New advice says sweet foods and drinks have no place in your baby or toddler’s diet and can even influence taste preferences for years to come. We asked experts to breakdown what that really means. 

By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
January 05, 2021
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Babies and toddlers shouldn't have any added sugar, according to new government recommendations. The newest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans caution that children younger than 2 have no room in their diets for sugar—and that giving sweet foods and drinks could set them up to prefer overly sweet flavors later in life.

The time between birth and the second birthday is critically important for growth and development, say the Guidelines, which are updated every five years (and for the first time ever, provide advice about babies and toddlers). Since babies and toddlers need a lot of nutrients but eat relatively small amounts of food, every bite should count. If you focus on giving nutritious foods, there's no room left for sweet foods and beverages like desserts and sweet drinks, which are usually low in nutrients.

Credit: Getty Images.

Sugary foods may also influence what kinds of foods and flavors your child prefers and make less-sweet foods a harder sell. "Because babies already have a taste for sweet foods when they're born, offering sugary foods during a time when new flavor preferences are being established may interfere with learning to like vegetables and other nutritious foods," says Jill Castle, MS, RD, Parents advisor and author of The Smart Mom's Guide to Starting Solids.

Plus, science shows that the foods given early may influence taste preferences and food choices for years to come.

The Guidelines also single out the following things to avoid for children under 2:

  • All sugar-sweetened drinks such as soda, juice drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened waters.
  • Juice in the first year. In the second year, fruit intake should still come from whole fruit. If juice is given, offer no more than four ounces of 100 percent juice a day (and avoid any juice with added sugar).
  • Toddler milks and drinks, which tend to contain added sugar (and offer no clear benefit). Kids at this age should be getting nutrients from food and cow's milk or fortified soy milk (as well as breastmilk if you continue to breastfeed).
  • Low- and no-calorie sweeteners, which may contribute to a preference for very-sweet foods and drinks.

The Bottom Line

So does this mean the end of the traditional first birthday smash cake—or that you already screwed up if your baby had a few licks of ice cream? Don't stress out about anything your child has already eaten. But if your baby or toddler is getting daily desserts, regular sweet drinks, or even sugar-sweetened snacks like granola bars when they're fussy in the stroller, it's a good time to step back and reconsider, says Castle.

"For young children, the goal is to establish healthy eating patterns, meet nutrient needs, and establish food preferences for a wide variety of foods," she says. "I say use this information to improve on your food choices and feeding practices, rather than beat yourself up with counter-productive guilt."

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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