Infants' diet raises risk of obesity and illness


A SIGNIFICANT proportion of six-month-old infants in Ireland are regularly consuming foods high in sugar, fat and salt, putting them at risk of becoming overweight and obese later in life, a new study reveals.

The study has also found that the majority of Irish babies are weaned onto solids far too early – some as early as 12 weeks – and often on the advice of the maternal grandmother.

Dr Roslyn Tarrant, clinical research dietitian at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, carried out the study of weaning practices in Irish infants which was published in the latest issue of The British Journal of Nutrition.

“The findings highlight the need for a national standardised weaning policy that ensures all parents receive information on healthy infant-feeding practices by 12 weeks post-partum and even as early as ante-natally. This is a major preventative measure that needs to be taken if we are to address childhood obesity in Ireland,” Dr Tarrant said.

The results indicate that younger and less educated mothers are more likely to offer their infants non-recommended snacks, including chocolates, biscuits, crisps and ice-cream.

The study of more than 400 mothers recruited from the Coombe Hospital in Dublin found that only one mother complied with the World Health Organisation and Irish Department of Health recommendation to exclusively breastfeed up to six months.

A significant 75 per cent of infants had been weaned onto solids before the minimum recommended time of four months and of even greater concern was the finding that 22.6 per cent of babies were weaned as early as 12 weeks post-partum.

Mothers reported that their principal source of advice on infant feeding and weaning was the maternal grandmother. However, the influential role of the public health nurse in delaying the introduction of solids was evident.

Dr Tarrant said infants weaned onto solids before four months were at greater risk of diarrhoea, allergy and eczema and were more likely to visit their GP. Weaning too early has also been shown to increase body fat and weight during childhood, as well as the probability of respiratory illness.

The study also highlighted a high consumption of non-recommended sugary snacks and drinks by infants as well as the inappropriate addition of salt and sugar to baby foods. In particular, sweet varieties of commercially prepared infant-specific desserts such as apple crumble, chocolate pudding and jelly with ice-cream were consumed by almost one-third (31.6 per cent) of the infants as the usual evening meal.

The majority of the infants consumed three meals a day and at least one snack in addition to their main milk drink which, Dr Tarrant said, meant they were consuming excessive calories.