Originally published in April, 2015 | Updated July 2020
When can babies have sugar? Today’s babies are eating more sugary foods than ever before. Is it okay to give your baby cookies, cake and candy?
In this article, you’ll learn when babies can have sweets, the potential health outcomes, and how sweet foods shape food preferences early in life.
Recommended Sugar Intake for Babies
I get the question about giving sweets to babies and young toddlers occasionally, but not often enough.
As the world becomes more focused on infants and the nutrition they need to grow well and develop a healthy brain, you might be wondering where sweet treats fit into the mix.
The latest recommendations from the American Heart Association (AHA) say babies and young toddlers should not receive any sweets in the first 2 years of life.
And recently, the new 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) stands strong in its advice to nix added sugar for babies and young toddlers in the first 24 months of life, also known as the first 1,000 days.
Not only is the introduction of sugary foods tied to later health problems in children, they also shape food preferences and choices.
I have agreed with this stance about sweets for baby for a long time, but I’m of a practical mindset, too. I’m not suggesting you skip the birthday cake.
If your young child has eaten (or will eat) sweets, I don’t want you to feel terribly guilty, either.
I do, however, want you to know what’s at stake when babies eat sweets on a regular basis.
The Lowdown on Sugar and Babies
As it stands, babies and young toddlers are receiving far too many sweets.
These statistics from the most recent Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (2018) capture what’s going on in this area of nutrition for babies and young toddlers:
About 30% of 1-year-olds and 45% of 2- to 3-year olds drink sugar-sweetened beverages on a given day, with fruit-flavored drinks being the most popular.
Twenty-seven percent of children between 1 and 3 years do not eat a single discrete serving of vegetables on a given day.
About 75 percent of 2- to 3-year-olds exceed the upper limit for sodium.
More than 60 percent of 2- to 3-year-olds exceed saturated fat guidelines.
Three quarters of children between ages 1 and 2 years are eating sweets everyday and 90% of 2 -to 3- year olds are.
While I don’t have a research study or stats to back this up, I am pretty sure more babies and toddlers are slurping coffee drinks from their parents today than ever before.
Between 18 and 20 months of age, the young toddler’s diet is more like the adult diet, similar to the foods you eat.
This has been associated with a higher likelihood of problematic weight gain later on in childhood.
It’s easy to see that if we want to turn the tide on unhealthy eating and prevent obesity, we need to get a handle on our youngest humans. We need to help them get started on a healthy track.
After all, babies and toddlers aren’t selecting these foods themselves!
They eat what they are given.
Why Sugar is Not Good for Babies
There are several reasons why sugar is something you should avoid in the first two years of life. Here are my top 4:
1. Sweets Contain Little to No Nutrients
Foods such as cookies, candy and sugary cereals, and sweet drinks like juice and soda, are full of sugar, which isn’t a nutrient young children need.
Most concerning is the sacrifice of important nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, and DHA. Not to mention the short-shrift fruits and vegetables get when sugary foods are included in the diet of babies and toddlers.
Given that nutrients are in high demand in the first 2 years of life, filling those little tummies with sugar does nothing to help nourish your young one’s body or brain.
2. Sugary Treats are High in Calories
Often, sugary foods are also high in calories. Diets high in calories are associated with unnecessary weight gain.
This holds true for very young children, as well.
The rate of obesity sits at 8% in children under 2 years of age, according to the CDC, highlighting food as an influencer on weight in this age group.
When babies eat sweets they are at higher risk for excess weight gain.
Of course, how infants and young toddlers are fed is a factor as well.
3. Eating Sweet Foods Strengthens Sugary Food Preferences
Sweet food begets sweet food. Infants are born with an established preference for sweet flavors (amniotic fluid is sweet and so is breast milk) and a dislike for bitter foods like vegetables.
The foods that babies eat outside the womb, particularly if they are high in sugar and fat, may reinforce this preference for sweet foods.
During the first 5 years of life when children are establishing their food preferences, frequent exposure to sweetened food or beverages may further encourage a preference for these foods.
4. Sweets Increase the Risk for Cavities
Tooth decay can happen when your child’s teeth come in contact with too much sugar. It can even happen before your child has teeth.
Why? Sugar helps bacteria grow and this causes the teeth to decay.
Many of the liquids that young children drink contain naturally occurring sugar, including milk, formula, and fruit juices.
Eating snacks with sugar also places more sugar on your child’s teeth, increasing the likelihood of decay.
Make sure you brush your child’s teeth every day to lower the risk of tooth decay.
My Advice: Sweets for Babies
Parents of young children should dial down the sweets when possible. I know it’s not easy!
If you can delay the introduction of cake, cookies, candy and sugary beverages, that is ideal. Remember, the world will expose your baby (and child) to many sweet options, some of which you’ll have no control over.
While she’s young, you do have more control over sugary foods.
Yes, our food world is full of opportunities for all kids to eat sweets—find out how you can manage the sugar in your child’s diet throughout his or her childhood.
Starting to Feed Your Baby?
Check out my step-by-step guide to starting solids for the latest information, from food to feeding methods, allergies and more!
You’ll get guidance on foods to avoid for babies under 1 as well as the recommended foods to introduce to your new eater. Click on the photo above!