By Gift Briton 

Caregivers are discouraged from feeding infants with products that contain excess sugar, salt or oils. These products offer little benefits to babies and increase their risk of developing non-communicable diseases, including cancer, obesity and diabetes, nutritionists say.

“Several processed foods contain excess salt, sugar or oil, and some also contain preservatives and food colours that may begin to initiate the process of introducing cancerous cells within the body,” Dr. Mary Mwale, Head of Food Security and Nutrition Unit at Kenya’s State Department for Agriculture, said during a press conference in Nairobi.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, infants should not be given any food other than breast milk until they are six months old, not even water. However, after six months (181 days after birth), their needs for energy and nutrients start to exceed what is provided by breast milk. During this time, they need to be introduced to other foodstuffs to meet those needs. This transition is popularly known as complementary feeding.

Complementary feeding needs to be done appropriately. The new foodstuffs being introduced to the baby should be hygienically stored and prepared. The food should also be able to provide sufficient energy, protein and micronutrients to the baby, with the feeding being timely and consistent with the infant’s signals of appetite and satiety.

Between six to eight months, infants should receive complementary foods 2–3 times a day. At six months, infants can eat pureed, mashed and semi-solid foods and by 8 months most infants can start eating alone.

Caregivers are advised to gradually increase food consistency and variety as the infant gets older, adapting to their requirements and abilities.

The feeding should increase to 3–4 times daily between 9–24 months, and by 12 months, most children can eat the same types of foods as consumed by the rest of the family, with emphasis placed on nutrient-dense foods, including meat, leafy vegetables, poultry, fish, legumes, eggs and dairy products.

“Many parents think that during complementary feeding, there are special foods that need to be sourced. Infants should be given locally available foods that can be easily sourced from the local markets,” Dr. Mwale said.

“For processed foods, we advise caregivers to use fortified foods. Look for the fortification mark on the front of the packet. The back side of the packet also gives details of the nutrients contained in the food. It is important to pick foods that will ensure optimum nutrition for the infant. Mothers should continue breastfeeding the baby for up to two years.”

In Africa, three in ten children below the age of five are stunted. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this phenomenon is attributed to poor maternal health and nutrition and inadequate infant and young child feeding practices. However, optimal feeding, including complementary feeding, may prevent the baby from stunting.

“Life begins at conception. So, if your child’s feeding is not optimal they may not be able to reach their full potential and we will end up with a population that is not adequately empowered, mentally and physically. This will also impact the general economic development of a country,” Dr Zipporah Bukania, Senior Principal Research Scientist, at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) said.

Families living in low-income communities are advised to venture into activities that will ensure the food security of the household, including starting kitchen gardens and focusing on locally available foods.