Your child’s well-being: Diet and digestion

When compared to an adult, a child's gut is still developing. Thus, the diet that your child follows should be different from that of adults. Here are a few tips.

By Smitha Suresh  • 9 min read

Your child’s well-being: Diet and digestion

Does your child suffer from gastro-intestinal troubles like constipation, flatulence, stomach pain or even acid reflux (common in infants) on a regular basis? Children’s guts, unlike those of adults, are still developing. Guts get stronger as they get used to food varieties. Uncomfortable gastric symptoms can be experienced till a child is seven years old. After seven years, his gut gets almost as strong as that of an adult.

For the first six months, the child should be exclusively breastfed, unless the feed is totally or partially inadequate for the child. Research is taking place on the benefits of formulations which are 100% organic and natural, which were being used by our ancestors and village elders, for infants who did not have access to mother’s milk.

Breast milk sets up your child’s immune system by enabling it to produce antibodies and immunoglobulins. Through its bacterial content (lactobacillus bifidus), it keeps harmful pathogens at bay. Besides, breastfeeding safely introduces bacteria from the environment into the infant’s colon, helping build the intestinal flora, which in turn produces Vitamin K and other nutrients.

Along with mother’s milk, soft and well-cooked foods should be introduced to the child once he turns six months old, as the baby needs more nutrients and calories. Introduce cereal foods containing rice, millets (ragi, varagu), oats, along with pulses, one by one.

Cow's milk and wheat need to be introduced carefully, one after the other, in small amounts and with other foods. See if your child is comfortable digesting these, does not show any signs of gastro-intestinal distress, and has normal stools. If the child is not comfortable, then immediately stop both as it could lead to severe allergies later. Try to re-introduce at one year. Often, diluted curd would be tolerated where milk is not; use this to ensure your child’s Vitamin B 12 supply which is not found in plant sources.

Soy, shellfish, fish, peanuts, tree nuts, and eggs are allergens and ideally should not be introduced to a child until he is a year old. The child needs these initial months to develop a basal digestive capacity and immunity level.

An allergy manifests externally as rashes, breathlessness, wheezing symptoms or a dry cough; but the lining of the digestive system is the first to come into contact with the allergen and is the most vulnerable. In fact, the child may initially experience diarrhoea, vomiting, gas build-up and abdominal pain, which are attempts to get rid of the allergen and foreign bodies.

It is wise not to feed children any junk food till they are two years old, and even then it should not be made into a habit. While biscuits, instant noodles, burgers, pizzas and fries are not good for their gut health, there are many more equivalent Indian junk foods. Avoid feeding children large quantities of refined cereals like white rice, rava and maida - these are easy sources of energy, but have no nutrients. Go whole grain.

When to go to the doctor: If your child is vomiting, is showing signs of dehydration / has severe abdominal pain / has fever along with digestive problems, consult the doctor.

Tips for the little ones (0 – 2 years):

While feeding, keep the infant’s body at an angle of at least 40 degrees to prevent food/breast milk from flowing back into the oesophagus once it reaches her stomach. Burp the child during and after the feed.

If your child spits up regularly and also makes a fuss when being fed, if she is not gaining weight and is irritable – the problem could be a gastro - oesophageal reflux disorder or GERD. You should meet your paediatrician.

While breastfeeding, stay off spicy, high fat, gas-causing foods – these might cause disturbances in your infant’s digestion. Drink lots of water - minimum 3 litres per day.

Avoid giving children sugar or salt in the first 2 years of life –they will get their carbohydrates and sodium from other natural foods. The food may appear bland to you, but the probability of your child getting addicted to junk food later in life is minimized. In fact, he may just relish his fruits, veggies and other natural foods all the more.

Use herbs and spices to make foods interesting.

Use malted whole grains after six months of age as these are richer in nutrients and easier to digest. Malted grains are Amylase Rich Foods which can be given during the weaning process. These foods consist of cereal grains and grams (legumes) ground together.

Feed children small amounts of food, more frequently.

Avoid tight diapers and waistbands.

For older children (2 – 7 years):

Help children stick to a healthy toilet routine. For some children, this routine allows for bowel movements thrice a day, for others, once in 2 days. Ensure frequent urination.

Serve food slightly warmer than room temperature. Avoid extremely hot and very cold foods.

Ensure sufficient fibre intake by including whole grains, pulses (legumes), fruits, green leaves and other vegetables. Even sprouts can be made attractive with a little imagination.

Expose your child to different food textures: Crunchy salad veggies, nuts, pappads (roasted) are some examples. They are capable of eating these foods which provide valuable nutrients. You can even start chappathis and bread at the age of 1 ½ to 2 years – just make sure that they are chewing properly and that no food is stuck between the gums or on the palate.

Fluids: 1.5 litres of water per day is ideal but ensure that you also give whole fruits and vegetables containing water, buttermilk, tender coconut water, rasam and soups. Watch your child’s fluid intake as mild dehydration can occur very easily. Habituate him to asking for and drinking water regularly.

Exercise: this scientifically proven link between physical activity and digestion holds true for children and adults. Keep them active by playing vigorously with them.

Every human being’s digestive system is unique – it responds differently to various stimuli. You have to try different foods with children and learn from your errors. As your child’s gut health finally rests with you, it may mean new healthy habits for the whole family. 

Smitha Suresh is a Chennai-based nutritionist experienced in clinical fitness and corporate nutrition counselling.