Most of us want to feed our babies well, but there also comes a point when we want to treat our little ones to a little…dessert! For many mommas, it’s the first birthday, but some choose later. So, what’s the research say? When can babies have sugar? What about toddlers?
But first, before we dive into the research. I want to remind you, my decision is not your decision. My family is not your family. While I avoided added sugar (yes, all of it – honey, maple syrup, etc) with my son until his 2nd birthday, I know every family doesn’t choose the same. And that’s ok. In fact, every child within each family may wind up being introduced to sugar at different times.
I want this to come from a place of encouraging you to consider these recommendations as you feed your baby throughout the first 2 years of her life.
When Can Babies Have Sugar? – The Official Recommendations
The new 2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend no added sugar for babies and toddlers under the age of 2 years old. However, this recommendation is not totally new as it has been the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association for some time to recommend no added sugars before the age of 2.
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Unfortunately, this recommendation goes widely unfollowed. In fact, some studies show that as many as 60% of infants are introduced to foods with added sugars (1.)
What is Added Sugar
Sugar and sweeteners that are added during the processing of food is considered to be added sugar. Naturally occurring sugars such as lactose in unsweetened dairy products and fructose in whole fruits are not considered added sugars.
Examples of Added Sugar
Added sugars come in many different forms and names. Many healthy recipes are made with honey and maple syrup which can be a less processed way to sweeten baked goods. However, it’s important to remember these are still added sugars. Other common forms of added sugar include corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, molasses, and agave nectar.
Added Sugar is Not Just in Sweets
We typically think of added sugars as being in desserts and sweet treats. However, many products contain hidden sugar. Some of the main products that contain hidden sugar are sauces (marinara, bbq, ketchup, etc), crackers, boxed mixes, and more.
Other foods that are commonly sweetened such as yogurt can be purchased plain and flavored in other ways at home. For more information on the best yogurt for your babies be sure to read my popular post all about it.
Why Added Sugar Should Be Avoided Before 2
There are several reasons behind this recommendation. Here are the main things to consider when weighing this recommendation regarding sugar for babies:
1. Taste Preferences are Shaped at an Early Age
Research shows us that taste preferences, including a preference for sweets, can be shaped at an early age (1.) Healthy approaches and the nutritional foundation set during infancy and early toddlerhood do impact future nutrition. Many studies across the board (in both the US and Europe) agree that sugar consumed by children age 2 and under should be only naturally occurring such as the natural sugars found in breastmilk, fruit, and unsweetened dairy.
Infants have an innate preference for sweet tastes due to the sweetness of amniotic fluid and breastmilk. However, this preference can be influenced by exposures through both the mother’s diet (prenatal) as well as the baby’s food experiences (2, 3.)
Research shows that during the first years of life, food preferences are often set to extend over a lifetime.
2. High-Quality Nutrition is Important for Rapid Growth and Brain Development
Infants simply don’t have a lot of room for empty nutrients given their small bellies and high need for good quality nutrition. Some research studies show the importance of good nutrition during the first 1000 days of a child’s life (meaning the time a baby was conceived until their 2nd birthday.) Filling their bellies with low-quality food such as empty sugar that does not supply nutrients, does not fuel their growth or brain development.
3. Added sugars are linked to overweight/obesity, dental cavities and other health risks.
Obviously, consuming small amounts of added sugar may not lead to these health risks. However, when consumed in excess research definitely agrees that sugar does lead to negative health outcomes.
This combined with the fact, that serving these foods to your infant can increase their consumption not only now, but in the future, makes for a strong case to avoid them in their early years.
Are babies + toddlers deprived if they don’t get sugar?
Ok, so with the recommendation – if you avoid sugar until the age of 2 – will the child feel deprived? Obviously, feelings of deprivation are NOT what we are shooting for. This is, in part, why it is not of benefit to avoid sugar-laden desserts once a child reaches the age of 2.
While many may argue that these babies and toddlers are deprived of fun foods and treats, many babies are not yet aware of the foods around them. Now, obviously, at some point, this changes for every child where they do become more aware of the exact foods others are eating. Especially once a child has tried something, they will be more aware of it and expect to get it in the future.
However, this does not happen for many babies until somewhere between 18 months and 2 years old. Of course, it can happen earlier for some children. I had two general approaches at the point that my son did start to notice cake and cookies floating around:
- Offer a well-loved alternative. For my son, this was usually a piece of fruit, larabar, or a homemade no sugar added muffin or toddler cookie. I feel it important to note, he did not see it as an alternative. To him, the muffin was super fun and delicious. Obviously, this tactic would not take me as far with him now at 3 years old. Which is an important argument for letting your older toddler (2 and older) enjoy sweets along with others. At this point forbidding certain foods will likely only make them more desirable to naturally curious toddlers.
- Eat desserts when your child is not present. – This works great when in your own home and you have control over when the treats are offered. If you have older kids, you can serve dessert when the baby or toddler is in bed or napping.
Healthy No Sugar Treats for Babies Under 2
No Sugar Recipes for Your Little Ones
- Sugar-Free Pumpkin Muffins for Babies
- Banana Oat Pancakes
- Oatmeal Carrot Toddler Cookies
- Healthy Fruit Sweetened Smash Cake (can be made into muffins)
Other Healthy Swaps
- Appropriately cut fruit – Bananas, grapes, oranges, fresh berries
- Larabars (Ensure that the nuts are crushed enough for your child. I have purchased varieties that were not.)
- Cheerios or another no sugar cereal
What About Juice?
Juice should be avoided in babies 12 months and younger. The official recommendation is that toddlers age 1-3 should have no more than 4 oz of juice per day (4). However, we personally don’t typically serve juice in our household as we prefer to offer our kids whole fruits and leave the juice for special occasions.
A few notes to consider about juice:
- Juice does not have the fiber that fruit has which is very beneficial to your toddler. Toddlers and babies should be offered whole fruits when possible.
- If and when you do offer juice, make sure it is 100% juice. Not a “fruit or juice beverage.”
- Juice can lead to dental cavities and tooth decay.
How to Introduce Sugar to Your Toddler
You’ve made it to your child’s second birthday and have noticed for a few months they take more note of foods being eaten and the world around them. At this point, it can be detrimental to approach sugar as “off limit.”
Introducing sweets to your kids is important as it’s our job to teach them about all kinds of foods. Ellyn Satter’s Institute has some great resources on feeding your child.
Division of Responsibility in Feeding Kids
Remembering Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in kids can be really helpful in many situations from offering sweets to knowing what to do when your toddler doesn’t eat dinner.
Basics of the Division of Responsibility:
Parent/Caregiver’s Responsibility – You decide what, when, and where your child is fed.
Child’s Responsibility – Your child decides how much and whether they will eat.
Approach to Sweets
Here are some interesting thoughts about approaching sweets and “forbidden foods” in particular. A few thoughts:
- Offer dessert with meals on occasion. It’s okay to limit it to 1 serving so that it does not compete with the nutrient-rich foods served.
- It’s also okay to offer unlimited sweets/treats as a snack on occasion. In fact, this is a good way to allow your child to learn self-regulation.
- All foods have value.
When Can Babies Have Sugar FAQ
Babies under 1-year-old should not have honey due to the potential risk for infant botulism from an immature digestive system and the clostridium botulism spores that can be found in honey. After the age of one, the risk of infant botulism is not of concern; however, honey is an added sugar, so waiting until two is still best.
Maple syrup does not pose the same risk as honey to an infant. However, it is an added sugar so you should aim to not give maple syrup to a baby or toddler until they are at least 2 years old.
Babies should not be served added sugar (which most cakes contain) until the age of 2. You can serve a fruit-sweetened cake such as this healthy smash cake for their first birthday instead.
It is recommended to avoid added sugars until age 2 or older at this point you can start to introduce sugar sweetened foods to your toddler.
Obviously, putting these recommendations into play can look a little different in each home. The key point to remember is that sugar-sweetened foods can displace much more important foods in a baby or toddler’s diet. Since babies and toddlers do not eat large portions of food, serving nutrient-rich foods when possible is important. Not to mention, the foods they are served in the earliest years of their life can have an influence on their food preferences.
For us, avoiding added sugar before the age of 2 was a priority. We did not serve desserts with added sugars and avoided hidden sugars in sauces at our own home. However, we did not worry about hidden sugars in dinner type foods (bbq sauce, marinara, etc) when we were dining out or guests in another home. We simply made the best choices available at these times.