Food safety for babies and young children
How to help keep your baby healthy
18 August 2023
Everyone should be concerned with food safety (a bout of gastro is awful whatever your age!) but it’s particularly important for parents and carers of babies and young children to be careful about the food they’re giving them. Their immature digestive and immune systems mean they can get sick very easily if they eat contaminated food. They can also take longer to recover than adults do and may develop complications if they’ve been unwell.
Ternity Group’s Nourish Baby Health Writer, Jane Barry gives us the dos and don’ts when it comes to food safety.
Most babies are ready for solid food (in addition to breast or formula milk) when they’re around six months old. The iron stores they built up during pregnancy start to decline and need to be replaced from food to support their growth and development, along with protein and zinc. So how do you know if your baby is ready for solids? Some good indications are:
- good head and neck control and they can sit upright when supported
- an interest in food (they may start looking at you or your plate when you’re eating)
- the ability to reach for food
- the skills to open their mouth when you offer them food on a spoon
- they’re able to transfer food from the front of their tongue to the back and then swallow.
Ensuring your baby’s food is safe
There are a range of important factors when it comes to food safety and babies and while some of it may seem obvious, a reminder can be useful during the busy (sleep deprived!) periods of life with a baby! Here are our top ten tips!
1. Know the source. Where possible, always know where the food you’re offering your baby has been prepared, cooked and stored. While we know that home cooked food tends to be better for us, life with a baby is busy and store-bought food can save you precious time – just stick to shops or cafes that you know and trust.
2. Hand hygiene. Always make sure your hands are clean before preparing food for your baby. Babies and young children aren’t well known for their abilities to stay squeaky clean (hello dirty nappies and grubby faces!) so keep soap at your kitchen sink and make sure you have paper towel or a clean towel handy to dry your hands.
3. Avoid contamination. Remember to separate raw and uncooked food and always use different cutting boards and knives for each. Contamination from blood and juices in raw food can easily spread so it’s important to keep them apart.
4. Illness. If you’re sick, ask a friend or family member for help preparing your baby’s food. Contagious illnesses such as gastroenteritis and diarrhoea spread easily (so take the opportunity to sit down and relax if you can!).
5. Food storage. Always store food safely. Defrost frozen food in the fridge (especially meats), put any food which needs to be kept cold into the fridge straight away, and throw away any food which has been left out of the fridge for more than two hours. If you’re heading out to do a food shop, take a cooler bag or esky to get the food home safely.
If you’re expressing and storing your breast milk, make sure you wash and dry your hands carefully before expressing into a sterile bottle or container. It’s important to store and defrost expressed breast milk (EBM) carefully.
If your baby is formula fed, store formula milk in the back of the fridge where the temperature is coldest. Always boil water before making up formula and use tap water, rather than bottled water, to prepare your baby’s bottles. Ideally make up your baby’s bottles just before their feeds but if it’s easier you can store boiled water in sterilised bottles in the fridge until you need it.
6. If in doubt throw it out! If you’re not sure about the safety of food, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and throw it out. It’s also a good idea to get into the habit of smelling food before eating it yourself or offering it to your baby – bacteria can make food smell and is a good warning sign that it’s not safe to eat.
7. Check the food labels. While some adults may take a more relaxed approach to dates on food labels, when it comes to babies and young children it’s important to use food by its 'use by' date and take note of the 'best by' date as well. And always follow the manufacturer’s storage and cooking instructions.
8. Allergies. Be mindful of the potential for your baby to have any allergies. Chat to your GP if you’re concerned about allergies. Check the allergy guidelines (and read our article on preventing allergies in babies) for more info.
9. Sterilising. If your baby is bottle fed, its best to sterilise their bottles and feeding equipment until they’re 12 months of age (yes, despite the fact that they’re crawling around the floor trying to lick windows and shoes!).
10. Cooking. Cook your baby’s food until it’s at least 60°C (or hotter for some foods). If you’re reheating food, make sure it's steaming hot and then wait until the food has cooled down and is safe to eat before offering it to your baby.
Which foods aren’t safe for young babies?
So now we know what we should be doing, but what shouldn’t we be doing? Which foods should parents and carers avoid giving to babies and young children?
1. Raw milk from animal sources. If your baby isn’t breastfeeding, they should have infant formula until they’re one year old. Raw milk and raw milk foods are not safe for babies as they haven’t been pasteurized (a process which helps to kill any bacteria present in the milk). If you think your baby needs a substitute for breast milk or cow’s milk derived formula then chat to your GP.
2. Whole nuts. While nut butters and pastes can be offered from around six months of age, whole nuts should be avoided for children under five as they can be a choking hazard.
3. Hard uncooked foods. Like nuts, hard and uncooked foods like carrots and apples can cause a baby to choke. Cooking them so they’re soft or grating them means you’re able to introduce them in a safe way.
4. Raw or undercooked egg. This can cause salmonella poisoning so it’s important to thoroughly cook eggs before offering them to infants.
5. Honey. Avoid giving honey to babies aged under 12 months old. Honey can contain a bacterium which can cause botulism which is a serious illness .
ASCIA Guidelines for infant feeding and allergy prevention - Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA)
Key tips | NSW Food Authority
Storing expressed breastmilk | Australian Breastfeeding Association
Ternity Group supports Teachers Health members through the New Families Program.
Nourish Baby Health Writer Jane Barry has qualifications in general, paediatric, immunisation, midwifery and child health nursing. She holds a Bachelor Degree in Applied Science (Nursing) and has almost 35 years specialist experience in child health nursing.