The key nutrients all babies need to thrive

All babies need certain essential nutrients for optimal development. These are them!

05 April 2017
By Glynis Horning


Calcium is vital for the development of strong bones and teeth. As children are constantly growing they require a steady supply.

How much? “From age 1 to 3, they need 500mg a day, and from age 4 to 8, 800mg,” says Johannesburg dietitian Cheryl Meyer, a spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa.

Best sources: A cup of whole milk provides 276mg; half a cup of plain yoghurt 224 to 244mg; a tablespoon of blackstrap molasses 200mg, she says. Other sources include ricotta, cheddar or mozzarella cheese, dark green leafy veggies like spinach, sesame seeds and tahini.


Iron is needed to make haemoglobin, the red pigment in blood that carries oxygen, and myoglobin, which stores oxygen in muscles. Iron is essential for a baby’s brain development and deficiency can result in anaemia, causing weakness and fatigue.

How much? From age 1 to 3, 7mg a day; from age 4 to 8, 10mg.

Best sources: Heme iron is the form absorbed best and comes from animal sources such as meat, seafood, poultry and eggs. “Non-heme iron, from non-animal sources, should be consumed with vitamin C to help absorption (vegetarians should take care),” says Meyer.

Half a cup of fortified cereal has about 12mg of iron, 60g of braised lean beef 2mg, ¼ cup of boiled soybeans, lentils or baked beans 2mg. Other iron sources include cooked spinach, wholewheat bread and raisins (chop them fine for babies to prevent choking).


Zinc is vital for digestion and metabolism, and a deficiency can stunt baby’s growth.

How much? From age 1 to 3, 3mg a day; from age 4 to 8, 5mg.

Best sources: ¼ cup baked beans has about 3mg, 30g cooked beef shank or steak 3mg (mince or chop it), ½ cup fortified breakfast cereal 2.5mg. Other sources include plain yoghurt, chicken, lentils, cheese and nut butters.

Essential fatty acids (omega-3 and 6)

Essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) aren’t produced by the body and are essential to build cells, regulate baby’s nervous system, strengthen her cardiovascular system and immunity, and aid absorption of nutrients. Most diets provide plenty of omega-6, but take care that baby gets enough omega-3.

How much? For omega 3, from age 1 to 3, 700mg; from age 4 to 8, 900mg.

Best sources: “These are oily fish such as mackerel, trout, kippers, pilchards, salmon, sardines and tuna, fresh or frozen,” says Meyer. Values may vary, but 28g of salmon has approximately 425mg of omega-3s.

People who don’t eat fish can get omega 3 from nuts and seeds (a quarter cup of ground walnuts has 2293mg of omega 3, a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds has 1597mg), or from vegetable oils (such as canola and flaxseed), soya and soya products (beans, milk and tofu), and green leafy vegetables.

Vitamins A, B, C and E

Vitamin A is vital for a baby’s vision and bone growth. B vitamins, including folic acid, promote cell growth, help the immune and nervous systems, and are vital for healthy skin and muscle tone. Vitamin C helps form and repair blood cells, bones and tissues. Vitamin E boosts the immune system and keeps blood vessels open so blood flows well.

How much? “Exclusive breastfeeding or formula feeding meets the needs of a baby up to the age of six months,” says Meyer. “Then an infant’s need for energy and nutrients starts to exceed what is provided by breast milk and complementary foods are necessary.” Most children will get enough vitamins by eating a range of vegetables and fruits each day – quantities vary according to ripeness and preparation.

Best sources:

Vitamin A: Veggies high in carotene like carrots, sweet potatoes and butternut.

B vitamins: Whole grains such as brown rice and beans, eggs, meat, poultry, fish and bananas; folic acid: green veggies and fortified cereals and breads.

Vitamin C: Guavas, citrus, papaya, watermelon, broccoli, strawberries, tomatoes and potatoes.

Vitamin E: Almonds and sunflower seeds (grind to prevent chocking), nut butter, spinach and broccoli.

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