Most of us know that sugar shouldn’t make a big part of a baby’s diet. Nor a large part of our diet, for that matter! Yet, it’s rarely realistic to avoid refined sugar 100% of the time.
So with that in mind, when can babies have sugar? And what happens if they have sugar before that time?
That’s what we’ll cover in this article.
When can babies eat sugar?
Many health organizations have issued official statements regarding how to best handle sugar in your baby’s diet.
- World Health Organization (WHO): recommends that children of all ages consume less than 10% of daily calories from “free sugars” (1).
- American heart association (AHA): recommends that children over two eat a maximum of 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugars per day. Children under two should eat no added sugars at all (2).
- Health Canada, Canadian Paediatric Society, Dietitians of Canada, and Breastfeeding Committee for Canada: children between 6 months and 2 years should be served foods prepared with little or no added sugar (3).
- European society for paediatric gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition (ESPGHAN): children older than two years should get less than 5% of their calories from “free sugars”. Children under two should probably get even less (4).
As you can see, the exact amount of sugar deemed acceptable tends to vary. However, the gist of these recommendations remains the same. Babies and toddlers should have very little, if any sugar before the age of two.
IN SUM — Most health organization agree that babies should be given little to no sugar before the age of two.
Why is sugar bad for babies?
Refined sugar is bad for babies for several reasons.
First, foods rich refined sugar tend to be low in other nutrients. Babies and toddlers have very small stomachs, and filling this space with foods rich in refined sugar leaves less space for nutrient-dense foods. This makes it more difficult for babies to meet their daily nutrient needs (4).
In addition, research suggests that diets rich in refined sugar during childhood may increase the risk of tooth decay, obesity, and preventable diseases, such as heart disease, later in life (1, 4, 5).
Finally, babies have a known biological preference for sweets. Diets rich in refined sugar can reinforce this preference, and make it more difficult for babies to accept bitter-tasting foods such as vegetables (4, 6, 7, 8).
This may make it more difficult to expand your baby’s palate and increase picky eating behaviors.
IN SUM — Diets rich in refined sugar may increase a baby’s likelihood of tooth decay, obesity and preventable diseases later in life. They can also promote picky eating behaviors and make it more challenging for their diet to meet their daily nutrient needs.
Can babies have juice?
Experts are divided regarding whether or not children should have fruit juice.
In North-America, health professionals recommend minimizing “added sugars,” which refers to sugars not naturally present in foods, but added to them. For example, sweetened juices are considered a source of “added sugars” whereas unsweetened juices are not (2, 3).
In Europe, health professionals prefer to use the term “free sugars,” which include sugars added to foods and sugars naturally present in certain foods such as honey, syrup, fruit concentrates and unsweetened fruit juices (1, 4).
According to ESPGHAN, fruit juice — whether sweetened or not — may promote weight gain. That’s because it contains similar amounts of sugar yet very little fiber, making it as equally un-satiating as soda (4).
Fruit juice may also displace human milk, formula or other nutrient-dense foods from a baby’s diet. This can make it challenging for babies to meet their daily nutrient needs and grow adequately.
Finally, a proportion of infants and toddlers may have difficulty absorbing the natural sugars found in fruit juice. This can cause them to experience gas, bloating, diarrhea or abdominal pain, which is in part why ESPGHAN recommends against it (4).
Feel free to choose which recommendation you wish to follow. If you do decide to offer your baby juice, it’s best to keep the amounts small and make sure it is unsweetened.
IN SUM — Giving juice to babies and older children is somewhat of an unsettled topic. If you decide to give juice to your child, opt for an unsweetened version and keep amounts small.
Can babies have too much fruit?
Fruit is naturally rich in sugar.
However, unlike the refined sugar found in processed foods, the sugar in fruit comes packaged together with a variety of vitamins, minerals and beneficial plant compounds.
Whole fruit is also rich in fiber, which makes it more filling, and less likely to promote sugar spikes or weight gain. Therefore, you can freely offer fruit to your baby, as part of a balanced, nutrient-rich diet (10).
IN SUM — The sugar in fruit is packed together with fiber, vitamins and minerals. Because of this, you can freely offer fruit as part of a balanced, nutrient-rich diet.
At what age can you give a baby chocolate?
Chocolate is a source of refined sugars. It also contains caffeine, a stimulant that may cause your child to feel restless or have difficulty sleeping (11).
These are two good reasons to delay its introduction and limit its quantity in your child’s diet
Chocolate can also tends to contain a variety of allergens, including dairy, soy, gluten, wheat or or nuts. If you haven’t ruled out allergens yet, pick a chocolate that contains none the first time you let your little one have a taste of it.
IN SUM — Chocolate contains refined sugars and caffeine, two compounds you should limit in your child’s diet. It can also contain allergens, so proceed with caution when first offering it to your baby.
Can babies have honey?
Babies under 12 months shouldn’t be given honey.
That’s because honey is often contaminated with Clostridium botulinum spores, which, once ingested, can produce a toxin that causes muscle weakness and paralysis (12).
Paralysis often starts in the face, but can spread to the limbs, and lungs, causing your baby to stop breathing. Both pasteurized and unpasteurized honey can be infected, and infants younger than 12 months are especially at risk (13).
Therefore, if you opt to include honey in your baby’s diet, avoid introducing it before they turn one. In children older than one, honey should be treated the same as any other source of refined sugar — that is, minimized whenever possible.
IN SUM — Babies under 12 months shouldn’t be given honey due to the risk of botulism. Honey is rich in sugar, and should be limited in your child’s diet whenever possible.
Hidden sources of sugar
Nowadays, you’ll be hard pressed to find a packaged food that doesn’t contain refined sugars. Here are some of the most common sources of hidden sugars, lurking on your grocery store’s shelves:
- Beverages: such as soda, sport drinks, bottled flavored water, smoothies, bottled tea, lemonade, as well as certain fruit or vegetable juices.
- Bread and baked goods: this includes breads, tortillas, crackers, granola bars as well as more obvious culprits such as cookies and pastries.
- Breakfast cereals: many breakfast cereals, including certain types of instant oatmeal, are sweetened with sugar.
- Dressings and sauces: common culprits in this category include tomato sauce, ketchup, teriyaki sauce, vegan mayo, marinades, dips, and salad dressings.
- Packaged fruit: such as fruit canned in syrup, certain types of fruit bars or fruit purees as well as dried fruit coated in syrup or sugar.
- Plant-based alternatives to dairy: many plant-based yoghurts and milks use sugar or other sweeteners in their recipes.
- Spreads: this includes many jams as well as certain nut butters.
- Supplements: for instance, several types of gummy vitamins or protein powders.
You can tell whether a food contains added sugars or not by looking at its ingredient label. It’s best to avoid foods which contain sugar or synonyms such as fructose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose, barley malt, rice syrup or corn syrup, whenever possible.
That said, it’s not always feasible to find a sugar-free version items on your grocery list. In such a case, I advise you not to sweat it.
The occasional dose of sugar is unlikely to have long-lasting effects on your family’s health, especially if the rest of your diet normally contains very few.
IN SUM — Many foods lining your supermarket shelves contain refined sugar. Checking the ingredients label is the best way to reduce the refined sugar content in your family’s diet.
Easy swaps that help reduce sugar in your baby’s diet
Here are a few easy swaps you can try to reduce the sugar content of your baby’s diet.
First, try replacing sweetened foods for unsweetened versions whenever possible. For instance, swap fruit canned in syrup for fruit canned in juice, and sugar-laden yogurts for unsweetened ones.
You can also try replacing sugary cereal with plain oats or puffed quinoa. Or sweetened granola bars with unsweetened nut and fruit bars.
Making water and unsweetened plant milks the beverage of choice can further reduce the daily amount of refined sugar your child ingests.
When it comes to baked goods and desserts, you may want to try your hand at making your own. You can often replace the sugar in these recipes with naturally sweet foods such as dates, ripe bananas, dried fruit or apple sauce.
One final, but perhaps less popular tip consists of reducing the amount of refined sugar in your own diet.
Babies and toddlers often want to eat something similar to what you’re eating. So if your own diet contains tons of refined sugar, it’ll be much more difficult to reduce the amount your baby eats.
Or at the very least, consider delaying those sugary treats to after your baby has gone to bed!
IN SUM — The easy swaps above can help you reduce the total amount of refined sugar in your baby’s diet.
Minimizing sugar cravings in babies, toddlers and older children
Refined sugar is not a necessary part of a baby’s diet. It’s also not something babies typically feel they’re missing out on, at such a young age.
But does this mean that your baby cannot have a taste of their first birthday cake or a lick of sorbet in the summer? Most nutrition professionals I know, myself included, really don’t believe so.
I do agree that we can all benefit from eating less refined sugar. But there’s no reason to believe that occasionally giving your child small amounts of it will dramatically impact their health or taste preferences. Even if you do so before they turn two.
As long as the rest of their diet remains rich in nutrients, well-balanced, varied, and otherwise low in refined sugar, a little sugar is unlikely to have lasting consequences.
Sooner or later, your child will become exposed to refined sugar. At which time, you likely won’t be around to act as a gatekeeper. So it’s important to help them build a healthy relationship with it, ahead of time.
You can do this by avoiding to label foods as “good” or “bad” based on how much sugar they contain. Or by not using sweets as a reward for trying out new foods, or eating what you consider “healthier” foods.
These tactics can help prevent our child from putting sugar on a pedestal, or getting the impression that sugar is a “forbidden” food — both of which may otherwise intensify their desire for sweets.
IN SUM — Avoid making a big deal out of sweets or using them as rewards. This can help lower your child’s sugar cravings or overall desire for sweets.
To sum it all up
Giving your baby, toddler or child too much sugar may make it difficult for them to meet their daily nutrient needs. It may also increase the risk of picky eating behaviors, tooth decay, obesity and various preventable diseases later in life.
Because of this, most health organizations advise parents to give babies very little to no refined sugar, especially before they turn two.
However, this doesn’t mean that your child cannot have an occasional sweet treat. As long as their diet is otherwise varied and nutritious, small amounts of sugar are unlikely to have long-lasting negative effects.
For a free tool to help you plan and cook quick and easy meals that are low in refined sugar, check out the vegan meal planner below.