These gains in weight and height are the primary indices of nutritional status and their accurate measure at regular intervals are compared with standard growth charts. These measurements are important tools for monitoring a child's progress particularly during the first six to 12 months of life.
Breastfeeding on demand remains the ideal form of feeding for healthy babies who are born at term. Human milk provides optimum nutritional needs for growth and development.
The first four to six months are a period of very rapid growth, particularly for the brain, and the amino acid and fatty acid composition of breast milk is ideally suited to meet those needs.
Breast milk also contains anti-bacterial and anti-infection agents, including immunoglobulins, which have an important role to play in boosting immune function.
The colostrum, which is the fluid produced by the mammary gland during the first few days after birth, is rich in protein and has high levels of minerals and vitamins. Colostrum also contains antibodies, anti-infection agents, anti-inflammatory factors, growth factors, enzymes and hormones, which are beneficial for growth and development.
Breastfeeding is strongly advocated for physiological, psychological and emotional reasons. There is no reason why breastfeeding should not continue for as long as it is nutritionally satisfactory for mother and child up to two years.
However, with changing lifestyles and the availability of commercially prepared formulae, prepared formulae is generally safe provided that an approved infant formula is used under strict hygiene conditions.
The infant formulae attempt to mimic as far as possible the composition of human milk and their use must comply with guidelines laid down by the World Health Organisation.
Formula-fed infants also need to be demand-fed and the formulae must be made up exactly according to the manufacturer's instructions for optimal growth.
Special attention has to be taken to sterilise all the feeding equipment to reduce the potential risk of contamination, because formula-fed babies do not have the same degree of immunological protection as breast-fed babies.
Introduction of complementary solid food is usually a gradual process over several weeks or months, starting at about six months of age.
The exact timing is determined by the individual infant and mother, and reflects the fact that breast milk will suffice in those first months but will no longer be able to provide adequate nutrition by itself as the baby grows.
The introduction of complementary foods by about six months is important to ensure normal chewing and speech development. The quality, number and variety of solid feeds can be increased gradually at a pace that will be generally dictated by the child.
Cereals are generally the first foods that are introduced into the infant's diet (mixed with a little breast milk or formula), with purées of vegetables and fruits and meats to follow.
By exclusive breastfeeding up to four to six months of age, the likelihood of allergies is lessened. Foods that are more likely to cause allergic reactions in sensitive children, such as egg whites and fish, are generally introduced after 12 months of age.
With present changes in lifestyle, commercially available baby food play a growing role in the diet of children and should therefore meet strict standards of quality and safety.
The convenience and variety of foods available make them a good option to use to complement home-prepared foods. Commercial baby foods are prepared from fresh fruits, vegetables and meat with no added preservatives and must meet very strict standards.
An important consideration in the first year of life is the amount of iron supplied in the diet and iron-deficiency anaemia is routinely screened for during infancy.
The use of an iron-fortified formula or cereal, and the provision of iron-rich foods such as pureed meats can help to prevent this problem.
Source: The European Food Information Council (www.eufic.org)