Birth to Three—The Golden Years in Childhood Nutrition
Mariam Majeed and Haider Khattak
Early care, nutrition and nurturing, especially in the first 3 years of life, have a lasting impact on brain development, mental capacity and learning ability. “Early malnutrition weakens children’s physical and cognitive potential and even their non-cognitive traits such as motivation and persistence, so it is costly for their future health, and socioeconomic success,” according to information compiled for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. According to P. Glewwe and E. M. King, authors of “The Impact of Early Childhood Nutritional Status on Cognitive Development,” the effects of malnutrition that persist past the second year of a child’s life are difficult to reverse. And yet, we don’t want to feed our children the wrong kinds of food and unwittingly set them up for childhood obesity.
According to the Holy Quran:
“The Mothers shall give suck to their off-spring for two whole years…” (2:233)
Since the beginning of civilization, the best food for an infant has been breast milk. It contains all the vitamins and minerals needed by the infant and, other than infant formula, is the baby’s sole source of nutrition for the first 4 to 6 months. The benefits of breast milk are many: babies may have fewer incidences of stomach viruses and diarrhea, fewer respiratory tract diseases (such as asthma), fewer instances of ear infection, reduced chances of childhood obesity, fewer allergies and breastfeeding, often, creates a special bond between mother and baby. For moms, breastfeeding may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, breast and ovarian cancer, and postpartum depression. During this critical period, remember that a breastfeeding mother needs an additional 500 calories a day relative to a non-nursing mother.
If a baby takes to breast-feeding easily, nursing is perfect when traveling with your baby to the mosque or stores. You don’t have to worry about fresh milk or clean water for formula. With practice, you can nurse your baby while staying covered, and it is easy to quickly console a fussy baby by offering to nurse. These health and ease advantages, combined with the fact that breast milk is free, makes nursing a prescription for a happy and healthy baby and mom.
While babies may be given infant formula during the first year of life, cow’s milk is not recommended. When complimenting breast milk with formula, Muslim parents must be aware of halal and haram ingredients commonly used in formulas. Abbott Laboratories whose complete line (Isomil and Similac, among other brands) is globally halal-certified by IFANCA, and Mead Johnson Nutritionals whose products are halal-certified only for certain Asian countries, are the best examples of manufacturers producing the world’s most trusted brand names in infant foods. The complete list of halal-certified formula is at www.ifanca.org.
Fish can be a part of a healthy diet for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Fish provides heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and is a good source of lean protein. However, some types of fish may contain chemicals such as mercury, posing health risks to the unborn child or nursing infant. Lactating mothers may consume up to 12 ounces a week (2 average meals) of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. These include shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. “White” tuna (albacore), however, has more mercury than canned light tuna and dietitians recommend no more than 6 ounces of white tuna per week. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, and young children, should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.
At 4 – 6 months most infants are ready to try solid foods once parents have the green light from their pediatrician. Iron-fortified infant rice cereal is a good first solid food because it is easy to digest and provides an important nutrient for babies. Initially, it’s best served diluted or runny by measuring a teaspoon of dry iron-fortified cereal with about 2 tablespoons of breast milk or formula so the consistency of the cereal appears runny. Found in the baby food section of grocery stores and labeled “Cereal for Baby” these cereals are enriched with a form of iron that may be easier for infants to absorb than forms of iron found in other cereal products.
Use a spoon and put the cereal only on the tip of the spoon. If a baby has trouble swallowing, then it’s advisable to wait for a few days before trying again, as your baby may not be ready for solid food. In case your infant has diarrhea, vomiting, or rashes on the skin, it may signal food allergies to that specific food.
According to the USDA, after rice cereal, oat and barley infant cereal can be added at one week intervals. Mixed-grain cereals, however, should be served only once the baby has been introduced to each grain separately, for a substantial number of days. Further, the USDA recommends that babies be served wheat cereal only after they are 8 months old as it is most likely, of all cereals, to cause an adverse reaction in babies. The risk of intolerance decreases by age 8 to 9 months. Once baby is used to runny cereals, parents can gradually thicken the cereal to integrate towards eating solid foods.
The next step would be to add vegetables which are mildly flavored, then non-citrus fruits of pureed/mashed potato consistency, including apple sauce or strained bananas. Again, a waiting period between first attempts of different foods is advisable to see if your baby has any allergies and if he/she can tolerate the given food choice. In the beginning, offer only one to two teaspoons of the new food to check your baby’s tolerance. Foods that are high in sugar, salt and/or fats should be avoided.
Babies require essential nutrients such as iron and protein to aid their growth and development. Specially formulated baby cereals are rich in iron. Once baby is able to eat thicker cereals, around 7-9 months, you can add pureed meat to their diet. Meat based, store-bought baby foods in the USA, unlike some UK brands, aren’t halal-certified as yet. This means that many Muslim babies are on a mainly vegetable based diet unless parents prepare homemade baby food.
Homemade, pureed halal meat can easily be prepared in your kitchen. Choose extra-lean meats such as chicken and turkey breast, top round steak, and eye of round roast. Poultry can be baked, and pureed with a small amount of breast milk or water after cooled. To prepare beef, boil lean beef in a small amount of water and then scrape it with the tip of a spoon. Be sure to cook all meats to a safe internal temperature. Beef should be 170° F in the center and should have no pink. Poultry should be 180° F in the center, and juices should run clear. Luncheon and deli meats should not be consumed by young children or pregnant women unless they are reheated until steaming hot, due to the risk of Listeria.
Gradually, as your infant gets older, he/she will be interested in eating finger foods such as cooked vegetables, banana slices, plain crackers or mild cheese. Check with a pediatrician before opting for juice over water. While juice can be started after 6 months, children should avoid drinking it out of a bottle as they risk developing baby bottle tooth decay. Food such as raw vegetables, hot dogs, popcorn, raisins, grapes, nuts, hard candies, and whole kernel corn should not be given to babies since they are choking hazards.
At age two, children can have the same foods as the rest of the family. However, make sure meals are moderate in fat and saturated fat, but provide the calories and nutrients toddlers need for normal growth. Children should get a variety of foods such as halal lean meat, dairy products, diced vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats. Because young children often eat only a small amount at a time, offer them nutritious “meal foods” as snacks—milk or 100% fruit juice, soft diced fruit, well-cooked vegetable sticks, and thin strips of halal cooked meat or poultry, whole grain crackers, eggs, smoothies, dry cereal, and halal cheese. Some pediatricians do not recommend certain food items like eggs which may cause allergies.
The correct portion for a toddler’s meal is one tablespoon of each food served for every year of age. For example, a two year old, should get two tablespoons of everything on his/her plate to start. According to the USDA, pre-schoolers require the equivalent of two cups of milk each day, but they can have it in several small forms—three 1/2-cup portions of milk plus a 3/4-oz piece of cheese, for example. If your child tends to want to eat the same foods every day, he or she may prefer foods with a similar temperature or texture. For example if your child likes mashed potatoes, he may also like warmed apple sauce, custard or macaroni and cheese, or rice. As a general rule, never force-feed or over-feed your child, thinking he will be healthier. Children’s stomachs are small, so feed your baby smaller, more frequent meals.
Finally, make meal-time a time to remember God by teaching your child the etiquette of eating as outlined in the Quran and Sunnah. Make it a time to remember His blessings and a time to give thanks for all that He has provided.
He has given you everything you have asked Him for. If you tried to number Allah’s blessings, you could never count them. Man is indeed wrongdoing, ungrateful. (Sura Ibrahim: 34)
A religious scholar once said that eating, like any other act of a Muslim, is a matter of worship and begins in the name of God, Bismillah. Islam reminds Muslims that food and drink are a provision of God provided to them for survival and in order to maintain good health. When we feed our babies, we must make it a habit to say Bismillah or In the Name of God. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is reported to have said:
“Eat less you will be healthier.” If we make this our habit, we will transfer it to our children.