It’s commonly portrayed as the realm of infant formula, rice cereal, applesauce, teething biscuits, Zwieback toast and Cheerios. And in the following months a large pantry selection of strained this or that in tiny glass, commercial jars… Add to this picture more recent concoctions like toddler formula, Elmo crackers, mini juice packs, fruit gummies, and “Graduate” lines. All of this begs the question, exactly when and how did baby/early toddler nutrition become a string of processed convenience foods? The ingredient lists often smack more of Candyland than the “wholesome goodness” claimed on the labels. Was this really what nature intended? Can’t we do better by our baby Groks? What would Grandma Grok have to say about all of this? We’ve taken up the kid question before, but I thought it was time for a definitive focus on the youngest of the seedling set.
In a consumeristic society, conventional wisdom has an odd way of merging with marketing maneuver. These revisions to common sense seep in slowly, idea by idea, item by item, until we look around and suddenly don’t recognize the landscape or logic anymore. (That is, if we choose to think about it…) As we so often ask at MDA, how did our current customs come to stray so far from the way of our ancestors?
In Grok’s day, for one, babies had to nurse. Human milk was a long complex product of evolution. Milk with fatty acids for brain development, antibodies for immune system support and high nutrient and fat content resulted in healthy babies who would more likely survive the challenges of Grok’s day. If the milk could change as the child aged to better meet his/her needs over time, that child would have an even better chance of making it to adulthood. And, as we know, these characteristics in breastmilk were exactly what evolution favored and selected for over time. Because human babies had small stomachs, they needed to eat often. Breastmilk was the ultimate in portable food. Because it took two years for babies and young toddlers to develop teeth adequate to chew much of the food available in Grok’s day, they were dependent on their mothers’ milk. (There were, of course, no Cuisinart processors or food mills in Paleolithic times – and little time to bother with elaborate food preparation anyway.) Children transitioned to solids at a slow and gradual rate and took milk from their mothers throughout the toddler years.
So, if the Primal Blueprint vision blends the best of Grok’s day with the benefit of ours, what does this mean for the youngest among us today? Before you scratch the food processor from your baby registry, you should know that I don’t believe in eschewing the gadgets and gizmos that assist in providing good nutrition. I take issue with the modern redefinition of infant/toddler nutrition and the decided disadvantage it imposes on today’s seedlings.
One thing is for certain. Nursing was good enough for baby Grok, and it remains the ideal, unmatched source of nutrients that support human development. Though I’m not going to make a point of comparing formula feeding to mechanical bull riding while pregnant (remember that ad campaign?) I will put it out there – breast is best. Currently, the American Academy of Pediatrics (as well as other pediatric associations) recommends exclusively breastfeeding until six months, continuing through the first year with the introduction of solids, and after that as long as the mother desires. WHO and UNICEF promote breastfeeding until at least the age of two. As for the MDA stance, I consider breastmilk an absolutely crucial element in optimal infant and young toddler nutrition. Extended breastfeeding and/or the offering of pumped milk should continue through the age of two and ideally beyond.
Last month an Atlantic article The Case Against Breastfeeding caught the public’s (and my) attention and got a lot of tongues wagging. The author, Hanna Rosin, made the case that research didn’t support a significant health benefit of breastmilk over today’s infant formulas. Rosin set out to scrutinize the science behind the nursing-formula debate and to weigh the benefit of breastmilk against the efforts and frustrations of the mother who must provide it. Unfortunately, the article accomplished neither goal in any comprehensive or accurate way. As to the science, critics complain that Rosin conveniently scanned (and cited) selective medical literature. Her “search” into the debate was triggered by a 2001 JAMA article suggesting “inconsistent associations” between breastfeeding and subsequent obesity risk. She went on to point out the occasional incongruity to be found in breastfeeding research – whether it be related to allergies, IQ, diabetes, etc. (Someone should tell her this is always the case – no matter what the issue or condition studied.)
As for Rosin’s and other skeptics’ arguments, it’s true that subsequent diet and circumstance can undo the benefits of breastfeeding. Other advantages are so difficult to nail down in any absolute way that results can always be questioned from some angle (e.g. an individual child’s potential IQ versus his/her actual IQ). She also doesn’t mention (and perhaps didn’t bother to look at) how many of the “critical” studies were indirectly funded by the formula industry. Trust me, there are a lot out there, and the fine print is usually buried at the bottom.
Nonetheless, the overall picture of breastfeeding benefits looks like this. One of the most comprehensive review studies examined and screened over 9000 research abstracts. The final contents of the review included “43 primary studies on infant health outcomes, 43 primary studies on maternal health outcomes, and 29 systematic reviews or meta-analyses that covered approximately 400 individual studies.” The findings were these: a 36% reduction in SIDS, a 23-50% risk reduction (depending on breastfeeding duration) for middle ear infections, 42% risk reduction in eczema, 64% reduction in non-specific gastroenteritis, a 72% reduction in hospitalization for lower respiratory tract infections (infants under 1 year of age), a 27% reduction in asthma (40% for those with a family history), 7-24% reduction in later obesity, a 19-27% reduction in type 1 diabetes, a 39% reduction in type 2 diabetes, a 15-19% reduction in childhood leukemia, as well as an association with lower blood pressure, and lower total and LDL cholesterol. Association with cognitive development, particularly for premature or low birth weight infants, has been shown, but environmental factors have not been completely ruled out as confounding factors in existing studies.
Finally, research is coming out now suggesting a significant health benefit for the mother. In addition to helping prevent postpartum depression, nursing (particularly for two years or more) can also reduce the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, maternal type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease. Membership has its privileges.
All that said, I understand that modern life and individual circumstance can make nursing (particularly “extended” breastfeeding) difficult despite the incredible advantages to both mother and child. More mothers work outside the home and are away from their children for long stretches of time. Although the breast pump industry (along with the pumping culture) has skyrocketed in recent years, not every woman has the practical opportunity, legal entitlement or adequate location for pumping during the workday. These are legitimate questions our society needs to actively and concretely address.
Additionally, nursing requires a tremendous amount of patience, time, and (at certain stages) physical fortitude. No wonder nature designed positive motivators like hormonal release to encourage mother-child bonding and relaxation during breastfeeding. Mother Grok didn’t have much of an alternative to nursing, but she likely had more support and informal instruction within the tribal community than mothers do today.
In the rare case of milk supply issues or maternal absence, it’s probable that other lactating women in the group took on nursing responsibilities for an ailing or orphaned infant. Today we have the likes of La Leche League and professional lactation consultants to stand in for some of the traditional supports. Herbal remedies like fenugreek, alfalfa, nettle leaf, and goat’s rue can help stimulate milk production in mothers who need a boost because of illness, abnormally difficult labor and delivery, premature birth or poor nursing latch.
In the rare case of milk supply issues that couldn’t be fixed through herbal medicine, it’s probable that other lactating women in the group took on nursing responsibilities for an ailing or orphaned infant. Today, we don’t really live in tribes, villages, or closely-knit families with lactating females in our midst at all times, but we can still obtain donor breastmilk through programs like Milk Share, Human Milk 4 Human Babies (nice ring to it, eh?), and Eats on Feets. If milk-boosting isn’t working, I would strongly consider donor milk. Human breast absolutely is best, even if it’s not yours.
If breastfeeding isn’t an option because of maternal health, adoption or other irremediable circumstance, opinions differ on the best secondary options. Most experts suggest conventional formula preparations (particularly for newborns and young babies). Some have evaluated their composition to aid parents in their decision, but nearly all recommend avoiding soy formula all together.
There are also recipes for homemade formula, but it’s crucial in these circumstances to consult your pediatrician. For newborns and young babies, I would recommend conventional formula with DHA and ARA. (I’m not any fan of the formula companies, but infant nutrition involves a whole constellation of considerations. As much as I despise some of the industry marketing practices, the formula companies are closely regulated, and nutrient/hydration requirements have been precisely figured.)
For older babies, I would suggest caution and close medical collaboration when selecting and feeding homemade formula. Though many pediatricians suggest that cow’s milk is a sufficient substitute for formula after twelve months, I recommend continuing a DHA-containing formula (pediatrician-approved homemade or conventional if necessary) until at least eighteen months and preferably two years. Finally, although human breast milk can be purchased, it is generally far beyond the budget of most families. If your baby is premature or unhealthy at birth, talk to the hospital staff and your insurance company about the availability and coverage of donated breast milk.
Even in the best of circumstances, it’s important for nursing mothers to prioritize good nutrition for themselves. Breastmilk production requires extra protein, calcium, fatty acids and an overall addition of daily calories (usually between 350-500). Incorporating a wide variety of foods will help cultivate an infant’s taste for that same healthy fare once they transition to solids. It’s a wise idea to limit or eliminate foods associated with sensitivities and allergies like dairy, soy, gluten, peanuts, coffee and citrus.
This brings us to early foods… It’s impossible to cover the first year or so without discussing the transition to “real food” (as if breastmilk is somehow a substandard stand-in…). Ask a roomful of parents what their children’s pediatricians suggest for first foods, and you’ll inevitably hear infant rice or oatmeal from the vast majority. How many of us received the same from our parents? Show of hands?
Conventional wisdom and practice promotes a timeline that goes something like this: rice cereal at six months (sometimes even earlier!), quickly followed by infant oatmeal, followed by barley, followed by processed and pureed fruits, processed and pureed “sweet” vegetables (e.g. squash, sweet potatoes), followed by infant desserts like pudding and cobbler (seriously, folks), followed by the gradual inclusion of maybe an additional 3-4 processed “vegetable” varieties (for the last time, corn is not a vegetable – and neither are peas for that matter). Mixed into this mash of baby mush are innumerable Cheerios, “puffs” (grains decorated with coloring and air), “yogurt melts” and other such nutritional nonsense. I need a timeout just thinking about this….
First off, let me say what should be the obvious. Forget the grains. Pitch the cute boxes with the baby face and baby bowl and other sentimental imagery. Rice, oatmeal, barley. These are unnecessary elements of infant (or adult) nutrition. Although they might be cheaper per ounce, they are less nutrient dense, have a high glycemic index, and in early infancy can trigger allergic conditions. There’s the argument that babies should be exposed to grains to actually prevent allergies or intolerance later. The research is spotty, inconsistent, and the evolutionary logic doesn’t add up. However, because grains are so ubiquitous in our society, it might not be a bad idea to “test” for allergies at some point. Nonetheless, this process can easily wait until the age of one or later when babies have the enzymes to better handle their composition.
That takes care of the boxes. What about the jars? I mean, of course, the customary jars (Gerber, Heinz, Beechnut, etc.) that have lined the cabinets of parents for the last few generations. My first reaction is save your money. These baby purees contain so much water that you’re paying through the nose for a truly minute amount of actual food.
My second response is to forgo them for the sake of better nutrition as well as a better bottom line. Commercial baby foods, whether they come in the traditional jars or those little plastic containers, contain unnecessary and questionable fillers. (Something has to hold it together after including all that water). Fillers like cornstarch or tapioca add to the processed carb content of the “meal” without adding any nutrition to it. The primary food ingredient itself is likely overcooked, a process which depletes the nutritional content. (Some analyses have found natural and organic brands such as Earth’s Best to be more nutrient dense than the bigger conventional companies.) By all means, skip the infant desserts, which have a lower nutritional profile than their regular puree counterparts. If you’re looking for convenience, I’d suggest the frozen baby foods that have become widely available in the last few years (Happy Baby, Plum, Sweet Cheeks, etc.).
Ultimately, however, I’d recommend making your own. The business of do-it-yourself baby food has come a long way since my children were young. In addition to the old fashioned food mills and the small size processors, you can now find special freezer trays, portable serving cubes, baby food sieves, innumerable cookbooks and even an all-in-one steamer and processor. With all the gadgets and gizmos, the time investment is minimal, the nutrition unmatched, and the financial outlay less than most other options.
The best first foods around six months of age are non-allergenic, fresh and flavorful foods that provide impressive amounts of the nutrients especially helpful for infants. Avocado is a great first option: easy to prepare and rich in healthy fats. Bananas, another old standby, aren’t bad either. Cooked (but liquid) egg yolks are a good choice and offer essential cholesterol. (Yes, cholesterol is good for something.) Meats run through a fine food mill provide the iron and protein critical for this stage. Pureed beets, carrots, spinach and other softer greens, sweet potatoes, turnips, apples, pears, berries are good additions. (Side note: some experts suggest delaying the feeding of fresh beets, spinach and carrots until at least six months if not a few months longer given the high nitrate content that young babies largely convert to nitrites.)
Most fruits and vegetables can be slightly cooked to create an easier consistency and promote better digestion. (Obviously, roots and tubers need to be fully softened.) That said, it’s unnecessary to cook these items to the point of unrecognizable mush. You want to balance nutrient retention with baby-friendly texture. You can add unsweetened yogurt to fruits and pureed greens. Include a bit of cod liver oil, and you’ve got yourself a good smoothie Baby Grok would’ve loved.
For babies and young children, I’d definitely recommend organic whenever and wherever you can find it. (This goes for any food group.) The smaller the seedling, the more vulnerable they are to pesticide residues, hormones and antibiotics. Organic and wild variety produce also offers more nutritional bang for your buck. Dairy and meats should be pastured whenever possible.
The bottom line on baby seedlings is this: it’s clear what nature intended. Human milk for human babies. Whole foods in appropriate, easy to eat forms. Traditional practice trumps conventional wisdom here as it does in nearly every part of the Primal Blueprint. Nonetheless, Lady Grok would’ve killed for that Beaba….
Have your seedling suggestions, comments or questions? Send them on, and thanks for reading.
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Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.