From vegan baby food to plastic-free baby care products, pharmacy teams should be ready to supply and advise on a whole pramful of new baby care trends
More than half of parents and pregnant women (51 per cent) surveyed for a new WHO/UNICEF study say they have been targeted with "misleading" and aggressive marketing from formula milk companies. Myths include the necessity of formula in the first days after birth, and the inadequacy of breast milk for infant nutrition.
New parents have enough to contend with without damaging misinformation about child health added into the mix. But pharmacy teams are in the ideal place to help with the right advice and reassurance about how best to care for babies. To be able do this as efficiently as possible, it helps to know what’s new in baby care and nutrition, and what parents and carers are looking for right now.
According to Mintel data, Covid-19 led to a rise in value in the baby care products market in 2020, as parents stockpiled and bulk bought, with hygiene concerns driving purchases of baby wipes, washes and soaps. On the downside, the pandemic hit sales of baby food and drinks by boosting scratch cooking.
The last five to 10 years have seen a growing number of families raising babies and children with plant-based nutrition, including vegetarian and vegan diets. Lucy Upton, specialist paediatric dietitian at the Infant and Toddler Forum, confirms: "The number of families following these diets is certainly increasing."
When it comes to plant-based diets for children, Lucy says parents may be looking for the following types of products:
- Fortified dairy alternatives (e.g. soy/oat/coconut/pea-based milks, yoghurts and cheeses)
- Meat alternatives
- Ready meals
- Multivitamin supplements focussed on the needs of vegetarian or vegan babies and children (e.g. Vitamin D from non-animal sources, additional nutrients such as iron, iodine, calcium and vitamin B12).
Truly vegan baby milk and baby foods can be hard to find. "Vegan baby formula is available online, but is expensive," says GP Dr Nisa Aslam from the Health & Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS). "Soy based infant formula, intended for babies with milk-based allergies and intolerances (e.g. milk protein allergy, lactose intolerance), is available in pharmacies, but is not 100 per cent vegan as the source of vitamin D is lanolin. Children over the age of 12 months can continue to have breast milk, soya based infant formula or soya growing up drink (formulated for one to three year olds), and from the age of two years, unsweetened plant-based drinks such as soy, oat and almond are suitable."
For babies and children who are past the weaning stage, manufacturers are noticeably increasing their ranges to include more plant-based options.
"While there are a large number of products such as those based on fruits, vegetables and cereals that will already be suitable for vegan babies, there are increased numbers of packaged baby foods that will be marketed for plant-based babies," says Lucy. "These may include iron and protein sources such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, soy and/or dairy alternatives such as oat, soy or coconut milk alternatives."
Foods marketed for babies under 12 months of age have strict guidelines governing salt content, nutritional values and labelling.
Pharmacy teams should alert parents and carers that lots of the plant-based products marketed at vegan adults may not be suitable for babies and young children. "For example, many plant-based 'faux' meat alternatives and cheese alternatives are very high in salt," says Lucy. "And plant-based milk alternatives which may be used in babies’ food (in place of cow’s milk) such as cereal or a drink after one year of age can be very low in calories and nutrients."
Things to avoid
As they contain no added nutrients
As this rules out most nut milks
Rice milk should be avoided in the under-5s due to its natural arsenic content
Because of the risk of nutrient shortfalls – particularly in young, fast growing children whose nutrient needs are high relative to their body size – it is vital that parents plan their child’s ongoing plant-based diet very carefully.
An analysis of 16 studies highlighted in the HSIS Nutritional Challenges of a Plant-Based Diet report found shortfalls in vitamin B12 and D, and iron deficiency in children following plant-based diets, even though the vitamin C content of such diets contributes to iron absorption from plants.
New food trends often come with high price points, and specialist diets and eating plans are no exception. For example, the food diary that Corinne Thomas, kept for her son (see 'milk allergy advice' in the box below) showed that cow’s milk was an allergy trigger for him, and she ended up switching him to a goat’s milk formula which cost £30 a tin.
Lucy says higher costs can be balanced in other areas of the shopping budget, however. "From experience," she says, "I would say that parents choosing to adopt a plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diet are accepting of the monetary costs associated with this, particularly for options like milk alternatives, which may be up to £2.20 for 1000ml, compared to cow’s milk which may be 80 to 90p for the same volume. These families also tend to spend less on meat, fish, etc, which can sometimes offset some of the increased costs of alternative products."
Milk allergy advice
Corinne Thomas is pharmacy manager and technician at Lloydspharmacy, Northwich, Cheshire – and winner of TM’s Recognition of Excellence Infant Care Champion award in 2018. She has a particular expertise in infant food allergy and intolerance, as it is an issue her young son has had to deal with since birth. She has found that parents often want advice in this area.
"It’s hard for parents whose child has a milk allergy, for example, as supermarkets tend to just stock cow’s milk-based food for babies, and most GPs still don’t understand food allergies that well," says Corinne. "My advice to parents who suspect their baby or child has food allergies is to write down all their symptoms and keep a food diary of what they are eating and drinking. Take this to your GP and be persistent that you want to be referred on for specialist help.
"It can also be reassuring to join Facebook groups of parents going through the same thing, as you get to speak to real people dealing with the same issues as you, and that can be very supportive."
The Mintel report Free-from Foods – UK, February 2021 shows that parents of under-18s are more likely than non-parents to report that someone in their household avoids dairy. For instance, 15 per cent of parents of under-18s report dairy avoidance in the household due to a food allergy/intolerance.
Reflecting on this, Lucy predicts that a range of plant-based baby foods are set to hit the shelves. "Over the next few years, it is highly likely that a number of companies will release formula milk not based on cow’s milk and instead based on soy, beans or legumes," she says, "as well as plant-based dairy alternatives such as oat-based, soy-based, coconut-based and plant-based weaning products."
There are also good opportunities for plant-based products to appeal to shoppers on environmental grounds, given the growing interest in sustainable production. "Parents of under-18s are more likely than non-parents (48 per cent compared to 42 per cent) to say that using dairy alternatives is a good way to reduce your environmental footprint," says Alice Baker, senior research analyst at Mintel. "However, the NHS underlines the importance of giving children aged between one and two whole milk and dairy products because they may not get the calories or essential vitamins they need from lower fat alternatives. Such nutritional considerations would similarly apply regarding plant-based alternatives."
Environmentally friendly claims have seen the biggest rise among the top claims in the babies' and children’s personal care segment, with most brands switching to recyclable bottles, cardboard packaging and TerraCycle-certified packs. Mintel’s prediction is that brands will optimise this opportunity and take sustainabile innovation beyond packaging to encompass sustainable ingredients including biodegradable formulas and solid formats.
Another product area with scope for expansion is functional health claims in baby foods.
Mintel data shows that functional claims are already well established in the formula milk sector, appearing on 58 per cent of launches between 2017 and 2020, with brain/nervous system and immune health claims the most widespread. Functional health claims are, however, less common in baby meals and snacks, featuring on just 20 per cent of launches in that same period. Mintel sees this as "a missed opportunity", given strong consumer interest in functional health benefits.
Merchandising and support
With a wide range of products in the category, it can be challenging to merchandise baby care and nutrition when shelf space is at a premium. As a baseline, it is recommended that pharmacies stock the brand leaders and an own label equivalent, and maximise the potential of add-on purchases, such as eco-ethical and baby skin care products. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of emotional wellness, and products targeted at this need should also be included.
"Purchase of baby bubble bath increased by five percentage points to 63 per cent in 2021, as parents used bath-time routines to de-stress and bond with their babies," says Alice. "Massage applicators on personal care products can also drive wellness in baby care routines."
Many brands and charities have turned to social media to offer parent and baby mindfulness and wellness advice, and pharmacy teams can direct parents to these channels for support.
As essential members of the wider primary care team, for pharmacy staff, it’s not just engaging with parents who are already experiencing problems or asking for help that is important. Every interaction with a member of the pharmacy team is an opportunity to improve outcomes and even change life chances for babies and children, as well as their parents and carers.
For young parents in particular, baby care and nutrition advice from pharmacy teams might be their first interaction with community pharmacy, so getting it right is a vital way of building trust and ongoing relationships with them and their growing families into the future.