Starting baby on solids can be confusing — and some people say infants should feed themselves. Nutritionist Cindy Williams helps you decide what’s best for your baby.
Congratulations! You’ve successfully navigated childbirth, crying jags and sleepless nights. Your baby is beautiful, and despite those cracked nipples, you’ve now got the feeding routine down.
As baby heads towards the six-month mark, the focus shifts on to the question of when to introduce solid foods. Everyone seems to have an opinion, so as a new mum, you can be forgiven for feeling somewhat confused, and possibly very anxious.
This is a pivotal stage in baby’s development, so we’ve sifted through the latest guidelines to help smooth the way.
Research suggests that the best time to introduce your baby to solid foods is somewhere from four to six months. (Preterm babies may need to be a little older, so check with a health professional.)
Starting solids too early (before the age of four months) stresses a baby’s immature digestive system and kidneys. It can also increase the risks of eczema, asthma, type 1 diabetes or a food allergy. At this crucial stage of development, your baby needs only breast milk or formula, both of which provide nutrients and energy for growth.
At roughly six months of age, your baby’s nutritional needs change. A full-term baby is born with enough iron and zinc stores to last about six months, so at this point, your baby needs to start eating some iron-rich foods.
How do I know if my baby is ready for solid foods?
Your baby is ready for solid foods when he or she…
Is four to six months old
Can hold his or her head up
Can sit (with assistance) in a high chair or on your lap
Shows interest in food and reaches for food
Often puts his hands in his mouth
Opens her mouth when food approaches or when a spoon touches her lips
Which solids should I start with?
Many mums start with an iron-rich food, such as iron-fortified baby rice cereal, diluted with breast milk or infant formula. You can then add a puréed vegetable, such as pumpkin or sweet potato, or a fruit, like mashed banana or puréed cooked apple or pear. The vitamin C in the fruit and vegies will help baby absorb roughly four times the iron. You could also choose to start with puréed cooked meat, chicken, fish or legumes — foods that provide both iron and zinc.
Offer baby one food at a time, and consider introducing a new food every two to three days.
How much do I feed my baby? And how often?
Buy a soft baby teaspoon so that you can start with one-half to two teaspoons of solid food after the usual breastfeed or bottle-feed. Gradually increase the amount until your baby is having one or two tablespoons of solid food two or three times a day. (The day-to-day amount may vary according to baby’s appetite.)
Babies instinctively know when they’ve had enough to eat. If your baby turns her head away when food approaches or spits it out, she’s sending you a very clear message that she’s done.
For the first year of life, breast milk or infant formula is baby’s main and most important source of nutrients. Until the age of eight or nine months, solids are simply a top-up after the usual milk feed.
What’s the best way to introduce my baby to new foods?
First, make sure that your baby has had a breast-milk feed and is feeling relaxed. Second, offer baby only a small amount of the new food, and consider mixing it with a familiar food.
You could try adding a little puréed apple to the usual cereal, or stirring mashed legumes (such as beans, lentils or chickpeas) or puréed meat (such as lean beef or chicken) into vegetable purée.
If your baby refuses the food, don’t force it and don’t worry; just try again after a few days. Many infants can need up to a dozen small tastes to like and accept a new flavour, so keep introducing different foods. Babies who learn to enjoy a wide variety of flavours and textures are likely to continue eating a wide range of foods as they grow older.
Are there any foods that I shouldn’t feed my baby?
From around six or seven months, babies can have small amounts of cooked whole milk as part of foods such as custard, yoghurt and cheese. After 12 months of age, baby can have whole cow’s milk as his or her main drink. According to current National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines, only infants over the age of two can drink low-fat and reduced-fat milks.
In the first two years of life, soy, goat’s, sheep’s, coconut and almond milks are nutritionally inappropriate alternatives to breast milk, age-appropriate formula or whole cow’s milk.
Healthy children don’t need follow-on formulas or other supplementary foods.
These are a choking hazard. Wait until your child is at least five years old.
Fruit juice, soft drinks, cordial and flavoured water
There is no nutritional reason for babies to have these drinks, and they’re full of sugar, which can play havoc with budding teeth. Give your baby breast milk, formula or, if he or she is over 12 months of age, cow’s milk.
Salt and salty foods
Such as corned beef, canned fish, soy sauce, fish sauce, stock and tomato paste. Never add salt to enhance flavour. Your baby’s food may taste terribly bland to your adult taste buds, but it’s perfect for them. Babies’ developing kidneys can’t handle too much salt, and it can make them seriously ill. Adding salt or sugar also encourages your baby to develop a taste for salty or sweet foods, setting up a preference for these types of foods in later life.
Honey contains a spore that can cause infant botulism. Wait until baby is 12 months old.
Babies don’t need stimulants, so they need neither tea nor coffee, which goes without saying. Tea also contains tannins, substances that can interfere with the body’s absorption of iron, a critically important mineral for baby’s brain development.
These include nuts, crunchy raw vegetables (such as carrot), hard fruit (like apple), grapes, raisins, large seeds, popcorn, thick layers of peanut butter and stringy pieces of celery.
Don’t leave your baby to eat unsupervised
Make sure older babies sit to eat. A child shouldn’t be able to crawl, walk or run while putting food in his mouth.
Is ready-made baby food as healthy as home-made food?
All busy mums have times when it’s more convenient to rely on store-bought baby food. Many of these packaged alternatives to home-cooked meals contain the same ingredients as you’d use at home (vegetables, fruit, meat, cereals and water), and they’re useful to have on hand, especially when you’re travelling and without access to a kitchen.
Of course, making your own baby food is likely to be cheaper than buying it. And giving baby variations on the meals you are eating encourages her to grow up enjoying the same foods and flavours (minus added salt and sugar) as the rest of the family is. So consider making puréed or finger-food versions of regular family meals (without seasoning or sugar) whenever possible.
Homemade baby food has another important bonus: Its more distinct flavours and wider variety of textures are important for baby’s tongue and speech development. Cooking large batches and freezing them in small quantities is a fuss-free approach that saves time, too.
You can also buy baby food in portable, freezable pouches that let you squeeze the food onto a spoon. This is preferable to letting baby suck on the tube, as this won’t encourage her tongue development.
Although homemade baby food has clear advantages, it’s worth noting that baby-food manufacturers put a lot of work into making sure their products are nutritionally balanced and appropriate for infants. So if you’re using store-bought baby foods, you certainly shouldn’t feel like a ‘bad parent’.
How to buy and use ready-made baby food
Choose a variety of textures, not just purées.
Check for added sugar, which is often in the form of apple juice. (Sugar can encourage your baby to develop a sweet tooth.)
Check for thickeners, such as maize starch or added water. These bulk up foods without adding any nutritional value.
Use ready-made foods as a base, and add grated vegetables or cooked meat.
Discard any remaining food in the jar.
First foods and allergies
There is no evidence that delaying the introduction of potentially allergenic foods beyond six months will reduce baby’s risk of developing a food allergy. In fact, allergy specialists think that the old advice to withhold certain foods — such as nuts, egg, wheat, dairy and fish — may have partly contributed to the dramatic spike in childhood allergies.
Breastfeeding is one of the best safeguards against a raft of health issues, so if you are able to breastfeed, it’s important to do so exclusively until you start baby on solid foods, and to continue to breastfeed while introducing baby to small amounts of new foods.
If food allergies run in your family, or if you’re at all concerned about your child developing an allergy, make an appointment to see an accredited practising dietitian (APD) who specialises in food allergies. (You can find one near you at Dietitians Association of Australia.)
Five tips for baby-food hygiene
Wash your hands before preparing food and feeding baby.
Prepare enough food for a few meals. Freeze unused puréed food in ice-cube trays or as small dollops on a tray lined with cling film. Tip frozen food into a freezer bag, and seal and label it. Use the food within three months.
Reheat food until it’s piping hot, then let it cool before feeding baby.
Never reheat baby food more than once.
Never refreeze baby food once it’s thawed.
Beyond spoon-feeding and smooth purées
You may have heard about this increasingly popular method of moving babies onto solid foods. Baby-led weaning (BLW) encourages baby to self-feed. The idea is to place small pieces of age-appropriate food in front of your baby, allowing him to explore and touch the food, and put it in his mouth. You might present him with a cooked broccoli floret, a soft peeled pear, toast with avocado or a strip of meat. In its purest form, BLW sees babies skip spoon-feeding altogether, and instead try to eat soft solids at family mealtimes.
Self-feeding not only encourages baby to appreciate a food’s colour, texture and smell, but also helps him develop better hand control. Spoon-feeding your baby purées promotes only sucking, whereas his early attempts at eating soft foods further the essential development of new munching, chewing and swallowing patterns.
British infant-welfare nurse Gill Rapley coined the term baby-led weaning about eight years ago. As BLW grows in popularity, its advocates claim that babies end up eating a wide range of foods, can cope with a variety of textures and are less likely to become obese, as they develop the ability to self-regulate how much they eat. (Science has yet to support the latter claim.)
On the downside, BLW is very messy and creates more wastage. At first, it’s likely that baby won’t swallow a lot of the food — he might lick or suck it, and will probably drop it on the floor. There is also a perception that this approach carries a greater risk of choking. (If worries about choking are stopping you from trying BLW, try one of the mesh-covered feeding devices that are available.)
Every baby is different: One may love grasping and munching on family foods, while another may prefer to start with spoon-fed puréed or mashed food. Many mothers choose to combine BLW with spoon-feeding, but no one knows your child better than you, so go with what works best for you and your baby.
Many books and blogs deal with BLW in detail. Visit rapleyweaning.com and babyledweaning.com, and have a look at Baby-Led Weaning: Helping Your Baby to Love Good Food by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett ($29.99; Random House).