Johnson advises using artificial sweeteners only occasionally. "For young children, you want to use artificial sweeteners in moderation because children don't weigh that much and tend to get a lot of sweetener per kilogram of body weight," she says.
However, the new sweetener sucralose (Splenda) is made from natural compounds and is considered safe. "You can sprinkle some on strawberries or blueberries to sweeten them a bit, and the kids may like the fruit better," Johnson suggests. Many kids love honey, too. It's naturally sweet, and is safe for consumption by children over the age of one year.
Johnson emphasizes that parents must be vigilant about monitoring the amount and the sources of sugar in their children's diets, because kids are easily influenced by what they see. "Soft drinks and other sweetened beverages have become ubiquitous," she says. "They're in vending machines and in advertising in schools, on scoreboards and in commercials. Many companies are very aggressive about marketing sugary products to young kids."
Dr. Mary Gavin, pediatrician and author of the book FitKids offers some "real-life" tips for parents interested in limiting their families' consumption of sugar. "For infants and toddlers to three years, breastfeed if at all possible. In addition to the numerous other health benefits breastfeeding provides, children who are breastfed may be less likely to become overweight," she says. Rachel Johnson adds that for infants and toddlers, parents should not put sugar-sweetened beverages in baby bottles. "Particularly, do not put them to bed with bottles of sugar sweetened beverages, because that can cause Milk-Bottle Syndrome. The sugar coats children's teeth and can cause serious dental disease," she says.
Dr. Gavin advises that parents not give infants and toddlers much juice. "Don't offer juices until children are 6 months old, and then, serve no more than 4 ounces per day of 100 percent juice," she says, adding that during their first year, infants should get most of their nutrition from breast milk or formula.
In addition, try to keep children ages three to six away from sweet drinks; even juice provides mainly extra empty calories, and sodas, fruit drinks and punches are even worse. Offer young children water or low-fat milk to quench their thirst, Dr. Gavin suggests. Johnson adds that the best choices for enhancing the quality of a child's diet while offering them a sweet taste are flavored milk, yogurt, and pre-sweetened cereals.
Finally, studies show that kids are influenced by what their parents and older siblings eat and drink. "Insisting that your child drink milk while everyone else has a soft drink is not the best tactic because naturally they want to do what everyone else does," Johnson says. "Think about modeling what you want your child to do and then do it yourself first."
A physician or nutritionist can help you determine what changes, if any, you can make to your child's diet to ensure that she receives the best nutrition possible. With some common-sense strategies in place, most children can enjoy sweet foods in moderation and grow up healthy and fit.