Of all of the miracles, we witness every day, the growth of our children is one of the most remarkable. The growth spurt in the first year of life is truly incredible. Imagine how crazy it would be if we found ourselves triple our current weight and 50% taller one year from now. We do not seem at all surprised when it happens to the average 7-pound newborn infant. (Smaller babies often nearly quadruple their weight, and larger babies only double their weight, but we will use the average-sized boy baby for the sake of this discussion.) One thing we all understand is that the infant needs to eat to grow. A voracious appetite driven by the need to improve allows the baby to consume over 100 calories per kilogram every day.
That is the equivalent of an adult consuming 6000 to 7000 calories a day! For the first few months, when the infant is still unable to move around much, the fat piles up all over the body, and the baby reaches double his birth weight. From about 4-6 months of age on, some of the calories are burned by activity, and the baby gains weight less rapidly.
This rapid growth rate tapers off at about one year of age. For the next few years, the child consumes fewer calories than he did in infancy. The increase in weight is only about 3-4 pounds and in height only about 3 inches for the whole second year of life. The appetite is considerably smaller, and the activity level is relentless. The toddler only needs about 20-24 ounces of milk a day and only eats about two tablespoons of each food at a meal. Many parents are alarmed by this decrease in consumption. They try to feed the child even when he is not hungry. This is not wise. Many studies have shown that children will eat as much as they need if offered a variety of foods.
The Real Job
When it comes to food, the most relevant job that parents have during the toddler and childhood years is to encourage good eating habits in their children. A balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, high-quality proteins, unsaturated fats, and high fiber carbohydrates not only nourishes the child, but it also gives him the enjoyment of these foods throughout life. This is the key to healthy eating as an adult. Healthy eating habits also include eating real meals while sitting at the table and eating about two snacks a day. Even the snacks should be at set times of day for toddlers, so the child learns the difference between “eating times” and “play” or “sleep times.” The toddler who has a continuous nosh all day long has a much harder time limiting his eating when he is older.
As the child grows slowly through the ages of 3-11, he eats only about one tablespoon per year of age for typical portions of the food at his meals. He should drink about 20 ounces of milk or eat yogurt, cottage cheese or cheese instead of some of these ounces. Juice should be limited to only 4 ounces a day, preferably as one drink. The rest of the glasses should be water. The habit of always drinking sweet drinks is another cause of weight problems later on. Water is refreshing, convenient and even has fluoride to help teeth. A sports bottle, filled with cold tap water is usually acceptable as a take-along drink for kids.
At around age 11 for girls, and age 14 for boys, another growth spurt starts and parents are amazed at the increase in their child’s appetite. This can be particularly alarming when the child starts storing fat around the abdomen before the growth actually starts to accelerate. This is a very tricky and essential time. There is a delicate balance between the need to grow, the number of calories used by exercise, the need to eat for social and emotional gratification, and the genetic makeup of the child. It is essential to have the child’s doctor to monitor the growth in height and weight during the pre-adolescent and adolescent years.
Inches and Pounds
Fueling the actual growth during this last big growth spurt requires a lot of calories. The teenager gets very hungry, often later in the evening. The height increases in spurts, causing a need for extra food. Every inch a girl grows increases the weight by about 5 pounds. Every inch a boy builds increases the importance of about 7 pounds. This is because the heart, liver, and other organs increase in size, and the bones and muscles become longer and stronger.
To gain a pound, the body needs to take in about 3500 calories more than the amount used. This is why I warn mothers that they must count a growing adolescent boy as two people to feed! How much of this extra eating is enough? How much is too much? This can depend on the build of the child. Children with broader frames gain more than children with smaller frames. The 5-7 pound per inch average is for average-sized kids. It is essential that the growing adolescent is allowed to feel satisfied and not hungry. The most important help you can give your increasing teenager is to make sure there is real, high-quality food around when he or she needs to eat. An extra portion of chicken, a tuna burger, and other real substantial food will fill him up without needing the greasy snack foods. Salads and fruit alone will not be enough since their calorie content is low.
Activity and Growth
Growing bones and muscles strengthen and straighten when actively exercised. The level of activity often determines posture and overall balanced weight gain during this growth period. These kids should walk to school and back, run around and play live games during the daytime breaks, and generally not sit down during their spare time. This is a physical need for a growing body.
If a growing adolescent tries to control his or her intake too strictly during this time, the final, actual growth could be stunted. Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia can cause a derangement of their maturation and growth that can affect the rest of their lives.
On the other hand, excessive weight gain during this growth period can lead to a lifetime of struggling to maintain healthy body weight. There is a particular danger to being obese as an adolescent. The risk of diabetes is much higher than it is when the excess weight is acquired in adulthood. If there are obesity and diabetes in the family, the risk is even higher, so, in these families, every effort must be made to avoid obesity during adolescence.
Habits for a Lifetime
We have a great responsibility to be conscious of our children’s eating habits. Good habits formed early, last a lifetime. We should consider the role junk foods play in our everyday life. If we could only limit these treats for special occasions, they would not be such a significant factor in our children’s diets. Now that we know how important eating habits are, we can make an effort to do the right thing for our families.
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