When can you give your baby salt and how much salt does your baby need? Here’s what you need to know about salt, sodium, and iodine and in your baby’s diet.
What is salt and why is it important?
Salt, primarily made from sodium chloride (NaCl), is an essential mineral for life.
Sodium is needed to maintain proper fluid and electrolyte balance in the body, as well as for conducting nerve impulses and muscle contractions.
Salt (if iodized) is also a primary source of iodine, a nutrient needed for proper thyroid function. Therefore, it’s important to get enough of it.
That being said, there’s a fine line between getting enough salt and having way too much of it in our diet today.
Too much sodium leads to an increase in fluid retention. This, in turn, can lead to dehydration and high blood pressure.
Long term, excessive sodium intake can cause an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, and kidney disease.
It’s likely no surprise that the largest source of sodium is our diet, and this is no different when it comes to our kids.
Salt intake among children
A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that, besides formula and breast milk, the majority of sodium intake among babies ages 6-12 months came from commercial baby foods, soups, and pasta mixed dishes.
Kids ages 12-24 months also get a lot of sodium from cow’s milk, cheese, hot dogs, and sausages, as well as foods eaten out at restaurants.
It’s easy to fall into the high-sodium trap when introducing first foods to your kids, seeing as so much of our food system is saturated with processed, packaged foods that have been flavor-enhanced with extra salt…and then marketed to busy parents as healthy convenience options for small children.
Here’s what you need to know about salt and your baby.
When can babies have salt?
Salt and sodium needs will be primarily met through breast milk and formula for babies, from birth until 6-12 months old as they wean to solid foods.
We don’t recommend adding any type of salt to food for babies under 12 months of age, as their kidneys aren’t mature enough to process it.
The Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization recommend limiting added salt during the first two years of life, and not exposing babies or young kids to high-sodium foods.
How much salt can babies have?
According to the National Health Service of the United Kingdom, the recommended maximum amounts for salt in a child’s diet are as follows:
- Babies up to 12 months: Less than 1 gram of salt a day (less than 0.4 grams of sodium
- Toddlers 1 to 3 years: 2 grams of salt a day (0.8 grams of sodium)
- Kids 4 to 6 years: 3 grams of salt a day (1.2 grams of sodium)
The Institute of Medicine recommends no more than 1.5 grams of sodium for kids ages 1-3 years and no more than 1.9 grams of sodium for kids ages 4-6 years, per day.
Your baby’s sodium needs will generally be met through breastmilk or formula.
Once your baby starts eating solid foods, it’s important to be aware of how much sodium is in common first foods.
The role of potassium and sodium in your baby’s diet
Research suggests that sodium and potassium work together to regulate blood pressure more so than one nutrient alone.
Findings show that most people are eating too much sodium and not enough potassium, and that this imbalance may be a major reason for the prevalence of high blood pressure.
What does this mean for your baby? In addition to limiting added salt in his diet, incorporate a wide variety of potassium-rich foods.
The great news is that some of the best sources of potassium are fruits and vegetables, which can be perfect first foods for babes.
How to reduce the salt content of your child’s diet
The good news is that there are some things you can do to minimize the amount of added salt in your child’s diet.
- Choosing mostly whole plant-based foods, like raw fruits and vegetables
- Make your own baby food at home (e.g., steaming or boiling and pureeing fresh fruit and vegetables, then storing in the freezer)
- Buying raw whole grains rather than flavored and boxed varieties (e.g., plain quinoa, brown rice, or barley rather than seasoned or flavored packaged grain dinners)
- Buy no-salt-added packaged and canned foods
- Rinse canned beans before serving them, to remove excess sodium
- Don’t add salt to homemade foods (if you want to add flavor, use herbs or salt-free spices)
- Don’t buy ready-to-eat cereals that are not made specifically for babies, as these may be high in sodium
- Make a habit of reading the nutrition facts label on packaged foods, which will tell you how much sodium there is in one serving
Minimizing the amount of added salt in your child’s diet may also benefit them by preventing their development of a taste or craving for salty foods.
Other sources of iodine for your child
Although iodized salt is a good source of iodine (note that pink Himalayan salt and sea salt do not typically contain iodine), that doesn’t mean you have to add salt to everything your baby eats to make sure she gets enough of this nutrient.
As mentioned, we advise against adding salt to your baby’s foods and instead providing other sources of iodine.
Iodine is largely found in dairy products and seafood. Other natural sources of iodine include sea vegetables like seaweed and dulse, but the amounts are inconsistent and therefore not always reliable.
The easiest and most reliable way to meet your baby’s iodine needs on a predominantly plant-based diet is by way of a supplement. Most baby multivitamins will contain iodine.
When can babies have salt, which supplies sodium and iodine? Tread lightly, as meeting your baby’s sodium and iodine needs doesn’t mean adding salt to his foods.
Your baby’s salt needs will be met through breast milk or formula early in life, and then should be met through a supplement until at least one year of age. After that, it’s important to pay attention to the sodium and potassium content of their foods.
If you liked this article, check out some of our other frequently asked questions about nutrition for babies:
For more guidance around first foods for new eaters, and navigating nutrition for babies, grab your copy of our e-book First Bites: The Definitive Guide to Baby-Led Weaning for Plant-Based Babies.