By Hartje Andresen
Getting your baby started on solids is an exciting milestone for both of you! Most parents eagerly await the day they can give their babies the first taste of foods beyond breastmilk or formula and watch their little faces as they explore the new flavors.
As information regarding pediatric nutrition is continually being updated, remember to always check with your pediatrician about the best time to introduce your babies to new foods based on their individual health and development, as well as the latest research.
How do you know your baby is ready for solid foods?
There are certain signs and developmental milestones that will tell you that your baby is ready for his or her first bite (or rather, spoonful) of grown-up foods:
- Your baby has doubled his or her birth weight and weighs at least 13-15 lbs
- Has good head control, can sit with support and is able to hold the head upright, as well as lean towards the spoon or turn away from it to accept or refuse more food
- Your baby shows interest in your food during mealtimes, trying to grab it or play with it
- Despite nursing frequently or drinking adequate amounts of formula, your baby still seems hungry or might even begin to wake more frequently again during the night
- Your baby can grasp things and put them to his or her mouth
- Your baby is at least 4-6 months old
Why 4-6 months?
Currently, the AAP (American Association of Pediatrics) recommends starting babies on solids between their 4th and 6th month of life. “Solids” refers to most “grown-up foods" such as fruits, vegetables, cereal and meat, even if it is in a puréed form and does not feel solid at all. Starting solids too early can cause reflux and digestive upset and has been linked to secondary issues later in life, such as obesity, allergies and asthma, while waiting too long with the introduction to new foods may lead to a picky eater later on and might not ensure that your baby’s nutritional needs are met.
The most recent research has shown that introducing babies to allergy-prone foods such as peanuts prior to their first birthday can reduce the risk for food allergies. Please check with your pediatrician before you plan to introduce any allergens to your baby’s diet and make sure to discuss any family history of food sensitivities and allergies to find out what will be best and safest for your baby.
How to get started?
Once you and your child’s healthcare provider have determined that it is time for “real” food, you may find yourself with more questions: when is a good time to start? What to start with? How much to feed and how often?
A good time to start a baby on solids is in morning. That way you have enough time to observe your baby’s reaction to the food, and if something does not agree with his or her tummy, it will not result in a sleepless night for the both of you. You will also have a better chance to contact your pediatrician during business hours, if you have a concern or if a negative reaction to one of the foods occurs.
Your baby’s main source of nutrition at this stage is still milk. In order to make sure the introduction of solids does not interfere with their appetite for a full feed, offer foods after nursing, not before.
Your baby’s first taste of food will likely only be a few teaspoons full. You can reduce waste by transferring a small amount of baby food into a separate bowl and save the rest of the jar in the refrigerator. Do not introduce a spoon with baby’s saliva into a jar of baby food that you intend to save.
Which foods to start with can look very different depending on your country and culture. In general, it is recommended to start with single-ingredient purées and to introduce a new one every 3 to 4 days. That way you get a chance to closely observe if your baby shows any negative reaction to the new food, such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, skin rash, vomiting, etc. You can even keep a food diary, in which you note down which foods you introduced when and in what quantity, and your baby’s response. The puree should initially be very liquid, only slightly thicker than breastmilk - you can even stir in some breastmilk if you like.
Popular first foods that are easily digestible and usually well tolerated by babies include gently cooked vegetables like carrots, parsnips, squash, pumpkin, sweet peas, green beans and corn, baby cereal and puréed fruits as well as mashed ripe avocado and banana. In the USA baby cereal is usually fortified with iron. In other countries, where fortified foods are not as common, lean meat like beef or poultry is often recommended as one of the foods to cover the baby's iron intake.
Setting the table:
Let mealtimes be fun, social, take your time, and let it be messy! Pick a time during the day where you and your baby have time, are well rested and in a good mood. Arm yourself with burp cloths, bibs, protect your carpet with a sheet and use an unbreakable bowl, so you don’t have to worry about spills and stains. Babies like to explore with all their senses. This includes sticking their hand into their food, shoving it into their mouth, and even rubbing it across their face!
Don’t rush it! You may find that your baby keeps pushing the first tastes of food back out of his or her mouth. This is called the “tongue thrusting reflex” which protects the newborn from choking on anything that enters their mouth and does not mean that he or she does not like the food! Eating like a grown-up involves moving food with the tongue from the front of the mouth to the back of the mouth in order to swallow it! Something that is so natural for us that we don’t even think about it any more, still needs to be learned by your baby! So be patient and offer small amounts on a small spoon. You will see, soon your baby will begin to understand and upon seeing the spoon, will open his or her mouth wide in anticipation of the food!
How big is a portion for a baby?
A potion size can vary greatly from baby to baby, depending on their age, weight and appetite. For a beginning eater, it will usually be anything between 2-4 tablespoons or ¼ cup, while a hungry eater can eat up to ½ a cup per serving. Never force your baby to eat if he or she is not hungry, or scold him or her for not eating “well”. If you take your time with the meal and closely observe your baby’s body language, you will be able to tell when he or she is full. A hungry baby will lean towards the food, smack his or her lips, reach for the spoon, suck on his or her fingers to help with the swallowing, open his or her mouth upon seeing the spoon and show interest in the food. A full baby will turn the head away from the food, close the lips tightly, become fussy, flail the arms or start to get distracted by other things that catch his or her attention. They may only display one or two of these signs and not all at once, so pay attention to what your baby is "telling" you.
Your baby’s most important source of nutrients at this age is still milk. So don’t worry if he or she only eats a tiny amount to begin with. Don’t be discouraged if your baby seems to dislike a certain food at first. As the babies gets used to more flavors and textures, their tastebuds evolve and it can take several tries for them to like a specific food. You can also try blending a new food with one that you have already tried and that your baby likes and tolerates well. Pear purée for example is often used for mixing in order to make foods like broccoli or kale more palatable for a baby.
Once your baby has had about a month of "first tastes", you may move on to feeding slightly larger portions and combining different foods, cereals, veggies, meat and fruits and introducing new textures and consistency, like thicker or lumpy foods. Have fun observing your baby during mealtimes and getting better at swallowing, reaching for the spoon or trying to grab the food an moving it to his or her mouth. You will soon feel that your baby may be ready for two meals a day. If your schedule allows, let those meals be for breakfast and lunchtime, since a new food introduced at night-time can result in a sleepless night for both of you, if a negative reaction occurs. If you plan on feeding your baby a meal for dinner, choose foods that are easily digestible and that you have already tried before.
Enjoy and buon apetit!