When it comes to kids and sugar, I’m a huge advocate for liberalizing sweets and allowing children to have access to all foods, including desserts.
You might be wondering why?
As an intuitive eating dietitian who works with families on building healthy relationships with food, I’ve seen firsthand the damaging effects of restriction and limiting many of the foods that children often want to eat.
Sugar is one of those foods that is highly demonized in our culture.
Everywhere we turn, there’s fear-mongering around sweets: “Sugar is toxic!”, “Don’t let your kids eat sweets!”, and so forth. Many parents worry about how to approach these foods, and preventing access to sweets often seems like a suitable solution for controlling a food that can feel confusing.
However, research shows that restricting highly palatable foods, like sweets, can actually increase the desire for those foods.
I’ve seen this with the many families I’ve worked with, who came to me because their children were showing an obsession with sweets and desserts, a direct effect from having limited access to those foods. Foods that have been strictly forbidden or limited not only become more desirable, but children are more likely to overeat them whenever they do get access to them.
So restricting access to sweets hasn’t been shown to be an effective long-term solution to helping children build a healthy and positive relationship with food. In fact, it can make things worse, creating more confusion and chaos around sweet foods and all things sugar.
What then are more positive approaches to take around sugar in your home for your children?
Allowing access to sweets within the context of your children’s meals and snacks can be a positive and productive way to manage sugar in your home – one that offers your children structure and a supportive environment around food while taking sweets off the pedestal.
On this note of making sweets accessible to prevent an unhealthy obsession from forming around sugar, I often get asked, “How early should I start?”, or “Should I start giving sweets to my baby?”, or “When can my baby have sugar?”
These are great questions and something I want to address in this blog today.
Can Babies Have Sugar?
Offering sweets to younger children can be a bit more nuanced, especially when they’re not as aware of all the sweets out there they may be missing out on.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued these guidelines for sugar with babies and younger children are as follows:
For children ages 2 and younger, no added sugar is recommended
For children 2 years and older, aim for less than 25 grams of sugar per day
Avoid serving food and drinks with added sugar to children under 2 years of age
Aim for serving water and milk instead of soda, sports drinks, sweet tea and fruit drinks
Watch for hidden sources of added sugar
Do not give fruit juice to infants under 1 year old
These guidelines can outline some practical steps to move forward when you’re considering how and when to introduce sweets to your infant and toddler.
As a general rule of thumb, we can offer sweeter foods to our babies and toddlers with a variety of whole foods, especially fruit, some vegetables and dairy products, to help them learn to eat a variety of foods.
There will come a time where it is appropriate to start intentionally incorporating sweets for your child; however, at the onset of introducing food and helping your child learn to eat is not necessarily the optimal window for doing so.
By withholding sweets initially at the time your baby is learning how to eat doesn’t somehow mean that your child will be at a disadvantage or feel deprived of eating sweets down the road.
Babies and toddlers who haven’t yet had exposure to outside sweets don’t know what they’re missing out on yet and will have ample time and opportunity to learn how to eat and self-regulate those foods down the road.
For the time being, you can focus on helping your child learn to eat by including a variety of wholesome foods, textures and flavors that don’t have added sugars in them. I’ll be addressing the nuances of when and how to start introducing sweets further down below in the post.
How Much Added Sugar Per Day?
When it comes to the added sugar guidelines, it’s important to look at them as just that: guidelines, not rules about how or what your child should or shouldn’t be eating.
Contrary to popular belief, sugar is not toxic and isn’t going to damage your child or somehow give them an unhealthy start to life. In fact, sugar – or glucose – is our bodies (and your baby’s) preferred source of fuel and energy.
(You can read more about the common myths about sugar and kids in this post here: “5 Myths About Sugar and Kids: Sugar and Diabetes Myth Vs Fact”)
When it comes to sugar, our bodies don’t have a preferred source of glucose.
Meaning, there aren’t superior forms of sugar. Once your food has been broken down, digested, and has entered your bloodstream, the chemical structure of the sugar you’ve ingested is all the same.
Sugar from an apple is not a different chemical structure than sugar that comes into your bloodstream from high fructose corn syrup or brown sugar, for example. All forms of carbohydrates and sugars (including natural and added sugars), essentially break down into the most basic unit of energy our bodies can use, which is glucose.
So if all forms of sugar are essentially equal, what’s the deal with the no added sugar recommendation for babies and younger toddlers or avoiding sweets until they’re older?
When it comes to food products, many of our common, everyday foods have sugar added to it, perhaps unnecessarily. Things like breads, cereals, sauces, etc. – many foods that our babies may eat on the regular.
Now, this isn’t an inherently “bad” thing, as again, their bodies know exactly how to handle and process sugar. However, if the foods you’re regularly consuming and offering to your baby have added sugars in them, this can quickly add up in their little bodies over time.
Additionally, if we’re regularly offering your baby sweets, these foods can sometimes compete with other foods and nutrients their bodies need during this critical window of development and growth.
For this reason, it can be helpful to be cognizant of the food your family frequently consumes, especially for your baby, as your child begins an introduction to food and learns how to eat.
The key here is what your child is being exposed to regularly and often.
Other things to consider outside of just natural sugar vs. added sugar also include:
Frequency: How often is your baby getting foods with added sugars? Infrequent exposures are not going to hurt or harm your child in any way. What about the foods your child is eating regularly? If your baby is favoring a certain cereal or fruit pouch, scan the labels to see if there are added sugars in these products your child consumes on a regular basis. If there are added sugars, consider swapping out for an alternative that doesn’t include added sugar in them. Again, it’s more about the regular foods your baby is eating over time. This is also a great reason for offering variety and switching foods up when possible!
Quantity: Higher quantities of sugar or added sugar at one time or in one sitting can have more of an effect on your baby’s body and potentially be harder for your baby to manage. So if you are including foods with added sugar, consider spacing them out or offering them alongside other foods or at different times of the day.
Concentration: When our bloodstream gets hit with a high influx of glucose, this can cause our blood sugar levels to rise quickly, which can sometimes have adverse side effects. This is especially true for younger children, who’s little bodies are learning how to manage their sugar levels. Offering sweets alongside other foods that offer fiber, protein and fat, can help stabilize blood sugar levels and release glucose into the bloodstream more slowly. This is another benefit of offering sweets or foods with added sugars alongside meals and snacks, where other nutrients are being consumed as well.
At the end of the day, the best thing is to do what you can but don’t stress over these sugar guidelines either.
For many families, these sugar guidelines can feel impossible, especially if there are older children in the home who have more exposure to sweets and other foods a younger child may also be exposed to, or who are simply trying to make ends meet within the means they have available to them.
Rigid rules around sugar can feel complicated for parents to handle. I’ve worked with many parents who were tracking their children’s sugar intake, which also created unnecessary fear and stress around food.
The big picture goal here is to be able to enjoy freedom with food as a whole family. To be able to eat together without stress or fear of what your child is eating. This can feel impossible to do if you’re attempting to micromanage your child’s sugar intake, especially if you have a younger child under the age of 2.
Instead, consider the bigger picture of your child’s health and relationship with food. Ultimately, you want to focus on creating positive eating experiences for your child. A positive eating environment is essential for supporting your child in building a healthy relationship with food. This is going to be difficult to establish if you’re constantly tracking every morsel your child is eating or worried about them eating something with added sugar in it.
When you’re considering how to approach sweets with your younger children, keep these tips below in mind.
When Can Babies Have Sugar and How to Introduce
When it comes to younger children, especially ages two and younger, here are some general guidelines to help you navigate sweets:
Food safety first:
First, you want to think about keeping your child safe. There are certain sweets that may not be appropriate for your child because they create a food safety risk.
For this reason alone, you want to be sure to avoid foods that could potentially cause a food safety hazard. For example, honey is not recommended for children one year or younger, as this can increase their risk of infant botulism.
A second thing to consider is anything that can be a choking hazard. Small hard candies, for example, can pose a choking risk for younger children. Stickier candies that might be harder to chew can also be a choking hazard for younger children.
On this basis alone, you want to be careful about what sweets your children have access to in order to help keep their bodies safe. This is particularly important if you have older children with more frequently access to sweets that may not yet be suitable for your younger child.
2. Offer a Variety and Include Naturally Sweet Foods:
When children begin eating, they’re forming taste preferences and learning how to eat. This is a great time to introduce a variety of foods, flavors and textures to help your child learn how to eat and enjoy many different things.
Because there are so many options of foods to introduce, sweets or sugary foods don’t necessarily need to be part of this equation at this point. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t offer your infant or toddler sweeter foods. Remember, breastmilk or formula, which is your baby’s first food, is naturally sweeter in flavor. Children start out their lives with a biological predisposition to prefer sweeter flavors.
Babies are born able to detect and prefer the predominant taste quality of the food they need to survive: mother’s milk or formula. So it shouldn’t surprise us or make us anxious when our younger children show a preference for sweeter foods or flavors.
All we can reasonably focus on doing is offering a variety of foods to help them learn and include foods that are naturally sweet, including fruit, some vegetables (like squashes, sweet potatoes, etc) and many dairy products.
Remember, as you start introducing foods to your baby, your job is to decide what you’re offering and to trust your child to eat what is desired from the foods you’ve provided. This can help build a trusting feeding relationship right from the start and support the foundations of helping your baby build a positive relationship with food.
3. Check for Added Sugars, But Don’t Stress:
Many foods marketed for toddlers and babies contain various forms of added sugar. It can be helpful to double check the labels and look for sources of added sugar.
This can include things like high-fructose corn syrup, honey dextrose, fruit juice concentrates, invert sugar, malt sugar, molasses, raw sugar, turbinado and ingredients ending in “-ose.” So when you’re looking for baby food products, give the label a quick scan to check for added sources of sugar.
As a general guideline, aiming for whole foods for our babies and toddlers can help avoid any unnecessary added sugar. For example, if you’re looking at baby food jars, the ingredients should be limited to the actual food. If you’re buying a jar of pureed apples for your baby, the ingredients should be limited to apples and not have anything else added to it.
However, I do encourage you to be vigilant without stressing about it. I’ve known many parents who become stressed about reading every single label and worried about their babies getting a trace of sugar in their bodies.
This is a surefire way of stressing yourself out and not necessary for keeping your baby healthy. Do a quick scan on the labels of foods you’re regularly offering your baby but don’t stress about the occasional food your baby may have that has some added sugar to it. Remember, it’s more about the foods your child is regularly exposed to over time – the occasional food is not going to hurt him or her.
4. Watch your child for signs of interest in sweets:
As your babies get older and are showing clear signs of interest in sweet foods you may have in your home or that they’re exposed to, be intentional about allowing access to these foods as part of your children’s meals or snacks.
Let me explain a couple common scenarios about this so you can feel more confident about how to move forward with this.
When parents hear me talk this, they may feel nervous about introducing sweets to their children and may avoid keeping them in their home as long as possible, so as not to expose their children, or allow their children to know what foods are out there.
However, this can be detrimental for many reasons and set your child up for more issues around sweets down the road.
The reality is that we live in a world where sweets and packaged foods exist. And no matter how diligently you may’ve been in keeping these foods out of your home, your children will eventually encounter them in one form or another.
It’s going to be harder for them to learn how to self-regulate those in the real world if they never got the chance to eat them at home.
Another scenario may be if a young child encounters sweets and shows interest in eating them, parents may feel worried about this interest in sweets and take steps to prevent additional exposure.
However, this can make a child more preoccupied with these foods, with a higher tendency to over eat these foods whenever access is made available to them.
So when and where might your children get their first exposure to sweets? This can happen anywhere from special occasions, holiday gatherings, birthday parties, at school or daycare or in other family’s/friends’ homes.
The goal is not to try to prevent these exposures but to simply be aware of how your child responds when the exposures happen. If your child shows a high interest in a new sweet they’ve been exposed to and begins asking more that particular sweet, this is the time to take proactive and intentional steps to including these sweets in your home and allowing them within the context of your child’s meals or snacks.
This tends to happen around age 2 and older, as kids around this age are typically engaged in more activities and events that would increase their exposure to sweets and other outside foods. Your child may also show an interest in foods you’re eating or that older siblings in the home may be eating, which brings me to my last point.
5. Trust the Process:
Sometimes even with our best efforts, things may go slightly different than we plan or intended. And nowhere is this more true than with babies, toddlers and sweets. Especially if you’re raising a baby alongside older children.
Because the reality is, no matter how meticulous you are about reading labels and avoiding foods with added sugars, your child will likely encounter sweets in various forms in ways you’d least suspect. I don’t tell you this to discourage you by any means or to make you feel like the things you’re doing in your home don’t matter. Everything you do matters to raising a healthy child who has a positive relationship with food.
I just want you to keep the big picture in mind and not to hold on too tightly to any “rules” or expectations about how or what your child should be eating.
To help you understand, let me share this story with you: I’m a mother of 5 amazing children. When our youngest baby was born, my oldest daughter was 7 years old. When my baby was learning how to eat, we already had 3 children in elementary school. With 5 children in the home, my youngest was being exposed to many different things much earlier on in her life compared to my older children.
This was just the default of being the youngest child. She would see my older children enjoying candy, popsicles, cupcakes and the sort and naturally was interested in trying some too. So the exposure to these foods earlier in her life meant I needed to take a proactive approach in including her when these foods were offered to my other children.
So if my older children were having ice cream for snack, she would get a small bowl or cone too. If I would’ve left her out of the equation because of her age and not allowed her to try the foods she saw her older siblings eating, this could’ve created intense feelings of deprivation around those very foods.
We regularly keep these foods in our home too, so as soon as she became aware of them, I started including a small portion of them for her alongside meals and snacks, just like I would with my other children.
This started around 18 months, so well before the guidelines for offering sweets.
The amazing thing is seeing how her relationship with food has evolved over time. She enjoys sweets but doesn’t obsess over them. She gets just as excited about eating roasted broccoli and strawberries (her favorites) as she does eating cookies and popsicles. She often leaves behind a good portion of her dessert and is interested in a variety of foods.
I think a lot of this has to do with her temperament, too, but I do believe taking a more relaxed approach to sweets helped with this as well. I was more so forced to do so with her, simply because she was being exposed to these foods at a much younger age compared to my other children.
I share this to help you if you find yourself in this same situation.
You might be parenting a younger toddler alongside older children and feel overwhelmed with the “guidelines” for sugar, like you’re doing something wrong. You’re not doing anything wrong and your child isn’t going to be at a disadvantage or somehow unhealthy because they’re getting an introduction to sweets earlier than the recommended guidelines.
Above all, remember you can trust your child and know they’ll eat what they need from the foods you provide them, even if that includes sweets or desserts.
Once your child starts showing signs of interest in sweets, take the proactive approach to offer them within the context of their meals and snacks and trust them to eat what they need from the foods you’ve made available. You also want to take a neutral approach to help normalize these foods for your children as they grow.
In doing so, you’ll find sweets to be so much less of a power struggle for years to come and send the powerful message to your children that they can trust they’ll have regular access to a variety of foods. You can trust the process, and most importantly, you can trust your children to eat.
Other points to consider when it comes to younger children and sweets are offering smaller portions and to include them alongside meals or snacks.
This can help your child develop an emotional equal approach with all foods.
Don’t try to micromanage them or prevent access to the foods they’re showing interest in – this will only create more of an issue around the food itself.
Another tidbit is to modify foods as needed so they’re appropriate for your child and to avoid offering any sweets that could potentially be a choking hazard. For example, my youngest always showed an interest in the candies my older children were eating, but these could potentially be choking hazards for her.
So I opted for finding sweet options that wouldn’t present a choking hazard to her as well.
Lastly, I want to be sure to clarify that offering sweets doesn’t mean you just give your child a free pass to eat whatever they want whenever they want it. This is often a message that is misconstrued from this idea of allowing access to sweets, especially for younger children.
Remember, children need a supportive approach to food, which includes structure around meals and snacks. Your child will do better with food and eating when they have a reliable rhythm around eating times throughout the day.
Within the context of this, you can intentionally plug in access to sweeter foods your child is showing interest in. This can look like offering a child’s portion of a cookie or brownie alongside lunch or dinner. For more on this approach, be sure to check out this blog here: “Feeding Kids Sweets 101: Knowing Your Role When You Feed the Kids”
Keeping the End Goal in Mind
As you navigate through this with your children, don’t forget to keep the big picture goal in mind.
The goal isn’t to follow external rules to raise a healthy child but to build a trusting feeding relationship with your child right from the start.
Remember that feeding your child is more than a transaction: you provide them food and expect them to eat it.
It’s about nurture and connection, it’s about building trust and creating positive experiences around eating. It’s focusing on doing your parts with eating and trusting your child to do their parts with eating.
Building a trusting feeding relationship is the foundation for supporting your child in forming a positive relationship with food and their bodies, and this starts from your baby’s first bite.
If you need more support around your approach with sweets for your children, please check out my Simplify Sweets Academy for more support.
Now I’d love to hear from you – what are your thoughts or questions about introducing sweets to younger children? Feel free to post your response in the comments below!