How much salt/sodium does my toddler need? Here are some practical ways to ensure your toddler doesn’t get more he/she needs per day
I feel like a lot of us, parents, are pretty conscious of how much sugar we’re giving to our little ones, but what about their sodium intake?
Salt vs. Sodium
Oftentimes salt and sodium are used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. When people say they are cutting back on salt intake, what they really mean is that they are watching out for how much sodium they consume.
Table salt that we eat is made up of sodium (40%) and chloride (60%). We definitely need both of these electrolytes (as well as potassium) as they help send messages along the nerves, enable muscles to contract, balance the amount of fluids in the body, enhance nutrient absorption, regulate acid-base balance, absorb potassium, and control the level of bacteria present in the stomach, to name a few. While salt is made up mostly of chloride, it’s in the high-sodium category.
Sodium for babies and toddlers
Research shows that 79% of preschoolers aged 1-3 years consume more than the recommended amount of sodium each day. Sodium intake is related to high blood pressure (aka the “silent killer”), which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. And as you may know, they are the leading causes of death in the United States.
High sodium intake also can impact bone health. Studies show a positive correlation between salt intake and calcium excretion, resulting in a reduced peak bone mass. This is concerning as bone mass attained in childhood has a great impact on lifelong skeletal health.
SHAPING FOOD PREFERENCES
Also, studies show that babies are born with innate preferences for sweet and salty flavors. Sweet and salty foods are highly palatable and and elicit a highly rewarding experience. it is no wonder that your child are more likely to choose sodium-rich foods like pizza and chips over vegetables and other whole foods.
Remember, eating habits developed during the early years influence lifelong eating behaviors. Therefore, it is crucial for us as parents to help set the stage for healthy eating habits and shape food preferences as early as possible (source). I believe one of the main reasons why my toddler enjoys his vegetables so much is that he hasn’t been exposed to all the highly palatable/addictive foods.
Now, as he grows up, I know he’ll inevitably be exposed to more processed foods. But by shaping his food preferences early on, my hope is that he’ll continue to enjoy his veggies and other wholesome foods
Dietary Guidelines for sodium
According to the Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020
4-8 years: 1900 mg/day
Now compare this to the NHS (in UK) recommendations:
4-6 years: 1200 mg/day
I personally prefer and am following the recommendations from the latter.
For those under 1 year of age, a baby’s kidneys cannot metabolize more than 400 mg of sodium a day. That’s a really small amount. Not to mention there’s some sodium in breastmilk and formula. The best thing you can do is to not add salt when cooking and keep track of the foods that contains sodium (e.g. bread, yogurt, cheese, etc.).
You don’t want to completely avoid offering these foods because you want to expose your baby to a wide variety of foods but do be mindful. Focus on serving whole foods and limiting processed foods. And if you’re taking the self-feeding approach, know that a lot of the food will end up everywhere else but inside their little mouths so I wouldn’t worry too much.
Top Sources of Sodium:
Breads and rolls
savory snacks (e.g. chips, crackers)
dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese)
Choose fresh whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, fresh meat, fish and poultry.
Don’t go to the groceries hungry and shop the perimeter as so many temptations lurk in the aisles.
You don’t have to completely avoid processed food but do cut back if you find yourself reaching for them frequently. And be sure to read the nutrition labels. Look at the ingredient list (shorter the better), fiber and sodium content (aim for 140mg or less per serving)
Look for foods labeled “low sodium”, “no salt added”
Aim for no more than 1 product that comes from a box, bag, or jar at each meal
put down the salt shaker and have fun with herbs, spices, lemon, garlic, vinegar- great ways to add flavor and extra nutrients (you can find vegetable cooking guidelines as well as best spice combinations to use in my second e-cookbook)
Don’t be fooled. sea salt and kosher salt contain the same amount of sodium as table salt.
Limit dining out but when you do, try to enjoy the experience of being out with the family rather than worrying. Perhaps pack something from home so that you can offer that alongside the restaurant meals. You can always ask to have no salt added to your food, if possible or look for low-sodium options. Also ask for dressings and sides on the side. In other words, don’t be afraid to ask!
Don’t worry too much if your child has more on some days. It’s all about overall balance.