On average, I spend about fifteen hours per week caring for young children and am also the eldest in my family so I have younger siblings around pretty much 24/7. I definitely see children's nutrition as a hugely important issue! I want to start off this post be saying that I am not a parent and thus cannot tell you exactly what is right for your child(ren), as I believe ultimately parents are responsible for their children and need to make the best decisions for their family. However, I research and learn to the best of my ability so the goal is that you'll be able to apply this information in feeding your children. :)
Breast milk is the most nutritionally superior and natural food to nourish babies. Not only does it provide the perfect balance of fat, calories, protein, and carbohydrates, but it aids in the development of healthy gut flora for a strong immune system. (See why this matters here) Mother's milk contains omega-3's, DHA, ARA, enzymes to aid in digestion of fat called lipase, antimicrobial enzymes, cholesterol (important for brain development), highly digestible form of iron, and so much more. In addition the vast nutritional benefits, nursing is a key way of emotional bonding between mother and child. From a pure common sense stand point, nursing is cheaper and easier. No bottles or equipment to warm or clean, no expensive formula to buy and risk running out of at an inconvenient time, and all you need to feed is yourself and your child. Nursing should hopefully continue to AT LEAST one year, preferably at least two years, but some mothers choose to nurse longer.
Though nursing is not always possible, it is usually a lot more doable than some medical personnel make it out to be. The mother's body is designed to nourish a child and generally does not need formula supplementation to do this. In my personal experience, I have known many mothers who have been "scared off" from nursing their baby because their doctor told them the baby wasn't getting enough nutrition. While I am sure at times there is truth in this and sometimes supplementation is required, by and large mothers are capable of nourishing their baby without modern intervention. For mothers unable to nurse for whatever reason, there are several homemade formula recipes that are much more nourishing than commercial formulas which are usually filled with extra sugars, GMOs, vegetable oils, and preservatives. You can find some recipes using raw cows or goats milk here. Also, look into milk sharing and milk donor banks.
The common first food in our society is rice cereal. Amylase is the enzyme necessary for grain digestion and is only present in scant amounts in a baby's digestive system, thus making it unwise for a grain to be the first food. Most commercial infant cereals are highly refined and contain preservatives. Promising first foods include cooked egg yolk (not the white, which contains hard-to-digest proteins and shouldn't be fed until baby is 12 months) and steamed and mashed vegetables such as avocado, broccoli, sweet potatoes or squash, peas, and carrots. Remember that breast milk contains lactose (a sugar) and is sweeter than vegetables. Often mashing the veggies with breast milk or banana will give baby a familiar taste to help accustom them to the new flavors. Mashed fruits such as applesauce, pears, or prune puree are sweeter and thus should be introduced after vegetables or else you run the risk of your baby rejecting vegetables in favor of the sweeter fruits. Simply steaming and mashing vegetables and then freezing them in ice cube trays is a cheap, easy way to make your own baby food.
Now that good first food options have been established, the obvious question remains, when should baby begin solid foods? Breast milk is nutritionally sufficient through age 12 months so there is no need to rush starting solids. Babies digestive systems are still developing, and as a general rule, solids should not be started until 6 months. Common signs of readiness include loss of tongue thrust reflex, stability sitting up without assistance, and able to make a "chewing" motion with mouth. If you start solids and baby gets diaper rash, spits up more than usual, or has no interest in food, it's too early so try again in a few weeks. Remember that breast milk is still the baby's key source of nourishment so the mother's continued focus on a nutrient-dense diet to nourish her baby is important.
Key Nutrients for Babies
Babies need fat, cholesterol, and calories to grow and develop properly. Healthy brains, cardiovascular systems, eyes, and bodies require all sorts of nutrients and thus a varied diet is advisable. Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly important, so consider adding a small amount of cod liver oil into baby's solid foods and if you are nursing, ingesting it yourself so that your baby may gain the nutritional benefits from your milk. Iron is also important for growing babies which is why egg yolks are a great food to be feeding your little one.
Often, keeping a "schedule" of what foods you will feed each day helps to ensure adequate vitamin intake through various vegetables. For example, broccoli on Monday, avocado on Tuesday, squash on Wednesday, etc. This way, you make sure your baby gets different nutrients from different foods.
Remember that you are developing your baby's palate for life. Children can actually like vegetables if they're fed them at a young age. :) Avoiding sugar as much as possible is recommended as keeping children from getting addicted to sugar is doing them a major health favor.
What other questions might you have about nutrition for babies?