We are told to avoid salt in babies under 1 year of age as their kidneys can’t cope with it. However we all – including babies – need a little bit of salt to survive. What baby’s kidneys can’t cope with is too much salt.
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How much salt do babies need?
Babies only need a tiny amount of salt, in fact it’s less than 1g per day until they turn one. For the first 6 months of life they will meet their salt needs through breastmilk or formula.
One to 3 year olds shouldn’t have any more than 2g salt per day.
Once weaning starts and milk feeds reduce, your baby will get the additional salt he/she needs from food, but this is where it tends to go a bit haywire and babies consume too much.
We know that by the age of one year the vast majority of babies are having far too much salt and we know that baby-led-weaners get there sooner.
What is sodium?
Sodium Chloride is the chemical name for salt often referred to just as sodium and it’s actually the sodium component that is harmful if your baby eats too much of it. Salt and sodium are often used interchangeably and you may see both on food labels.
How do babies eat too much salt?
The staple foods of weaning such as bread, crackers, breadsticks and cheese are actually very high in salt because it is needed as part of the recipe.
Also processed meat such as ham and sausages are popular foods given to little ones but are very salty too.
Breakfast cereals , even plain ones, can be a huge contributor to salt in your child’s diet.
It is important to avoid adding salt to anything you cook from scratch, even if you think it tastes bland. Taste is a very different experience for your baby than it is for you. You should also avoid soy sauce, standard stock cubes, gravy and packet, tinned or jar sauces marketed for family meals, as they tend to have high salt content.
How can you manage your baby’s salt intake?
Cook From Scratch
Whenever you can, use herbs and spices as flavour enhancers. Baby stock cubes are very handy as they are much lower in salt and if you want to go the whole hog you can make bone broth from a chicken carcass and herbs boiled in water or a lovely vegetable stock from veggies and herbs.
Check Food Labels
Shop bought baby foods, such as baby cereals, finger foods and pouches have a low salt content as it is against the law to add salt to baby food during processing. Toddler and children’s meals, however, can have salt added, so be careful and check food labels to make sure to buy only age appropriate foods for your baby!
Baby friendly ready meals, puffs, pots, pouches and jars are often low in nutritional value, and pouches can have water added to bulk them out. Meals often have a low meat or protein content (as protein is an expensive ingredient) so won’t meet your baby’s requirements for the critical nutrients they need.
Choose A Range Of Starchy Carbohydrates
Bread and crackers contain salt as it has to be added as part of the baking process and bread won’t rise properly without it. Therefore, it is wise to limit bread, breadsticks and crackers to once or twice a week.
Pasta, rice, potatoes, couscous, quinoa and other grains are very low in salt and these make excellent alternative starchy carbohydrate options for home made baby meals.
Don’t Rely On Cheese
Cheese is very highly salted and it’s often loved by little ones as it is so flavoursome.
It’s also a great source of calcium, protein and a fabulous energy booster. It is one food, I recommend you still allow your baby to have, routinely, but try to rotate with other protein foods such as chicken, fish, lean meat, beans and other pulses so that your baby doesn’t have cheese every day.
Low salt foods are:
- Fruits and vegetables – fresh, frozen or tinned are fine but avoid those canned in syrup or brine
- Plain meat
- Fresh chicken
- Fish – not battered or breadcrumbed or canned in brine
- Lentils, beans and pulses
- Milk, cream, yoghurt
Very salty foods that are best avoided are:
- toddler, child & adult ready-meals
- pies, pasties, scotch eggs and sausage rolls
- Breaded or battered chicken and fish
- Sausages and other cured meats
- Smoked salmon
- Crackers including breadsticks
- Soups – including fresh soups
- Packet, dinner or jar sauces
- Pizza and filled pasta
What to look for on food labels:
When looking at the nutritional information labels on foods check the amount of salt per 100g. A low salt food contains less than 0.3g per 100g. Salt is sometimes also expressed as sodium. To find out the amount of salt in a food you need to multiply the sodium value by 2.5 so if a packet of crisps contains 1g sodium, it contains 2.5g salt.
What actually happens if my baby has too much salt?
Your baby’s kidneys process excess salt so that they can wee it out in their urine. However as their kidneys are immature they are not able to deal with large amounts of salt in one go.
In addition, we know that a high salt intake can cause high blood pressure which puts your little one at greater risk of heart disease and stroke as they get older.
A high salt diet in childhood has also been linked to osteoporosis as it interferes with calcium absorption. It’s also linked to asthma, obesity and some cancers too.
Is my baby born liking salty foods?
Liking salty food is a ‘learned taste preference’ which means that your little one has to be taught to like salty foods before they will choose to eat them. The best way to avoid developing a preference for salty foods is to not give it routinely in the first place.
What about pink Himalayan salt or sea salt? This is healthier isn’t it?
Despite these salts containing other natural minerals and ingredients, they do still contain sodium chloride and do need to be avoided for under 1’s.
The experience and exposure caveat:
Weaning, however, is a time when your baby should experience a wide variety of tastes and textures. It is a learning adventure and so it’s important for them to be exposed to as many different tastes as possible.
Therefore, the occasional taste of something salty such as a chopped olive or piece of anchovy won’t do them any long term harm and yet will allow them the experience of learning about a new food.
It’s really hard to get weaning right and we only get one chance at it, but with this course it’s like having a dietitian at your kitchen table!