BABIES as young as six months old are being fed crisps, fizzy drinks and chocolate pudding – leading to increased risk of diabetes and obesity in later life.
Dieticians have warned that the diet of many babies in Ireland is "far from ideal".
Ireland has the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe – with almost three-quarters of infants weaned off milk and on to solid foods too early.
Dr Mary Flynn, chief specialist in public health nutrition with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), said dieticians were "concerned" with the level of high calorie snack foods such as crisps and chocolate pudding being fed to children as young as six months.
The first 1,000 days of a baby's life – from birth to two years old – help shape their health and diet into the future, Dr Flynn said.
The spiralling increases in childhood obesity has its origins in poor feeding practices as a baby, experts highlighted at yesterday's FSAI conference.
A new guide, 'Best Practice for Infant Feeding', was unveiled at the event.
The health specialist highlighted that problems including heart disease, diabetes and obesity may be partly caused by the "inadequacy of their mother's diet during pregnancy and how they were fed as babies".
Dr Flynn highlighted the importance of diet during the first year of life – with breastfeeding recommended as the "gold standard" up to six months.
"How well humans grow and develop during this time can have far-reaching effects on health in childhood and throughout adult life," she said.
Dr Ita Saul, chair of the FSAI expert group which produced the new recommendations, or 'National Infant Feeding Policy', said it was "not automatic" that parents would naturally know what foods provide the best nutrition for babies.
"We sometimes think that mothers instinctively know what to give their babies, but they don't. So it is important that the information is there," Dr Saul said.
Latest Irish figures show that just over half of mothers – 56pc – breastfeed in Ireland, compared with 81pc in the UK and more than 90pc in Scandinavian states. The rate falls to 20pc after three months, a low level that Dr Saul described as "unique" to Ireland.
The paediatric dietician said there was growing awareness that babies and young children were "getting heavier".
"It's not only a medical issue. Mothers need to see other mothers breastfeeding. People read the information as to all the benefits of breastfeeding for both infant and mother. Yet it isn't translated into action."