Introducing Solid Foods to Your Baby

Maybe your baby is giving you clear cues that he’s ready to taste what you’re having. Or maybe you can’t wait to emerge from a feeding splattered with peas. Whatever your reason, there are things you need to know before starting your baby on solid foods.

As I looked at my four-month-old son the other day, at his adorable pudgy roundness (why can’t fat rolls be considered so cute on adults?), I was amazed to think that since his birth, he has grown – and thrived! – Solely from the nutrition, he gets from milk. Put an adult on a liquid diet, and he’ll waste away, but a baby will grow at a fantastic rate and even develop those adorable rolls, just by drinking breast milk or formula alone. It’s pretty incredible.

But if the liquid-only system worked forever, we’d all still be latched onto our mothers (yikes!) or existing on nutritional drinks like Boost or Ensure (they’re just tastier versions of formula, if you think about it). Inevitably, you need to add solid foods to our diets. So when should your little sprout begin his first venture into the world of a varied diet? It depends on several factors.

What the Experts Say

The consensus among significant health and pediatric organizations (UNICEF, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Dietetic Association, and the US Department of Health and Human Services, to name a few) is that babies need nothing more than breast milk or formula for the first full six months of life. Until that point, they’re getting adequate nutrition. Your grandma may advise that she gave all her babies cereal at two weeks old (or something along those lines) and they did fine with it. But babies’ digestive systems aren’t automatically equipped at birth to handle the types of foods that adults eat; they continue to develop and mature over the first year or so.

Let’s take a look at these immature digestive systems for a moment. Babies, in the first four to six months of life, have what’s referred to as an “open gut”: there are spaces between the cells of the small intestine. The reason for this is so that beneficial nutrients and antibodies from the milk that Baby drinks can pass quickly into the bloodstream. However, the spaces also allow for large proteins from other foods to pass through, which can predispose Baby to food allergies.

Babies’ digestive systems lack the resources to process foods at the rates that adult systems do. The enzymes that digest the food don’t reach adult rates until nearly the end of the first year. If you start solid foods before a baby’s system is completely ready, it can cause uncomfortable effects such as gas or constipation – which, in turn, can lead to irritability and fussiness.

There are more reasons than those listed above to delay the introduction of solid foods, experts say. According to a 1998 study conducted by a team of pediatricians and research dietitians, early introduction of solids leads to increased weight and body fat percentages in childhood. If you wait to feed Baby solid foods until he is old enough, then the period between you feeding him, and him being able to feed himself, will be shorter.

Cues That Your Baby is Ready

So how can you tell when your baby is ready to begin eating solid foods? If only we could peer down Baby’s throat to check on the development of his digestive system! Unfortunately, that is something that’s unobservable, so waiting at least six months is playing it safe. But it isn’t just his digestive system that needs to mature first; he has to be developmentally ready for solids as well. Your baby may be six months old or more and still not ready to begin solids, and that’s okay. All babies develop at individually varying rates, and you can’t compare your baby to others his age. When gauging developmental readiness, it’s important to watch the baby and not the calendar.

Sitting well

He may not be ready for a high chair just yet, but your baby needs to be able to sit for an extended period to be able to swallow without choking. While it’s ideal to wait until your baby can sit up by himself, entirely unsupported, babies that can sit well with support are okay to begin solids as long as they’re displaying the other developmental cues.

Head control.

It’s no wonder that it takes babies a while to learn to control those wobbly heads. Can you imagine trying to hold up a head that’s a full 1/3 of your body size? It’s essential that your baby can control his head well before you decide to introduce solids – to avoid a face full of food, at the very least!

Weight gain and growing appetite.

Generally babies are ready for solids when their weight is double their birth weight or around fifteen pounds; however, there’s no “magic number” that indicates readiness. Your baby’s appetite will increase. After eight to ten formula or breast milk feedings per day (or if Baby is taking in more than a quart of formula in a day’s time), if your baby still seems hungry or unsatisfied, this is a cue that it’s okay to start solids. Often your baby’s appetite (and, in turn, his weight) will increase in response to things such as growth spurts or teething, so be sure that this isn’t the only cue on which you base your decision to feed him solids. Remember, there are many other factors besides weight to consider when judging Baby’s readiness.

Loss of the “extrusion reflex.”

To successfully breast and bottle feed, babies push their tongues outward when something enters their mouth. This is called the extrusion reflex, and its presence means that your baby is able to swallow only liquids. This reflex disappears by the time your baby is about four months old, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s ready to eat from a spoon right away. Even after losing the extrusion reflex, babies aren’t quite coordinated enough to move the food from the front to the back of their mouths and swallow it; generally, they don’t develop that type of coordination until the fifth or six months. If you attempt to give your baby solid food and he repeatedly pushes entire bites out of his mouth with his tongue, he may not be ready. You will know that your baby’s coordination is developing when he begins to make chewing motions when you give him a bite. He might also drool less as he learns to swallow correctly. Babies’ ability to move their mouths and tongues tends to develop in sync with their digestive systems, so these are pretty accurate cues.

Eagerness and curiosity.

You may notice that your baby seems exceedingly interested in what you’re eating. Maybe you feel like he’s begging for a taste as his big, bright eyes lock on and follow your fork from plate to mouth. He also may be getting excited at the sight of his food, kicking his little legs and waving his hands, and opening his mouth wide as a nipple or spoon approaches.

Baby’s First Feeding

When your baby has proven that he is indeed ready to begin solid foods, which should you introduce first? A good rule of thumb is, to start with iron-fortified rice cereal. Just a couple of teaspoons to begin with, thickened with four to five teaspoons of prepared formula or breast milk (you can use water to thin the cereal, but by using formula or breast milk, you’re adding a taste that baby is already familiar with, which may help him to accept the cereal more readily). Or you can use the commercially prepared kind that’s pre-mixed; all you have to do it put it into a dish. Rice cereal is recommended to start with because it’s rare for babies to have an allergy or intolerance to it.

Before your baby’s first cereal feeding, you’ll want to gather a few things: a soft, rubber- or plastic-tipped spoon that won’t hurt his gums, a bib (most definitely!), and a camera to catch that priceless “what’s this?” expression. The nurse or bottle-feed your baby first, then offer the cereal, just a little bit on the tip of the spoon. Be prepared, because Baby will probably frown and spit so much at first that it looks as though you’ve just fed him the nastiest food in the world. But those reactions have little to do with the taste alone; it’s also the unfamiliarity of the new texture and consistency, and of the new movements his mouth is being forced to make. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t like it. Once he gets the hang of this eating thing, he’ll be doing it with gusto.

Then What?

After your baby has been eating rice cereal for a week or two, it’s safe to feed him other infant cereals – such as oatmeal – to introduce a little bit of variety into his diet. According to Sandra Bartholmey, Ph.D., Manager of Nutrition Research for the Gerber Company, “Infant cereals provide needed iron in food that is well accepted and well tolerated by most babies, and some contain vitamin C to help iron absorption. Additional you also need to add B vitamins to infant cereals as well as small amounts of calcium and phosphorus, minerals essential for bone growth and development.”

Start your baby with one cereal feeding per day, then work up to two. At first, you still want Baby’s diet to be made up predominantly of formula or breast milk. If your baby does well with cereal, you can begin to broaden his culinary horizons slowly.

Opinions vary on what food is the best to introduce after cereal. Some experts claim that you should introduce green vegetables such as peas first – their reason being that if you offer fruits first, Baby will develop such a strong preference for sweet tastes that he’ll have trouble accepting vegetables later on. Other experts say that it doesn’t matter which order you introduce fruits and veggies in, that babies either like them or don’t like them regardless. Either way, if you’re using jarred baby foods, pay attention to the label. Start with the ones that say “First Foods” or “Perfect for Beginners” or something along those lines; those are only fruits and vegetables, pureed entirely smooth, with nothing else added (except for some water, if necessary). Mixed nuts and veggie combinations are usually geared toward older babies and may contain little chunks. Don’t introduce meats just yet, as babies’ digestive systems won’t be able to process them until later.

It’s okay to introduce different foods to vary Baby’s diet, but always give it at least four days to ensure that the food doesn’t cause digestive or allergy problems. If you give your baby squash, for example, give him only squash at his solid-food feeding for the next three days, gradually increasing the amount. If he seems to have a sensitivity to the food at all (a rash, upset stomach, diarrhea, constipation, etc.) discontinue giving it to him. If after four days there have been no adverse reactions to food, it’s okay to introduce a new one.

Make Your Baby’s Food

You can prepare your baby food at home. The easiest method is to buy canned vegetables and fruits and puree them to the desired consistency yourself. However, most canned produce contains salt and other additives that baby won’t tolerate – so read the label. If the can contains anything but the vegetable or fruit and water, pass it up. Making fresh baby food involves a few more steps, but you know what’s going into your baby’s food exactly and can hand-select the produce yourself, and the actual process doesn’t take long. Make sure that your utensils are thoroughly cleaned and sterilized first, and don’t add any seasonings, sugar, or salt.

  • Cook the fruit or vegetable by steaming, baking, microwaving or boiling. Steaming is the most nutrient-retaining method.
  • Drain the liquid that the produce was cooked in and set it aside.
  • Put the cooked fruits or veggies into the food processor or blender and turn it on, set to “puree” or “grind.”
  • While the produce is mashing, add the cooking liquid a few drops at a time; you can also use formula or breast milk for an extra nutritional boost.
  • Once the puree is at the desired consistency, put it into an ice cube tray as if you were making ice cubes. Cover the plate with plastic wrap and freeze (you can also buy ice cube trays with lids if you prefer).
  • When the cubes have frozen, transfer them to heavy-duty freezer-safe plastic bags that you’ve labeled with the date and type of food; you should use the cubes within a month of storage.
  • When it’s time for a feeding, thaw a couple of cubes and reheat if Baby prefers warm food (don’t forget to stir before feeding so that there won’t be any pockets of heat). Each cube equals about one ounce of food.

Some fruits and vegetables can be high in residual pesticides. The Environmental Working Group conducted analyses of the USDA and FDA tests of pesticide levels in produce (based on over 100,000 different tests performed after the food had been washed or peeled). The results showed that cherries, peaches, pears, potatoes, and apples had the highest concentration of pesticides left in them. Avocados, peas, and bananas had the lowest level. If you’re going to make your baby foods, then look for organically grown produce – at least the items mentioned above. Check your local farmer’s market.

Also, if you’re preparing your baby food, don’t feed Baby large quantities of beets, carrots, turnips, collard greens or spinach. In some parts of the country, the soil contains a high concentration of nitrates, and these vegetables can have an elevated nitrate content which can cause anemia in babies. Commercially prepared baby foods use plants with low nitrate levels.

Foods to Avoid

While it’s fun to watch your baby try new foods, you need to avoid certain things until Baby is old enough to handle them without developing an allergy, in most cases after they’re a year old:

  • Eggs – Protein-rich eggs, when introduced before one year of age, can cause allergies.
  • Citrus – Citrus fruits and juices are also potential allergens if given too early.
  • Honey – Honey can contain the spores of Clostridium botulinum, better known as botulism. An adult’s intestinal tract can handle the spores, but babies can’t, and it can be potentially life-threatening.
  • Peanut butter – Peanut allergies are highly prevalent. Don’t give your baby peanut butter within the first year, and if one of Baby’s parents has a peanut allergy, it’s best to wait until three years of age.
  • Wheat – Wheat is the most common grain allergen, so wait until your baby is eight months old at a minimum before giving any wheat-based products.
  • Cow’s milk – Give your baby formula or breast milk for his first year. Cow’s milk is full of protein that Baby can’t adequately process, and contains minerals in amounts too large for such a little person; such large numbers can do damage to the kidneys.

Other common allergens are chocolate, shellfish, nuts, soy, and corn. If you suspect that your baby is susceptible to food allergies, or if you or your partner have allergies to certain foods, avoid introducing such foods into Baby’s diet for the first year (and to play it safe, wait out the second year, too). Also, never give your baby foods that pose a choking hazard, such as:

  • Whole grapes, melon balls or cherry tomatoes
  • Cut-up hot dogs
  • Small or hard candies
  • Popcorn
  • Raisins
  • String cheese
  • Chunks of raw vegetables

Making Baby a Part of Mealtime

Sometimes, even if your baby doesn’t meet all the criteria for being developmentally ready for solids, he still acts like he wants to be a part of the family mealtime. And he should be – after all, he’s part of the family! Here are a few ways to involve your baby in meals without starting solid foods:

  • Let Baby sit with you at the table during meals.
  • Give him a baby-safe spoon and dish to play with; not only will this occupy him, but he’ll learn that these things are with mealtimes, and get some practice using them in the process.
  • Give him a cup with a tiny bit of formula or breast milk (anywhere from one to three ounces). It may be messy, but he’ll be able to practice drinking from a cup.
  • Let him play with a few crushed ice chips – but remember, no big pieces!
  • Feed Baby partially frozen breast milk or formula “slush” with a spoon.

How Much Should Baby Eat?

Babies’ appetites vary, but here’s a general guideline that you can follow to tell you what your baby should be eating – and how much – at each age.

  • Four to five months: 24-32 ounces of breast milk or formula per day (generally four to six feedings) and, if your baby is ready, one or two tablespoons of rice cereal once per day, gradually increasing to two or three tablespoons twice per day.
  • Six to seven months: 24-32 ounces of breast milk or formula (four to five feedings); rice cereal, 4 or more tablespoons per day; four to five tablespoons of pureed baby food one or two times per day.
  • Eight to nine months: 24-32 ounces of breast milk or formula (three to four feedings); four or more tablespoons of cereal, vegetables and fruit twice per day; at this age, you can begin to introduce meats if you desire. (It’s a good idea to purchase commercially prepared meats in a jar because you can be sure to pure very smoothly.) Give one or two tablespoons and gradually increase to three or four tablespoons, one feeding per day. You can also begin to introduce finger foods at this age. Cut everything up into tiny pieces, and choose only soft, easily dissolvable foods such as very ripe fruit (little chunks of peaches or bananas) or small slices of toast. Always stay with Baby while he eats such foods!
  • Ten months to one year: Three to four feedings of breast milk or formula; ¼ – ½ cup baby cereal at breakfast; one jar (or half a cup) of fruits or vegetables at lunch, and one jar at dinner; two to four tablespoons of meat (optional); a variety of finger foods; two to six ounces of fruit juice from a cup.

Introducing solid foods into your baby’s diet is a big step, but essential: the foods he learns to like now are the foods that he’ll prefer later in life. He’s developing his eating habits, and it’s essential that they’re healthy. Don’t be discouraged if he doesn’t like a particular food; as long as he’s not having any digestive or allergy-type reactions to it, keep offering it to him. Offer the “offensive” food as the first bite of solids each day for ten days, says Dr. Alan Greene, Stanford University Assistant Professor of Pediatrics. Some babies even take up to fifteen days. But persist, and eventually, he will learn to accept – and also like – the food he once spits out with such force.

There is a vast world of tastes out there, and you’ll take pleasure in watching your baby discover them all. Bon appétit!

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