Is your baby staring or reaching for your food with intense interest these days? Your little one has been living on breast milk and/or formula for the last few months but is this a sign they’re ready to move to the “big leagues” (i.e., solid foods)?
Starting solids is an exciting (albeit sometimes messy!) milestone, but how do you know if your baby is truly ready?
Alice Antonescu, MD, a pediatrician with Banner Health Clinic in Fort Collins, CO, shares everything you should know about starting your baby on solids.
When to start your baby on solid foods
Surprisingly, there’s some debate about the best time to introduce your baby to solids, and the recommendations have changed over the years. What your parent might have been told when you were a little one may be very different from what is recommended today.
“In general, most babies are ready to be introduced to solid foods somewhere between 4 to 6 months of age,” Dr. Antonescu said. “However, age is less important than whether they meet certain developmental milestones.”
Here are some developmental signs and cues that your baby may be ready for solid food:
- Your baby shows interest. Does your little one excitedly open their mouth when you show them a spoonful of food? Do they watch you eat with interest? Do they grab or reach for certain items on your plate?
- Your baby sits up with support. Your baby should be able to hold their head up and sit in a supported position on your lap, bouncer or highchair.
- Your baby’s tongue extrusion reflex is gone. The tongue-thrust or extrusion reflex helps your little one push solid food out of their mouth to avoid choking. You may notice this reflex when their tongue, in response to being touched, thrusts out of their mouth. “Usually this disappears around 4 to 6 months, at which point their tongue begins pushing food to the back of their mouth, so they are able to swallow,” Dr. Antonescu said.
First foods to introduce to your baby
When it comes to introducing your baby to their first solid foods, don’t feel limited to starting with single-grain infant cereals, such as rice, oat or barley. Your baby’s first foods are your choice as long as your little one receives the iron-rich foods their body needs.
“Whether you start with iron-rich pureed foods or iron-fortified cereal, you have many options when it comes to solids,” Dr. Antonescu said. “It’s good for your baby to try a variety of colors, flavors and textures.”
You can buy baby cereal and pureed foods from the store or prepare them at home (without added salt, seasonings and sweeteners). “Added condiments like salt are unnecessary and are not recommended,” Dr. Antonescu said.
First foods should be smooth and creamy with no lumps. Once your baby has a few teeth (at about 6 to 9 months), you can start them on ground meats (e.g., chicken, turkey, beef) and soft, minced or mashed food with small, soft lumps.
[If you child is 12 months of age or older, check out “Feeding Your Toddler: Ages 1 to 3 Years Old” for more helpful tips.]
What foods NOT to give your baby
While you may have some options when it comes to introducing new foods to your baby, there are a few that are big no-no’s, including the following:
- Raw or cooked honey due to the risk of botulism, a potentially deadly intoxication
- Foods that may cause choking, such as whole nuts or raw fruit and vegetables
- Whole cow’s milk as it doesn’t offer the range of nutrients and iron that breastmilk and formula do
- Fruit juice, soft drinks and caffeinated drinks
“Some parents may have concerns about foods that are commonly associated with allergies, such as eggs, peanuts and fish, but evidence has shown that early and continued introduction of these foods can reduce the risk of allergies,” Dr. Antonescu said. “But remember to offer these foods one at a time and watch for any signs of an allergy.”
If your baby does experience a severe allergic reaction that causes their lips or tongue to swell and their breathing to become labored, call 911 immediately.
How to introduce first foods to your baby
Here are some general suggestions when it comes to introducing foods to your baby:
- Introduce new foods one at a time every few days. This way, you can identify the cause if your child has any symptoms of a food allergy.
- Start with a couple of teaspoons once a day. Using a small plastic teaspoon, start with a few bites and then slowly increase over a few days. Once your baby is about 8 or 9 months old, they should start eating a variety of foods two to three times a day.
- Make mealtime pleasant. Choose a time when your baby is happy and relaxed, such as mid-morning after a nap. It may help to offer solids after breastfeeding or bottle feeding so your baby isn’t too hungry.
- Always sit with your baby while they eat. Try to avoid any distractions, such as the TV, and use good eye contact and positive verbal cues to help your child focus. It’s strongly encouraged to have family meals together as well.
- Offer a little water in an open, sippy or strawed cup. Healthy babies don’t need extra water, but if your baby has started on solids, it’s okay to give them water each day when they eat. Kids usually start drinking water around 6 months old.
- Let them play a little. Learning to eat solids can get a bit messy, and that’s OK. Playing with food is an important part of learning. Be prepared for a little clean up.
What if your baby isn’t interested in solid foods?
If your baby isn’t interested in solids during your first attempts, don’t force them to eat. Take a break for a day or two before trying again. Learning to eat solid foods is a process and can take some babies longer than others.
If you have questions or concerns about your baby’s nutrition, talk to their pediatrician.
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