The introduction of solid foods is a time of excitement and experimentation for babies and their parents. Learning the mechanics of taking food from a spoon, chewing and transferring it from the front of the tongue to the back of the mouth and then swallowing takes time and lots of practice.
Don't worry if, at first, all your baby seems to do is spit it out. Not only do babies have more sensitive taste buds than adults, they also have many more. Even the most subtle flavours can seem quite strong to a young baby.
The current recommendation from healthcare professionals is that babies should not be offered solid foods until they are six months of age. Even after solids are introduced, milk still needs to be their predominant source of nutrition in the first twelve months of life. Breastfeeding mothers and their babies still gain significant health benefits by continuing to breastfeed for as long as they are both happy to do so.
Why offering solid food is important
Breast milk or formula contains all the nutrients babies need for their body and brain to grow and develop in their first six months of life. After this age, iron and zinc stores start to deplete and need boosting through additional dietary intake. Extra kilojoules are also necessary to fuel growth in the second half of the first year.
What can happen if I offer my baby solids earlier or late than six months?
There are no benefits to introducing solid foods prior to six months. Some parents believe that doing this will support their baby towards improved sleeping overnight. However, there is no guarantee that this will happen. Babies are still entitled to at least one overnight breast or bottle feed until at least six months of age.
- Constipation is a common outcome if solids are offered too early. Due to gut immaturity it can be difficult for babies to digest anything other than milk before six months of age
- Infection due to food borne illness. Babies are susceptible to infection and don’t have fully functioning immune systems. Increasing their exposure to germs via food is an avoidable risk
- Impact on a mother’s breast milk supply. Babies who fill up on solid foods can begin to refuse breastfeeds or not feed as efficiently at the breast
- Kidney overload because of needing to filter nutrients other than those contained in milk
What about allergies?
Currently, there is no convincing evidence that delaying the introduction of solids past four to six months of age is protective against developing allergies. Babies who are not offered solid foods when they show signs they are ready can become a little delayed in developing mastery of eating. There is a window of time between six to eight months where most babies are receptive, willing and more than ready to start eating solids. Ignoring readiness signs and deferring their introduction can actually prolong a baby’s sucking action, rather than encourage them to start chewing.
When will I know if my baby is ready?
There is a range of classic readiness signs which babies show they are ready to ingest more than just milk. Look for a combination of these:
- When your baby can hold their head reasonably steady, has some upper body control and is able to sit upright
- When they are showing interest in what is going on around them, particularly when you and others are eating and they’re keen to do the same
- When their tongue thrust reflex is not so obvious. This is a sign that they’re ready to stop automatically pushing food back out of their mouth but instead, make some attempts to chew and swallow
- When your baby does not seem satisfied with just milk feeds. At around six months they may want to feed for longer, more frequently and not be as satisfied with what they’ve been having
What food do I need to be offering?
Soft, pureed and easily swallowed foods are ideal to start with. Don’t be disheartened if, at first, your baby isn’t too impressed. A small amount on a soft, shallow plastic spoon is preferable. Offer one solid meal of a few teaspoons each day until your baby is looking for more. If they are keen, then slowly graduate to a couple of tablespoons two to three times each day. Let your baby guide you in how much they want to eat.
Baby led weaning is becoming very popular and some parents are keen to hand over the onus of eating control to their child from the very beginning. But it is still important to monitor which foods, how much and the consistency of the food you are offering. Babies can quite literally bite off more than they can chew and be at risk of choking.
How much and how often?
There are no hard and fast rules about introducing solids. Other than taking it slowly and being sensitive to your baby’s responses. Offering one new food at a time is ideal; if they have any problems or reactions to a particular food then it is easier to identify which one it is likely to be.
Start off by offering one solid meal each day for a few days until your baby is used to it. If there are no problems, then you can grade them up to two meals each day and after a few more days, offer three.
Why rice cereal?
One of the first foods offered to babies is iron fortified rice cereal. This is because it is easy to digest and poses a very low risk of initiating an allergic response. Rice cereal is also easily mixed with other foods and its consistency can be varied according to each individual baby’s preference. Rice cereal is readily available and cheap to buy.
From 6-7 months start with:
- Rice cereal mixed with breast milk or cooled boiled water. You can mix a little pureed apple or pear with this to see if it’s more palatable to your baby
- Pureed or very well mashed vegetables and a range of fruits. Potato, pumpkin, carrots, sweet potato, zucchini are ideal. Mashed (ripe) banana and avocado are perfect as first foods. When you are making homemade solids, especially vegetables, a steamer and blender or mini blender can be invaluable in making this process quick and easy
- Milky solids such as custard and yoghurts. Be careful of sugar content in prepared dairy desserts; it is preferable to buy unsweetened ones and flavour them yourself with a small amount of fruit instead.
From 7-8 months:
- Offer more mashed, rather than finely pureed or sieved foods. Your baby can be having three solid meals each day now. Aim for breakfast, lunch and dinner after their milk feeds
- Offer a range of cereals, fruits, vegetables, meat and chicken and milky desserts. Two courses at lunch and dinner is common
- A couple of tablespoons to ½ cup is an ideal volume to be offered at each meal time now.
From 8-12 months
- Foods chopped into small pieces, minced or in finger size are popular with this age group. Self feeding is beginning, so encourage your baby to explore their food and have some control over their meal times. Giving them a spoon to practice with is a good idea
- Offer a range of fruits, vegetables, meats, cereals, pasta and grains. Your baby’s brain growth at this age is significant and they need lots of iron in their diet to fuel this.
How will I know when my baby has had enough to eat?
It is important to be sensitive to the cues or prompts your baby will give which means they have had enough to eat. Overriding these or ignoring them can lead to overfeeding. Common signs of fullness include the following:
- Turning away from the spoon as it is coming towards their mouth
- Closing their mouth and not opening it in anticipation of the next mouthful
- Becoming upset, crying and restless when previously they have been interested and engaged
- Vomiting, gagging and appearing sleepy. All of these cues are a baby’s best attempts to give clear signals that they have had sufficient
It is important to establish meal time routines with your baby so they understand it is time to eat. There are many feeding utensils available which incorporate educational designs to take the focus off the food and make feeding more engaging and fun for little ones.
When can my baby eat the same food as everybody else in the family?
From around 12 months of age, a family diet is ideal. Avoid making your baby special meals which are different to the rest of the family’s.
Check with your child health nurse to ensure your baby’s dietary intake is sufficient for their needs. Weight gain slows after six months of age, to between 70-90 grams/week. It is important to ensure your baby is either tracking on the same line or climbing on their percentile (growth) curves for their weight, head circumference and length. Dropping to a lower curve can indicate a need for improved nutrition.
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