area of focus:
infant and child health
What you should know about the health of your young child.
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Infant and Early childhood health
An infant’s well-being can be described in many ways but when we generally think about an infant’s well-being this should include their physical, social and emotional needs.
During the first five years of life, the brain develops connections faster than at any other time. A child’s experiences during this time stimulate these connections and form the foundations for lifelong health, learning and behaviour.
This brief introduction will help you to understand your new baby, their needs for the first year of life, and how to foster secure attachments through skin to skin, baby-wearing and responsive parenting. It will provide some insight into responsive parenting and responsive feeding; finally it will offer a perspective on how to introduce and explore solid foods.
Your new baby
When your baby is born their whole world changes from the snug, muffled, dark and constantly moving world inside you, to a scary, bright, noisy, cold and often still world outside. An effective way to support your baby in this transition, is to hold them in their natural habitat – skin to skin.
Skin to skin contact has a wide range of positive effects on both you and your baby. It stimulates your baby’s feeding reflexes, helps to regulate their breathing, heart rate and temperature and also colonises their gut with friendly bacteria, laying down the foundations for a strong immune system. Whilst cuddled together, skin to skin triggers the release of milk making hormone prolactin, supporting breastfeeding, as well as the love hormone oxytocin, creating the perfect environment for you and your baby to fall in love.
Don’t worry about cuddling your baby too much, it is impossible to ‘spoil’ a baby! It is completely normal for your baby to want to be held a lot. New-born babies are little bundles of instinct and do not have the cognitive ability to manipulate you. Responding to your baby helps to build a close and loving relationship and fosters a secure attachment. There is strong evidence that the development of secure attachments in the formative years has a positive, lifelong impact on relationships.
Feeding your baby
However your baby is fed, it is recommended that you feed them responsively. This means avoiding routine feeding times and following your baby’s lead, offering a feed whenever they display hunger cues or show signs of wanting to go to the breast/chest. Responding to your baby will not ‘spoil’ them. Keeping your baby close and being responsive to their needs helps them to feel secure and aids brain development. Babies often get into their own rhythm or pattern of feeding as they get older, but during the first few weeks they are likely to want to feed frequently.
If your baby is breast/chest feeding it is useful to remember that, in addition to nutrition they may wish to feed for love, reassurance, pain relief or comfort. Responsive breast/chest feeding is not limited to offering when your baby signals, you might wish to offer your baby a feed for your own reasons, such as to ease engorgement, or so that you can reconnect after time spent away from them.
If your baby is fed using a bottle, the current recommendation is to use a paced bottle feeding method. Paced bottle feeding supports your baby to have more control over the feed and can help to combat overfeeding.
More information on responsive, paced feeding can be found here: https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2019/04/Infant-formula-and-responsive-bottle-feeding.pdf
Carrying your baby
During the first three months of your baby’s life (commonly referred to as the ‘fourth trimester’) it is normal for your baby to want to be close to you as they adjust to the world around them. Carrying your baby naturally keeps them close and enables you to recognise and respond quickly to their needs.
Parents all over the world have historically carried their babies in a variety of ways in order to keep them safe, travel and generally get on with everyday tasks such as eating, working and looking after older children.
Like all areas of parenting, there are an overwhelming number of sling/baby carriers out there, making it difficult to know what is ‘best’ to buy. Carrying your baby doesn’t need to be expensive. Some parents opt for a single piece of fabric (often called a wrap), whilst others prefer a ring-sling or something more structured with buckles and clips. Visiting a sling library can be a useful way of exploring the many different types of slings/carriers that exist. Hiring a sling/carrier from a sling library provides an opportunity for you to consider which type might work best for you before investing in one of your own.
In the immediate postnatal period it is common for babies to be sleepy, often this is because your baby is recovering from labour and birth. Long labours, challenging births and some pain relief medications can cause babies to be especially sleepy in the first few days after they are born. Lots of uninterrupted skin to skin can stimulate your baby’s’ feeding reflexes and encourage them to feed.
Contrary to common belief, it is important that you wake and offer your baby the opportunity to feed frequently in the first few days after birth (or until they are waking and showing signs of hunger by themselves).If you are breast/chest feeding and find that your baby is too sleepy to feed, expressing by hand and giving your baby colostrum can encourage them to think about feeding and also helps to stimulate milk supply.
In the early days babies spend a lot of time the sleeping in short bursts, waking frequently throughout the day and night. Western society is obsessed with infant sleep and often leaves parents feeling that their baby should be sleeping through night as soon as possible. This expectation works against your baby’s biology. https://www.basisonline.org.uk/how-babies-sleep/ is an excellent, evidence based resource which discusses babies biological sleep patterns and explores why babies sleep the way that they do.
Introducing solid foods
The current recommendation is for all babies to be fed exclusively with breastmilk or first stage infant formula for the first 6 months of life.
It is common for parents to feel that their baby is showing signs of being ready for solid foods before 6 months of age. These signs, such as waking more frequently during the night or feeding more often, are normal developmental changes and not signs of readiness for solid foods.
Solid foods can be introduced around 6 months of age when your baby is able to;
*Stay in a sitting position
*Hold their head steady
*Locate, pick up and put food to their mouth
You may wish to explore the different ways of offering solid foods. Some parents decide to offer their baby whole foods (often called baby led feeding), others offer purees via a spoon whilst many will opt to combine the two. Whatever you decide to do, milk remains your babies main source of nutrition for the first year. Solid foods are initially about the opportunity to experience new tastes and textures. Your baby will naturally reduce milk intake as they increase the amount of solid food that they eat over the following months.
Whilst milk remains the main source of nutrition for the duration of the first year, it is still important to carefully consider the quality and nutritional value of the foods that you decide to offer. Avoiding highly processed, salty, sugary and chemical laden foods will maximise the nutrition available to your baby. If you cook your meals from scratch and do not add salt, you may wish to simply offer your baby a small portion of what you are eating.
Eating together as a family can make mealtimes a fun and sociable learning environment for your little one.
This evidence based guide comprehensively covers all the essential information and common questions that parents have around offering their baby solid foods.
The first year of your baby’s life will present many challenges, changes and milestones. It is important to remember to trust your gut and listen to your instincts – no one knows your baby better than you do. This period of time will see you grow and learn together as you navigate the exciting adventure of becoming a family.
Louise Oliver is a Breastfeeding Counsellor, Peer support trainer & Doula who has been supporting families for more than a decade. She founded Diversity in Infant Feeding after noticing the distinct lack of diverse representation in the infant feeding world. She is a Director of Devon-based Early Nourishment CIC, a company that provides universally accessible services with the aim of improving families’ physical and mental wellbeing and reducing social isolation. She is also Director of The New Baby Network CIC, a Birmingham and black Country-based company that aims to build a perinatal support network for new families, with a focus on attachment and relationship building.