The Importance of Protein in Infants & Toddlers

The importance of proper nutrition during early childhood can't be overstated, but that doesn't mean that mom and dad will always know why it's important for youngsters to eat the food that contains all the right nutrients – or how to entice them to eat it. Protein is one of those nutrients that kids need, but the guidelines for infants and toddlers differ from those for adults. The reasons why protein is important, however, are the same no matter the age.

The Purpose of Protein

Protein builds and repairs all the tissues in the human body, including muscles and organs. It also comprises the enzymes that create chemical reactions within the body and the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in the blood. Without protein, the body will fail to grow properly, lose muscle mass and experience problems with the immune system, heart and respiratory system. This is particularly important during the early years of infancy and the toddler stage, when the demands of development mean that getting the right amount of protein is vital.

However, going overboard with protein consumption leads to risks, too. A study published in 2013 in Food and Nutrition Research found that too much protein early in life – specifically in the first two years – is associated with an increased risk of being overweight later in life.

Protein Needs for Infants

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Once your infant meets certain criteria, he can start eating solid forms of protein. He needs to have doubled his birth weight to at least 13 pounds and must be able to hold his head up, open his mouth when food is offered and eat from a spoon and swallow it. Then, healthy protein options include:

  • scrambled eggs
  • pea-sized pieces of cooked chicken
  • turkey
  • fish or red meat
  • beans

Protein Needs for Toddlers

Toddlers can eat all the proteins that infants can eat, but they're more likely to show preferences. Try a variety of protein foods and drinks to ensure they get enough to eat, such as:

  • nut butters
  • milk
  • cheese
  • Greek yogurt
  • pasta made with beans or chickpeas