The Infant Feeding in New Zealand report, which was sponsored by New Zealand's Ministry of Social Development's Children and Families Research Fund, took its information from the University of Auckland’s Growing Up in New Zealand (GUiNZ) study, a contemporary longitudinal study tracking the development of over 6,800 Kiwi children from before birth till they are young adults.
The study cohort was born between 2007 and 2010, with participants from diverse ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds to allow for robust analyses.
The Infant Feeding in New Zealand report focused on infants in the cohort that had taken part in the GUiNZ study's nine-month face-to-face interview, during which data on complementary feeding practices was collected.
This report will be used to inform the Ministry of Health's review of Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Infants and Toddlers Aged 0 — 2 Years, which will commence in 2019.
The guidelines were first published a decade ago, based on evidence on the types of food and nutrition that supported the health and development of children from birth to two years of age.
Finding on the feedings
The report's authors used 13 indicators of infant feeding to determine adherence to national infant nutrition guidelines, combining them into an Infant Feeding Index (IFI) that used a maximum score of 100 points, and summarised the different degrees of adherence over the infants' first year of life.
On average, the infants score on the IFI was 70 points, and actual scores ranged from as low as 13.5 to 100 points, the latter being a small minority (1.5%).
There was a high level of adherence (80% or higher) to five of the 13 guidelines: 94% of the infants were eating three or more solid daily meals at nine months old, and the same percentage were given only breastmilk and / or suitable formula milk by the same age.
In addition, 86% were not consuming any added sugar in their milk or meals at nine months, and 84% were not consuming any added salt.
Finally, 80% were eating iron-rich food at least once a day at nine months of age.
Three of the guidelines saw moderate adherence (50% to 79%): 61% of the infants had never tried 'inappropriate' drinks such as coffee, tea, juice, cordials or soft drinks at nine months old.
When it came to food, 57% had had solid food introduced into their diets at six months of age, and 53% were eating across the four food groups daily at nine months of age.
The remaining five guidelines saw low adherence (under 50%): only 47% of the infants had never tried high-salt, high-sugar and / or high-fat foods such as sweets, chocolate, hot chips and potato crisps at nine months old.
Only 37% were eating fruit at least twice daily at nine months of age; the same percentage were breastfed until they were at least a year old.
In addition, 35% were exclusively breastfed until they were about six months old, and only 33% were eating vegetables at least twice a day at nine months old.
Reasons behind the report
In a media release, one of the report's authors, Dr Sarah Gerritsen, said: "We were interested in factors such as whether the children were breastfed and for how long, whether solid foods were introduced at around six months old, and if fruit and vegetables were eaten twice or more daily by the age of nine months.
"We know that nutrition in those first 12 months can affect a baby's cognitive, social and physical development, so it's important to understand what's happening and where families may need more support or information about how best to nourish their very young children."
She also expressed concern about the low adherence to nearly half the guidelines, saying: "It's concerning that more than half had tried foods high in sugar, salt and fat, such as lollies, chips and chocolate, and more than 40% had tried sugary drinks, including cordial and juice.
"These foods can add excess energy to infants' diets while adding little nutritional value. But more than that, they can establish future taste preferences that make it difficult for children to choose healthy options later on."
She added that the research had also taken into account the impact of sociodemographic factors like ethnicity, household income, and education levels.
The report's findings will be presented this week at the 2018 Nutrition Society of New Zealand Conference in Auckland, conducted by the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health.
Read the full report here.