Common Toddler-Feeding Pitfalls

Hot Dogs, Rice Cereal, Baby Food, and Dairy

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.

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