Handling Sugar for Babies and Toddlers

Last updated May 2, 2023
By Renae D'Andrea

Today we’re talking all things sugar! Can your baby have sugar? What about your toddler? And how do you balance providing a healthy and nutritious diet with helping your child have a healthy relationship with food? Read on for details!

Sugar is one of those topics that always seems to bring out strong emotions and opinions in people, on both sides of the argument! So before I dive in, I just want to lay out a few things. 

Sugar is not bad!

Food has no inherent morality to it. There aren’t good foods and bad foods. Sure, there are foods that might be more nutritious for you. There are also foods that can make you feel bad. There are even foods that are better avoided in normal situations. But there are no bad foods!

My Baby Hasn’t Had Any Sugar Yet!

When I talk about sugar for kids, I inevitably get parents telling me that they are very proud that their kid hasn’t had a lick of sugar yet, or those telling me how guilty they feel because their baby has had sugar. I invite you to take a step back if you are in either of those camps. Because whether your child has had sugar or not does not make you a good or a bad parent. They have absolutely nothing to do with each other!

What I will be talking about here is something that can be looked at as a goal. It is not something that is make it or break it. Your baby will not have major issues if they get a bit of sugar before 1! Nor will they thank you for keep sugar from them for years. So read this article for what it is- something to give you reasons to back up recommendations. Not something to shame you, or make you feel guilty or even proud. We are all doing our best as parents, and when we are armed with information, we can make the best choices from what is available to us.

Sugar for Babies and Toddlers

Why is sugar not good for babies or toddlers? According to the Feeding Infants and Toddler Study from 2016 about 85% of infants and toddlers in the US consume added sugar on a given day. Toddlers 12-18 months average 5.5 teaspoons a day, and those 19-23 months old average 7 teaspoons in a day! That is a very large amount of sugar for the amount of food they are likely eating.

Babies and toddlers have a relatively small amount of room in their stomachs for food, and it is a priority to get them a diet full of nutrient rich foods in order to maximize that. We need every bite to count, essentially, to help them grow to their full potential! When sugar is present in a young child’s diet, it can displace those foods that are much more beneficial for them. Excess sugar can also lead to cavities, even in younger children.

We are born with a natural predilection for sweet tastes. Amniotic fluid is sweet, and so is breast milk. In those first few years of life, we lay down the majority of our food preferences (that’s why variety is so key!) And if babies and toddlers are constantly being exposed to sweet foods, they tend to want them more often, and in larger amounts, as they grow. Sweets beget sweets! In essence, we are reinforcing their innate preference instead of exposing them to different tastes and foods to help expand their palettes. 

Added sugars do not include fruit!

When we say added sugars, we’re not just talking table sugar. We’re talking regular white sugar as well as honey, maple syrup, agave. Your body treats these pretty much all the same. Maple syrup is no different for us when it comes to sugars than table sugar! Really anything that counts as a sweetener counts as sugar, and I’d lump in here artificial sweeteners, too. Artificial sweeteners tend to be incredibly sweet, and function in the same manner for predisposing your child to wanting that sweet, sugary taste. So when you see sugar here, know that I am talking about more than just white sugar- I’m talking all forms of added sugars or sweeteners.

What doesn’t count when we talk about sugar is fruit. Fruit does not have added sugar. It does have natural sugars in it, but they are considered intrinsic sugars and not added. They are there naturally, and come along with all sorts of things like fiber and other nutrients. There is no need to fear fruit, it is a great option for kids of all ages!

Sugar is everywhere!

Before we get into talking about desserts and treats, let’s talk about added sugars in everyday food items. This goes for babies, and even adults, of all ages. If you head to the grocery store, you will find that a huge portion of available foods have added sugars of some kind. Even things that you would never expect it in! Breads, crackers, flavored yogurts, tomato sauces, dips. They all have added sugar! Most of us don’t expect it, or really even need it. So this is a prime area to focus your efforts on reducing sugar in your diet.

Flavored yogurts are actually a large contributor to sugar in a toddler or infant’s diet. And it’s the things like that that can add up, and actually contribute a large amount of your child’s overall sugar consumption. 

Avoiding added sugars in every day items

So what should you do? If you are able, avoid things with added sugars in them. Buy plain yogurt and flavor it yourself, find bread without sweeteners (it’s hard, yes, but try sprouted or sourdoughs to start!), get spaghetti sauce without added sugars, choose dips and sauces that aren’t meant to be sweet. It does tend to be easier to accomplish this if you have access to more specialty stores. Here where I am, those are places like Trader Joe’s, Sprouts, or Whole Foods. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it at a normal grocery store! It just takes a bit more time.

Sometimes, it is impossible to find something without added sugar, or it’s not in your budget to buy the version without. If it is just an occasional item, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you find that most of the food you are buying has some added sugar in it, it might be time to shift your foods to more unprocessed foods. There are lots of options that can be cheap, especially if you buy in bulk. It does often take some looking, though.

When Can My Toddler Have Sugar?

The general recommendation is to avoid sugar before the age of 2. Since we’ve already talked about added sugars in everyday items and avoiding them for all ages, let’s specifically refer to treats or desserts when we’re talking sugar now. 

Sugar before the age of 1

I like to break the recommendation up and say be much more vigilant about eliminating sugar before the age of 1. Again, it is not the end of the world if your child ends up with some, but it’s a goal to shoot for. We really want to be maximizing our children’s nutrient intake before 1, and before 1 babies really have no understanding of what they’re missing. I promise! They will almost always be satisfied with you giving them something similar to what you are eating. There’s no need to give them a full sugar version of something.

Sugar between the ages of 1 and 2

After 1 and before 2, we still want to avoid sugar whenever possible. We want to put off our kids getting thrown into the sugar is everywhere phase as long as we can! With that being said, sugar is always going to be a bit of a balancing act about when to offer or not. Before 2, most kids still aren’t incredibly aware of what is being eaten around them at all times of the day. Especially if it is something that they don’t really know what it is! 

Once your child is aware of the specific food you are eating, especially when we’re talking desserts, they can start to feel restricted if you don’t allow them to have it, too. And we don’t want that! Restriction leads to obsessing over it, and overeating when they do eventually get access to it.

Every kid is going to develop differently with their awareness levels, and some kids might develop awareness of the foods around them at a younger age. Maybe even closer to 18 months. That’s why I say it will be a balancing act of when to offer sugary treats! And obviously a harder one if you’ve got older kids at home or daycare, too, as your younger child is more likely to see desserts around. But that doesn’t mean that we need to start offering our kids desserts before 2 just because! The goal is to put if off as long as we can.

How to handle it when your toddler is around sugar

Between 1 and 2, my general rule of thumb is give bites of dessert if, say, you are at a family event and everyone is having dessert. If your child notices, then give them a few bites. Don’t make a big deal about it, don’t tell them no or imply it’s a forbidden food. Nonchalantly give them some and move on. But if they don’t notice, then there’s no reason to give it! 

If you are at home and want to give something sweet to the rest of the family, try doing it at a time when the younger child is sleeping. Or try serving something similar if they are not aware of the actual dessert being given. Here’s an example of what I mean: We like to have waffles with strawberries and whipped cream sometimes. Since before my daughter was one, (she’s not quite 2 yet) we have been giving her plain greek yogurt on her waffles instead. It looks exactly the same really, and it’s a much more nutrient-rich option for her. Now if she noticed or asked to have some of ours? We’d give her some without making a big deal of it. But we don’t offer it, and we don’t restrict it either. We’re really just taking advantage of the fact that she doesn’t know what whipped cream is or that it’s sweet. 

It is okay to take advantage of your role as the gatekeeper of nutrition at your house! Use that to limit as much added sugars before 2 as you can, without making your child feel restricted. Sugar is not a necessary part of a diet, and while it is not bad as we discussed earlier, it is not something that kids know they are missing out on right from the start.

How to Handle Sugar with Your Child Who's 2 or Older

Once your child turns two, some of this advice actually flips. At 2, or around there- as remember this is a general recommendation- you do want to expose them to sugar. As I mentioned above, when you restrict a food and make it forbidden, it makes kids obsess over it.

Around 2, you can no longer take advantage of the fact that your child is likely unaware of a lot of desserts.  Sooner or later they will be at a birthday party or family event, or even just at your own table. If they are in the presence of sugar and they haven’t ever had it before, they won’t know how to handle it. Kids can become obsessive, overeat it, and really just go crazy for it. 

And if by some crazy miracle you managed to keep your child from eating sweets the entire time they lived in your house, as soon as they move out they’ll be exposed to it. And they won’t know how to handle it. More likely than not, this will lead to bingeing on it and becoming obsessive, leading to a whole host of other problems. 

Sugar and a healthy relationship with food

Our goal is to help our kids develop and maintain a healthy relationship with food. We want to avoid labeling foods as good or bad, and we want to avoid setting them up to think that they need to restrict something in order to be healthy. And we’re talking all foods here, including sugar. To accomplish this you need to show them that sugar can be a part of a balanced and nutritious diet, and that it is just another food. No fear necessary! Sugar will not corrupt your child, especially if you serve it in a manner that doesn’t put it on a pedestal. 

How to serve dessert to your child

Just how should you do that? As this blog post is already very long, I’ll be back in my next blog post to go in depth into how to serve dessert to your child (over 2!). Let’s put these recommendations into practice to help foster a healthy relationship with food for your child!

These are the goals! Not diehard rules!

At the end of the day, remember that we’re talking goals here! We’re not talking if something happens and you don’t meet your goal that you are a bad parent. Having goals to aim for to give our kids a varied, and nutrient-rich diet is a great thing. But not if it results in you feeling guilt over your feeding practices. We can foster our children’s healthy relationships with food while still aiming to avoid sugar before 2. They are not mutually exclusive! You can even think of using the time before 2 as training for yourself. It can help you learn how to serve meals that don't rely heavily on sugar for when they're older and you are including sugar in their diet. But remember, we’re all doing our best as parents, and whether you do it or not has no bearing on whether you are a good parent! Take this as something you might aim for, knowing that it isn’t an easy goal. 

Do you find yourself serving the same thing to your toddler? Wondering if you can serve baby the same food every day? Learn the most important thing you can do for your child's diet here, and just why your focus should be on serving a varied, nutrient-rich diet in the first two years of your child's life!

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