the ratio of water to juice until you're adding only a splash of juice for flavor. (When your kids are thirsty, get in the habit of serving plain H2O rather than juice.)

Pitfall #3

"I avoid meltdowns by giving my toddler frequent snacks."

Doling out little cups of cereal, cheese cubes, or crackers is a surefire way to keep your tot busy and quiet while you're driving, shopping, or trying to make dinner. But this endless stream of snacks can overload your child with simple carbohydrates and fat. "This can lead to poor nutrition and a diet that's lacking in important vitamins and minerals," cautions pediatrician Christine Wood, M.D., author of How to Get Kids to Eat Great and Love It!

Around-the-clock noshing may also cause your child to lose touch with his natural instinct to recognize hunger cues (since he's never allowed to feel the tiniest bit hungry). As a result, he learns to snack out of boredom or to relieve frustration--a habit that can lead to overeating and unhealthy weight gain. And with less of an appetite at meals, your toddler may have little interest in sampling new, healthy foods--setting the stage for picky eating. Children as young as 1 year old should eat three meals and just two snacks daily. If your toddler resists this new feeding schedule, hang tough. Within three to four days, his appetite will level out and he'll adjust to not eating between meals and snacks. The next time he starts whining for crackers while he's in the car, try diverting his attention with a toy or book instead.

Pitfall #4

"I make my preschooler a hot dog every night because that's all he'll eat."

If your 4-year-old demands a hot dog, mac and cheese, or chicken nuggets at every dinner, it's fine to indulge him for a short while. "Food jags are normal and are often how a young child asserts his emerging identity and his own likes and dislikes," Dr. Wood says. Most kids will give up the jag by themselves, but if it continues for more than two weeks, gently intervene. Your child may start to run low on certain nutrients if he eats the same food for weeks on end. By catering to his picky eating, you may also unwittingly reinforce his fear of new (and healthier) foods.

Slowly and nonchalantly reduce your child's portion of the jag food: Try serving him just three fourths of a hot dog, for instance, while placing several other choices on his plate too. When your child asks for more of his favorite, answer, "That's all there is for tonight." Over the next several days, slowly phase out the jag food (serve half a frankfurter for a few days, then one fourth, then none). Throughout this process, don't stress out if your child doesn't touch anything else on his plate. "The more matter-of-fact you are, the more likely it is that he'll grow curious about other foods and begin eating them," Dr. Wood says. Plus, eating less of his old favorite will make him hungrier for new alternatives.

Pitfall #5

"I add cereal to my baby's bottle to help her sleep through the night."

There's no evidence that this practice helps infants sleep better, Dr. Kleinman says. In addition, the only food a baby less than 4 months old should be having is breast milk or formula, which supply all the nutrients and calories an infant needs. Introducing cereal too early can lead to excess weight gain, and a chubby baby can in turn have a tougher time mastering milestones like rolling over, sitting up, and crawling. Starting solids too soon can also increase your baby's risk of developing allergies. Even if your child is old enough to eat baby food, putting cereal in her bottle can result not only in overfeeding but also in choking, Dr. Kleinman warns. For a better night's sleep, stick to a consistent bedtime routine, make sure your infant gets enough rest during the day, and consider giving her a room of her own if she still sleeps with you (you'll be less likely to be roused by her small stirrings). Need more bedtime solutions? Check out Baby Sleep From A to Zzz,.

Pitfall #6

"My 9-month-old has only two teeth, so I still feed him baby food."

Sticking to strained foods for much of the first year (and beyond) can undermine your goal of getting your baby to enjoy a varied diet. A 2001 British study of more than 9,300 babies found that those who were introduced to solids with lumpy textures between the ages of 6 and 9 months were less likely, as toddlers, to be picky eaters and more likely to eat common family foods than were children who stuck to completely creamy foods until after 10 months of age. "Babies tend to be more open to new experiences between 6 and 9 months than they are later on in the first year," Moores explains. Waiting too long to transition to textured foods could also hinder your child's development: Without the stimulation of coarser foods, your baby may fail to develop the proper swallowing skills needed to eat lumpy foods and may be at risk for developing oral aversion.

The key to not missing the moment? Watch for signs that your baby is ready to progress. For instance, if your 8-month-old keeps grabbing for the spoon, it's time to gradually introduce lumpier solids that he'll be able to chew with his gums (like Cheerios, bits of shredded chicken, or discs of soft, cooked carrots); you can also switch to more coarsely mashed home-cooked foods or commercial second-stage baby foods.

Pitfall #7

"I don't give my toddler dairy because it seems to cause stomachaches."

Unless your doctor has diagnosed your child with a milk allergy or intolerance, it's a mistake to eliminate dairy from her diet. "Dairy products deliver a variety of minerals essential for healthy growth that are hard for kids to get from other food sources," Dr. Kleinman says. In fact, allergies to milk protein are a lot less common than most parents think and are usually diagnosed in early infancy. Babies who react badly to formula develop vomiting, nasal congestion, and loose stools. Lactose intolerance--the inability to produce lactase, the enzyme needed to digest milk--is also extremely rare in kids under 3. (It's still uncommon up to age 7 or 8, though the risk is higher among African- and Asian-Americans.) Your toddler's tummy troubles are more likely due to overeating or emotional excitement. These problems usually pass within a few hours and are nothing to worry about. But if your child's stomach symptoms are accompanied by bloating or diarrhea, she may have an intestinal bug. It's important to keep your child hydrated during a bout of stomach flu. Call your doctor, especially if the problem persists for more than 24 hours.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the May 2003 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.