Protein is an essential nutrient; it is extremely important for growth and development, so it must play a major part in a well-balanced diet for your baby.
Why is protein so important?
Your baby’s body needs 22 amino acids which are used for many functions throughout your baby’s body – in the skin, hair, bone, muscle and almost every tissue. However, the human body is only able to make 13 amino acids by itself, so the other nine – known as the ‘Essential Amino Acids’ – must come from foods.
When your baby eats a food item that contains protein his stomach digests the food, which is then absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract and broken down into amino acids. Protein can be described as a chain of linked amino acids. Protein is also necessary for the production of haemoglobin, to carry oxygen in baby’s blood.
There are two types of protein – complete proteins (also called whole proteins) and incomplete proteins. Complete proteins contain all nine of the essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins contain some – but not all – of the essential amino acids. There are a few plant sources of food that contain complete proteins, but most do not – complete proteins generally come from animal sources.
Complete Protein – these foods will not all be suitable for your baby during his or her first year:
- poultry, fish and meat (particularly beef)
- dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese)
- quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth (grain-like crops for edible seeds)
Other Protein Sources – these need to be combined to get the full range of amino acids:
- lentils, beans
- chickpeas, dried peas
- barley, oats, wheat, rye
Nuts and seeds may be added to this list when your baby is old enough.
How much protein does my baby need?
Infancy is a time of rapid growth and development, so it is important to ensure that your baby receives enough protein to support this.
The best way to confirm that your baby is getting enough protein is by getting him or her checked regularly by your doctor or paediatrician. If baby’s growth rate is normal, then you are giving him or her enough protein.
During his or her first year your baby’s primary source of nutrition is breast milk or formula – which supplies all the protein that baby needs.
Once solid foods are introduced his or her consumption of breast milk or formula will gradually decrease, so at this point you should begin to offer a sensible, well-balanced diet that includes legumes, cereal, vegetables, eggs, dairy, etc. to ensure that protein requirements are still met.
Unless you have been advised to by your baby’s doctor or dietician because of a specific problem that baby has, there is no need to give a high-protein diet, as it could actually harm him or her. The human body cannot store excess protein so it is broken down into by-products and eliminated in the urine. This could put too much strain on your baby’s kidneys as they are still not fully mature.
For this reason, high-protein foods such as meat should not be given alone and in large amounts – it is best to serve them with other foods.
However, do be sure to give your baby small amounts of protein foods every day – don’t forget, his or her body cannot store it!
When would a baby need a high-protein diet?
A high-protein diet may be needed if a baby:
- needs extra calories when recovering from an infection or an illness
- suffers from malabsorption
- has a heart or a lung problem
- has undergone surgery
Do proteins cause food allergies?
The protein in certain foods is sometimes known to trigger allergic reactions – for instance the protein in milk, known as casein, can cause an allergic response. However, each protein has a slightly different structure and it is generally the protein in one food in particular that causes allergy in certain people.
Your baby’s doctor is the person to advise you in any of the circumstances above.