Feeding young children during the COVID-19 pandemic
Ensuring their future growth and development
It is particularly important for young children under the age of two years to have a nutritious diet to protect their immunity, and to ensure their future growth and development. The COVID-19 crisis is disrupting normal life, so that parents and caregivers may either not be able to afford or get out to buy the food that they normally give their young children. This may mean adapting habits.
Here are some tips for ensuring that young children receive a nutritious diet during the COVID-19 crisis.
1. Continue to breastfeed
Up until six months of age, breastmilk provides all the nutrients that a child needs and protects against illness. Babies do not need additional liquids or food and in fact these may be harmful. At six months of age, breastmilk is no longer enough on its own and a variety of foods need to be introduced to ‘complement’ breastmilk. However, breastfeeding is still essential as a source of nutrients and to ensure immunity, so it is best to continue up to two years of age or beyond.
2. Provide a variety of foods and regular meals
Children from six months of age need to eat from at least four food groups each day including fruit and vegetables, grains, pulses and nuts, animal and dairy products and staple foods such as rice. They also need to drink plenty of liquids such as breastmilk and/or purified water to keep them hydrated. As they have small stomachs, they need to eat regularly, and the types of food and frequency can be slowly built up over time.
- Between 6-8 months, feed children two to three times a day with half a cup of soft food at every meal. Prepare simple soft porridges and add fruit and vegetables, eggs, milk or milk powder, and cooked meat. Where fresh products are not available, frozen or tinned products that are low in sugar and salt can be substituted. Foods from the family meal that are mashed or pureed using a clean spoon or other implement can also be given. The food needs to be thick enough to stick to the spoon. Watery foods will fill up a child’s tummy too quickly. The taste of a new food may surprise your child. Give them time to get used to new foods and flavours. Be patient and do not force them to eat. Watch for signs that they are full and stop feeding. This video gives helpful advice on first foods for children.
- Between 9-11 months, feed children three to four times a day with one cup of food at every meal. Children are now beginning to chew foods so they can eat foods that have been cut up in small pieces as well as softer pureed foods. Again, food from the family meal are a good option. This video gives more advice on food for children in this age group.
- Between 12-24 months, children can start to eat family foods and feed themselves from their own plate. They need to eat three to four times a day with three quarters to one cup of food at every meal. This video gives advice for feeding children in this age group.
3. Give healthy snacks and plenty of water
To keep children going during the day, add one or two healthy snacks to eat between meals and lots of purified water. Choose snacks like fruit or vegetables that are either soft or cut into pieces suitable for the age of your child. Bananas are a good choice but this will depend upon what is available. It is tempting to give children soft drinks or sweet and savoury snacks that can be bought cheaply. These types of food and drink are damaging to a child’s health. They contain very high amounts of sugar, salt, fat and chemicals, and can cause lasting damage to teeth and healthy development.
4. Avoid manufactured baby foods and formula milks
Some children will be used to having manufactured baby foods or formula milks marketed for children over six months of age. This may be because mothers have had to leave the family home for work and can no longer breastfeed or because these foods and formula milks are considered healthy. In fact, manufactured baby foods and formula milk are no healthier than home-prepared foods for children over six months, often contain very high levels of sugar, and may also contain excess amounts of salt and unhealthy fats. The COVID-19 crisis means that families are more likely to be staying at home and where cooking facilities are available, provide an opportunity to replace formula milk and manufactured food with home-prepared food. As long as home-prepared food is healthy, varied and is prepared hygienically, it can be given to young children. It saves money and can help children learn to appreciate new flavours!
Find out more: UNICEF Parenting Page on Food and Nutrition