CDC guidelines recommend avoiding foods and drinks with added sugar for children under two years old. This includes cakes, candy, sodas, juice drinks, packaged meals and snacks, flavored yogurt, ketchup, and pre-made pasta sauces. Parents might look at this list in despair. These foods are the backbone of many toddler diets. And even if you abide by this — what about when the child turns two? How much sugar is too much?
The answer depends on various factors. There are reasons to restrict sugar in a child's early years, and there are compelling reasons to indulge in treats as well. Understanding these reasons can help each parent make the best decision for their child.
Too much daily sugar can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Fructose, a common sweetener, can have a negative effect on metabolism, increasing the risk of inflammatory diseases like asthma and acne.
These outcomes are more about daily habits than occasional indulgences. One cookie doesn't doom a child to a lifetime of illness, but limiting sugar overall can promote better health.
There is evidence that sugar can relieve pain in toddlers. It reduces the amount of discomfort the child feels and gives them a higher pain tolerance.
If the child is feeling sick or recovering from an injury, a cup of juice or an ice pop might be an easy way to help them feel better.
Infants and toddlers naturally prefer sweet tastes. It takes time and persistence to get a child used to bitter and savory flavors like broccoli, cabbage, cranberries, and fish.
Childhood food preferences can persist into adulthood, so children who develop a broad palate in their earliest years may naturally eat healthier and more diversely as adults.
From moon cakes to Halloween candy, sugar is an important part of social and cultural traditions throughout the world. Many experts who recommend limiting daily sugar intake understand that dessert can be a way for people to bond.
Parents can offer low-sugar alternatives during classroom birthday parties or alter family recipes, but a slice of Grandpa's cake during the holidays won't hurt.
Excess sugar can draw water into the intestines, causing diarrhea. This is especially true for beverages with added sweeteners. Some parents whose toddlers have chronic diarrhea find that cutting out sugary juice resolves the problem.
Diarrhea isn't just uncomfortable. It can lead to dehydration and malnutrition, especially in small children.
Labeling sugary snacks as bad and creating an all-or-nothing approach to healthy eating can cause stress for parents and contribute to low self-esteem and even disordered eating in children. Treats have value. They taste nice and give children energy.
Parents can promote a balanced diet and celebrate a variety of delicious foods without creating taboos around sugar.
Toddlers have tiny stomachs and can easily fill up on treats. Limiting options with added sugar encourages toddlers to try nutrient-rich alternatives. This includes food with natural sugars like milk, plain yogurt, and fruit.
Frozen yogurt bars studded with berries can be a sweet substitute for ice cream. Toast with sunflower butter can give kids the same energy burst as toast and jam without that mid-day crash.
Restrictive diets in early childhood can sometimes lead to overindulgence in later life. Some parents introduce sugar early so their toddlers can start learning how to manage cravings and regulate their sugar intake.
Children who've already developed these skills are less likely to go wild when their parents aren't around.
Toddlers enjoy eating the same foods as their parents and older siblings. Families can lead by example. If they're able to rely less on pre-packaged meals on less busy days, families can make more conscious choices about the foods they do eat.
Children can learn to appreciate food by being involved in the preparation of daily meals and helping to choose between healthy options.
Not every family has the same resources. A parent working multiple jobs or living in a food desert may rely on prepared meals. Some children have a disorder called AFRID, a severe form of picky eating in which they literally cannot eat outside a limited selection of safe foods.
Sometimes using a jar of pre-made spaghetti sauce or handing over a packaged snack with added sugar gives a parent the time or energy to do other important activities for their or their child's health, like reading a book together or playing outside. Parents need to be free to make the best decision for their family's situation.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.