Introducing solid foods
Everybody has a different opinion on when babies should start eating solids, and what you should start with. Recommendations have gone back and forth over the years so much that it's easy to get confused and not know what to do. Let's clear all that up!
When in doubt, listen to your baby
Most babies naturally show interest in eating solids between 4-6 months of age, and the more we learn about infant feeding, the more we are coming to see that this is no coincidence. Before then, the gut is not developed enough to process solid foods, but new evidence finds that waiting much longer may increase the risk of food allergies. So while the old recommendations were to delay solid foods until past 6 months of age, it turns out this approach is not only unnecessary, it might actually be harmful. The best and simplest answer is to watch for your baby's readiness rather than count out the months, keeping that rough timeframe in mind.
What are signs of solid food readiness? It is not necessary that your baby can sit independently, but they should have good neck control so they can easily hold their head up without support. A coordinated swallow is also important, if they seem to spit and sputter when you put a taste of pureed food on their tongue, they may not be ready. Often, parents notice that their baby starts reaching for food, watching them eat, etc. Teeth are by no means a requirement — in some babies these don't come until after a year of age.
What foods should I start with? With the exception of the foods to avoid (see below), you can feed your baby any food. Many parents like to pick foods that are easy to prepare and administer, like squash, avocado, peas, carrots, etc. While these are all great choices, I would encourage you not to try and cater to their tastes too much, or focus only on the sweetest, starchiest, tastiest foods. I like to focus on a broad variety of foods that are seasonal and local. A good balance right from the start will ensure a broad palate for years to come (more on this later).
Food to avoid in infants:
- Do not feed your baby honey, as it can cause botulism only in infants. After 12 months of age, children can safely eat honey.
- Avoid foods they could choke on, such as hot dog chunks or whole grapes.
- Dairy/cow’s milk: In infants and small children, cow’s milk can lead to intestinal bleeding and anemia. Strictly avoid prior to 9 months of age. Between 9-12 months of age limit to small amounts of cultured dairy (yogurt, kefir, or cheese). After 12 months they may begin to drink cow’s milk in limited amounts if breast milk is not available (breast milk is still the preferred source of milk for toddlers). Always limit cow’s milk to less than 16 ounces per day. Choose, whole, organic milk: quality over quantity.
How to prevent food allergy. Foods like eggs, peanuts, shellfish, etc., commonly cause food allergies. However, you can—and should—still feed these foods, even if you have a family history of food allergies. In fact, new evidence finds that delaying them will only increase your risk of becoming allergic to them. But let's introduce them with a bit of caution. To help prevent food allergies, start with small amounts by themselves and monitor your child for any reactions. When possible, try to prevent contact of the food with your baby's skin, which can cause irritation and lead to food allergy. If contact occurs, wash or rinse the food off the skin. Foods that are eaten in small amounts regularly are less likely to cause allergy than foods that are eaten in large amounts infrequently. Signs to watch for: if your baby develops hives or eczema, stop the food, take a photo, and come in to clinic so I can take a look. Sometimes these rashes are caused by the food, but they are often caused by other things (direct contact with irritants/allergens, viruses, etc), so I can help you sort that out. If your baby has an immediate, severe reaction (severe vomiting or difficulty breathing) call 911.
When should I introduce meat? Easy! At the same time as everything else. You may still hear people say 9 months of age, but you guessed it, that's out the window. Like everything else, this idea was purely based on assumption, thinking that meat is "hard to digest" (it isn't), which was never backed up by factual data. So doctors were (and some still are) telling parents to delay the introduction of meat, and replace it with an artificial iron supplement or iron-fortified rice cereal until they start eating meat. Babies hate the supplement, get constipated on the rice cereal, but actually enjoy eating meat. I, for one, am quite happy to return to our roots and feed babies a balanced diet. Not a meat eater? Or maybe not sure yet? No problem! Read my take on meat or no meat for your child.
How long should I wait between different foods? About 3-4 introductions should do it. If your baby tolerates a food well several times then it’s ok to move on to the next one.
What are my baby’s nutritional needs? Breastmilk provides virtually everything that your baby needs, with only two exceptions:
- Vitamin D is not contained in breastmilk, it comes from sunshine. This means everyone (infants through adults) living in temperate climates need a supplement through the winter months. Learn more about Vitamin D.
- Iron is what carries oxygen to the brain, boosting your baby’s brain development. Nature put very little iron into breastmilk because babies are actually born with too much of it. In fact, the iron requirement for healthy babies from birth to 6 months is a quarter milligram of iron per day. No coincidence, that’s exactly the amount that’s in breastmilk! But guess what? After 6 months of age, the huge iron stores babies are born with finally become depleted, and their iron needs increase dramatically. How dramatically? Babies 6-12 months need about 11 mg of iron per day due to rapid growth, which is 40 times the amount found in breastmilk, and even more than an adult male needs. Where are they suddenly going to get this? Food! Another sign nature intended solid foods to be a healthy part of an infant's diet.
Suggestions for iron sources.
- Meat is rich in iron and also helps provide the extra fat and protein that a developing brain needs a lot more than a mature brain. You can cook any meat or seafood (i.e. pot roast, chicken, fish, clams) and stick it in the food processor. Adding liquid such as breastmilk, broth or water, or another food like avocado, can help with texture.
- Egg yolk has iron as well as omega-3s. While new data suggests early egg introduction may reduce egg allergies, I still do see lots of egg allergies in babies either way. So just take it slow: start with tiny amounts of yolk, then after they tolerate that well several times, start introducing small amounts of whites.
- Organic liver is rich in iron and easy to prepare. Great in moderation. Surprisingly, many babies love it!
- Spinach, like many other vegetables, is rich in iron, but to get 11 mg your baby would need to consume 2 cups of cooked and drained spinach to meet this need. I don't know if I could eat that much in a day… Definitely give iron-rich vegetables, but if you plan on relying on them exclusively, an iron supplement would be a good idea.
How much food should my baby eat? Here’s a useful website that does a great job of answering this, so I’ll refer you there instead of repeating it.
What schedule of food introduction should I follow? Short answer: none. Contrary to popular belief, there is no perfect first food, and any food introduction chart you come across is purely arbitrary, none of it is based on any evidence. Rotate through lots of different foods, not just the foods you like or the foods you think they will like. While it seems a nice thing to do at the time, favoring the foods they like cements an early expectation that foods will cater to their taste preferences, rather than the other way around: learning to cater their taste preferences to available, nourishing foods. Offer variety to your child from day one — at first, they may not always be happy, but their happiness in the long run will be exponentially higher and more sustainable when they learn to appreciate a broad palate of nourishing foods.
What if they refuse healthy foods? One of the hardest things for a parent to do is let a child go hungry when you know you have other foods they would eat. But this is also one of the most invaluable tools to fostering a healthy, well-balanced and positive attitude towards eating — one based on gratitude instead of entitlement. The trick is to navigate this path with love, empathy and compassion from day one. If your child chooses not eat because they don't like something, it's good for them to understand that the result of that choice is not tastier food (rewarding picky behavior), but it isn't punishment either. It's simply the natural consequence of waiting until the next meal comes around. There will always be other meals—they will never starve—and you don’t need to fix them anything else. It is, however, perfectly fine to provide a few options up front within each meal so it's not unpleasantly monotonous. Try not to view your role as you vs. them — your efforts are best focused on providing them love and support as they struggle with navigating that choice. It's also OK to have a hard time with this. Feeding children can be challenging, so give yourself lots of love, compassion, and leeway as well for doing the best you are able.
Which brings me to the last point...
Enjoy your food! With everybody talking about what to do and what not to do, if that worry distracts you from the joy of eating it's doing more harm than good. There may be no virtue more important to impart to your children with regards to nutrition than simply teaching them to cherish the art of gathering, preparing, and eating wholesome, nourishing food.
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- Nwaru BI, Erkkola M, Ahonen S, et al. Age at the Introduction of Solid Foods During the First Year and Allergic Sensitization at Age 5 Years. J Pediatr. 2010;125;50-59.
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- Branum A.M., Lukacs S.L.: Food allergy among U.S. children: trends in prevalence and hospitalizations. NCHS Data Brief 10. 1-8.2008
- Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2003.
- Sherry B, Mei Z, Yip R. Continuation of the decline in prevalence of anemia in low-income infants and children in five states. Pediatrics. 2001;107(4):677–682
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Available at:www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhanes.htm
- Chantry CJ, Howard CR, Auinger P. Full breastfeeding duration and risk for iron deficiency in U.S. infants. Breastfeed Med. 2007 Jun;2(2):63-73.
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