As babies approach their 6-month birthday, parents tend to worry about this next stage in their baby’s development. How can they eat food without teeth? Why did my doctor suggest starting at 4 months, but the world health organization says 6 months? Will my baby sleep better once I introduce solid foods? I hear SO many questions and concerns around this next stage of feeding; involving health, digestion, ability, protecting the gut, and more. Although these are valid concerns, I believe families forget to ask the most knowledgeable person available – the baby!!
I’ve heard many dietitians, nurses, and other health care practitioners who cite the “right age” to introduce the “right foods”. However, these are just guidelines based on very little good research. None of these address the individual needs and readiness of your baby. Your baby may not fall in line with what you’ve been told! I also see that these hard timelines add confusion and worry to an already anxiety-filled adventure.
Let’s make it easier, and keep it simple. Babies show multiple interest and developmental signs of readiness:
- Look for baby picking up foods and chewing rather than using a tongue-thrust reflex to drink foods.
- An important one is seeing baby sit up unassisted: this ensures that they can control their airway, chewing, and other important characteristics of eating food.
- In my experience, families can tune in to the signs and symptoms of starting too soon or moving too fast, such as new eczema, constipation, an increase in spitting up, sleep disturbances, and other signs of discomfort or inflammation.
Parents can introduce complimentary solid foods when they recognize the signs of readiness in their baby, sometime between 5-8 months of age. There is little worry about how much they eat, how many nutrients are in each food, or how balanced their solid foods are when used as a complement to breastmilk—Breastmilk is still the main source of nutrition and you add in solid foods.
Many 9-10-month olds are just starting to eat proper meals after a few months of exploring, tasting, and playing with foods! Expect some fun, and playtime, and a mess!! Babies take some time to understand just what food is and what to do with it.
When adding in new foods, your normal family foods are just fine – just go easy on the salt and avoid all sugar. Try many foods and rotate between them, taking notice of what baby likes and what they may want to save for another month.
Best practices for starting solid foods:
- The best first foods will be rich in iron and protein, as well as Vitamins A, C, and D. Whole, unprocessed foods are best for baby. Examples are meat and legumes (such as ground beef or lentils), along with vegetables and fruits. Properly cooked meat provides the right amount of protein and iron that infants need, and they will get enough of these nutrients if they begin by eating small amounts (probably around 1 tsb) of meat just once a day. Legumes, tofu, and green leafy vegetables can be a good alternative for vegetarian families. Make an iron-rich food one of the first 5 or so foods, to make sure baby has the option of choosing if she should need more. Along with an iron source, offer vegetables and fruits. There is no longer an order of which to introduce these foods – stick to starting with your normal family foods.
- Traditionally marketed infant cereals are not the best food choice at any age. They are safe to give, but unnecessary. Infant cereals are amazingly-well marketed processed food and fortified with synthetic nutrients. They tend to be low in nutrients and highly constipating. There are certainly more nutritious, bio-available, less expensive options for a healthy infant diet. Infant cereals provide a type of iron that is very hard for an infant to absorb and they have very little protein. You do not ever have to give cereals, or may consider limiting cereals to once a day or once every other day, to ensure they are receiving good nutrition from the other whole foods they eat.
- There is no need to follow a strict order or timing when choosing first foods. The order you introduce foods in is not so important, and neither is the practice of waiting 3 days between new foods. That’s just a good way to create picky eaters! Instead, simply pay attention to what you offered over the previous few days. If there is a reaction, reintroduce those foods one at a time after speaking with your doctor to see which one caused the reaction. If a food causes another reaction, wait and re-offer it a few months later. Usually the baby is just not ready yet. If anaphylactic symptoms occur, call 911. If you are unsure of the difference, please take an infant CPR course to learn.
- Foods should be small and soft, and cooked if they are hard in their usual state. Choose a normal family food, and prepare it so that it is easy to mush around in your fingers. Because your baby is developmentally ready for solid foods, by showing all signs of readiness, they can handle textures that aren’t liquid or purees. A baby that can only drink their food should just be drinking milk! If ready to eat, they should be able to chew their soft foods themselves. If you decide to feed an infant before they are truly ready, such as in situations where adding in foods is supplementary, not complementary, you will have to purée the food so they can drink it off a spoon.
As you journey through solid foods, remember that your baby has always been in the driver seat! Your baby has led you through feeding times and amounts since their very first latch. Trust them to know when they are hungry, when they want more, and when they are done. Continue to breastfeed on demand when possible and as often as you’d like, without ever forcing it. Try to let the anxiety go, and have fun with your new family meals!
And if you’re still worried, try taking an online course such as Parenting 101 via Breastfeeding Inc! If you’re in the Halton or west-Toronto area, check out one of my in-person courses on introducing solid foods! Courses that teach baby-led approaches will help you get the confidence and knowledge you need.
Ashley Pickett, IBCLC