Sodium and Babies

Sodium is a naturally occurring mineral found in foods like eggs, milk (including breast milk and formula), meat, and vegetables.1 It’s an essential nutrient our bodies need in small amounts to regulate fluids in our blood and to power our neurological system but too much is not healthy.

When combined with chloride, sodium make salt, a pervasive ingredient in processed foods and staple in every kitchen. But is sodium safe for babies and toddlers? Here’s what you need to know. 

an icon of a salt shaker

When Can Babies Have Salt/Sodium?

Yes. Babies can have salt in moderation. Sodium helps regulate water balance in cells and stimulate immune function, muscle contraction, nerve function, and more. 

That said, too much salt too soon is not healthy. Early and excessive exposure to sodium can prime your baby’s palate for salty foods, increase the risk of obesity, and put your child at greater risk of developing hypertension, which can lead to heart disease and stroke later in life.2

Is salt dangerous for babies?

It can be. Salt can be dangerous if consumed in excessive amounts.3 Most often, excessive salt or sodium in the diet is problematic from a long-term health perspective, though there have been cases of salt poisoning (both deliberate and unintentional) but this is extremely rare.4

The most likely risk associated with excessive salt or sodium consumption in infancy is that it may set the stage for sustained increased sodium consumption which can increase their risk of obesity and hypertension later on in life, which can ultimately lead to heart disease and stroke.5

How much sodium can a baby have each day?

It depends on your child’s age. For infants 6 months and younger, the recommended amount of sodium per day is 110 milligrams and, for babies 7 to 12 months of age, it increases to 370 milligrams.6 Keep in mind that breast milk and formula also contain sodium.

In the United States, the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences issues nutrient recommendations called Dietary Reference Intakes or Adequate Intakes (AI). Due to insufficient data for babies, an AI for sodium has been established based on sodium levels in breast milk and the recommendations are below: Note: The milligrams of sodium listed here are not strict rules but rather guidelines.

  • For infants under 6 months of age, the AI for sodium is 110 milligrams per day.7
  • Babies between the ages of 7 and 12 months have an AI of 370 milligrams per day.8 9
  • Children between 1 and 3 years of age have an AI of 800 milligrams per day. 

Studies show that almost 80% of toddlers in the United States consume more than the maximum intake of 1,500 milligrams per day, with an average daily consumption of 2,000 milligrams in toddlers aged 1 to 3 years old.10 11

For babies and young eaters, adding salt to food is unnecessary and has not been established as safe.12 If your baby shows interest in a developmentally appropriate food that you’re eating that contains salt, before offering a portion consider how it was prepared. Is it a frozen, prepackaged, canned, or fast food/restaurant food item? If so, consider just a small portion, or better yet just skip! Is it something that was prepared at home in which a small amount of salt was used? If so, likely okay! However, it’s worth considering decreasing your own sodium intake if you regularly share food with your baby or toddler.

When can I add salt to my baby’s food?

Salt can be added to food in moderation after your baby’s first birthday. Whole, fresh foods contain less sodium than packaged and processed foods. If your baby is mostly consuming whole foods prepared at home, a pinch of salt to season a larger dish for the entire family should be fine. However, refrain from adding salt directly to your child’s food and aim to season meals with fresh herbs and spices instead. Read labels when using condiments to flavor foods as they often contain lots of sodium. 

When can babies have condiments like ketchup and soy sauce?

It depends on the condiment. Ketchup may be served in moderation once your baby is 12 months old, but it would be wise to consider brands with lower salt and sugar levels. On average, commercial ketchup contains about 150 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon.

Consider avoiding fish sauce and soy sauce because they contain a substantial amount of sodium — 1,000 milligrams or more per serving. If a homemade family dish calls for soy or fish sauce, consider replacements like coconut aminos if there is no coconut allergy. While still high in sodium, coconut aminos contain roughly half the sodium compared to soy sauce per tablespoon. 

Lastly, many condiments contain additives and preservatives that are inappropriate for babies and contain hidden allergens like anchovy, sesame, soy, and wheat. Read labels carefully and, when in doubt, skip the condiments. If time permits, consider homemade condiments to control amounts of salt and sugar and tailor to your family’s taste preferences.  

What foods are highest in sodium?

Sodium levels vary from food to food and product to product. Foods with the highest levels of sodium include the following:

FoodSodium (mg) Substitute
Fish Sauce1,176 mg per 1 tbspCoconut aminos
Bouillon Cubes1,100 mg per ½ cubeLow sodium chicken broth
Salami / Pepperoni953 mg per 2ozn/a 
Soy Sauce870 mg per 1 tbspCoconut aminos
Corned Beef, Pastrami865 mg per 3ozFresh roast beef 
Macaroni & Cheese837 mg per 1 cupVegan mac + cheese w/ nutritional yeast
Canned Soup834 mg per 1 cupLow sodium canned soup
Pizza712 mg per slicePizza with fresh mozzarella, no pepperoni 
Cottage Cheese647 mg per 1 cupRinse under water; low sodium brands
Tomato Juice606 mg per 1 cupLow sodium vegetable juice 
Rice, Boxed580 mg per 5ozHomemade; reduce seasoning packet 
Teriyaki Sauce575 per 1 tbspCoconut aminos
Ramen Noodles535 per 1 cupDiscard seasoning packet; cook in low sodium broth
“Low Sodium” Soy Sauce533 per 1 tbspCoconut aminos
Cold Cuts522 mg per 2ozGrilled chicken, *fresh* turkey or roast beef
Pecorino Cheese516 mg per 1ozSwiss cheese, goat cheese 
Hot Dogs & Veggie Dogs498 mg per frankfurtern/a
Sausage488 mg per 2ozUncured fresh sausages
Chicken Nuggets475 mg per 5 nuggetsHomemade or Earth’s Best brand 
American Cheese430 mg per 1ozFresh mozzarella, Swiss or goat cheese
Tortillas (flour)412 mg per tortillaUnsalted corn tortillas
Cotija Cheese392 mg per 1ozGoat cheese
Parmesan Cheese390 mg per 1ozGoat cheese crumbles
French Bread385 mg per sliceChallah, Pullman bread
Smoked Fish (Gravlax)380 mg per 2ozFresh fish or homemade gravlax  
Halloumi Cheese350 mg per 1ozFresh mozzarella, Swiss or goat cheese
Pretzels347 mg per 1 small bagNo salt added pretzels
Feta Cheese337 mg per 1ozGoat cheese
Blue Cheese321mg per 1ozGoat cheese
Shrimp, Frozen295 mg per 3ozFresh shrimp
Canned Beans (no liquid)290 mg per 90 gramsLow sodium beans + rinse under water
Bacon269 mg per 2 slicesn/a 
Edam Cheese255mg per 1ozSwiss cheese
Fish Sticks250 mg per 3 sticksHomemade
Provolone245 mg per 1ozSwiss Cheese
White Bread236 mg per 2 slicesSprouted grain bread such as Ezekiel
Pickles227 mg per spearFresh cucumber
Crackers218 mg per ½ cupThin rice cakes, low sodium
Canned Fish210 mg per 3ozLow sodium canned fish; rinse under water
Marmite203 mg per 1 tspNutritional yeast with jam
Instant Pudding201 mg per ½ cupOvernight chia pudding 
String Cheese190 mg per 1ozFresh mozzarella, Swiss cheese
BBQ Sauce164 mg per 1 tbspLow sodium BBQ sauce
Kimchi / Sauerkraut149 mg per 30 gramsRinse under water 
Miso149 mg per 1 tspDilute with avocado oil or coconut oil
Potato Chips148 mg per 1 small bagLow sodium chips; homemade in air fryer
Chickpea Puffs 140 mg per 1ozThin rice cakes, low sodium
Ketchup136 mg per 1 tbspTomato paste; low sodium ketchup
Cream Cheese89 mg per 1ozMascarpone or ricotta cheese

Bottom Line on Salt for Babies & Toddlers

Sodium is an essential nutrient our bodies need but too much is not healthy.

Early and excessive exposure to sodium can prime your baby’s palate for salty foods, increase the risk of obesity, and put your child at greater risk of developing hypertension later on in life, which can ultimately lead to heart disease and stroke.13

Salt can be added to food in moderation after your baby’s first birthday, though studies show that the vast majority of toddlers are consuming too much sodium.

When shopping for foods for your baby and family, prioritize whole, fresh foods, which contain less sodium than packaged and processed foods and read labels closely when using condiments to flavor foods. 

Remember: What you feed your child today lays the foundation for taste preferences for tomorrow. 


Reviewed by: 

Jamie Truppi, MSN, CNS

Leticia Jones, MS, RD, CDN

Rachel Ruiz, MD Board-Certified General Pediatrician and Pediatric Gastroenterologist

 

  1. Gropper, S., Smith, J. (2013). Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism, 6th ed. Independence, KS: Wadsworth Publishing, Cengage Learning.
  2. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2019. Dietary Reference Intakes for Sodium and Potassium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  3. Strazzullo P, Campanozzi A, Avallone S. Does salt intake in the first two years of life affect the development of cardiovascular disorders in adulthood?. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2012;22(10):787–792. doi:10.1016/j.numecd.2012.04.003
  4. Soloway, R.A. (2013). Sodium: Too Much of a Good Thing. National Capital Poison Center.
  5. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2019. Dietary Reference Intakes for Sodium and Potassium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  6. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division; Food and Nutrition Board; Committee to Review the Dietary Reference Intakes for Sodium and Potassium; Oria M, Harrison M, Stallings VA, editors. Dietary Reference Intakes for Sodium and Potassium. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2019 Mar 5. Sodium: Dietary Reference Intakes for Adequacy. Retrieved September 25, 2020
  7. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division; Food and Nutrition Board; Committee to Review the Dietary Reference Intakes for Sodium and Potassium; Oria M, Harrison M, Stallings VA, editors. Dietary Reference Intakes for Sodium and Potassium. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2019 Mar 5. Sodium: Dietary Reference Intakes for Adequacy. Retrieved September 25, 2020.
  8. Gropper, S., Smith, J. (2013). Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism, 6th ed. Independence, KS: Wadsworth Publishing, Cengage Learning
  9. Strohm, D., Bechthold, A., Ellinger, S., Leschik-Bonnet, E., Stehle, P., Heseker, H., & German Nutrition Society (DGE) (2018). Revised Reference Values for the Intake of Sodium and Chloride. Annals of nutrition & metabolism, 72(1), 12–17.
  10. John, K. A., Cogswell, M. E., Zhao, L., Maalouf, J., Gunn, J. P., & Merritt, R. K. (2016). US consumer attitudes toward sodium in baby and toddler foods. Appetite, 103, 171–175
  11. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 2018. Nutrient Intakes from Food and Beverages: Mean Amounts Consumed per Individual, by Gender and Age, What We Eat in America, NHANES 2015-2016.
  12. Strazzullo P, Campanozzi A, Avallone S. Does salt intake in the first two years of life affect the development of cardiovascular disorders in adulthood?. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2012;22(10):787–792. doi:10.1016/j.numecd.2012.04.003
  13. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2019. Dietary Reference Intakes for Sodium and Potassium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.