When should you start feeding baby? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), breast milk or formula should be your child’s sole nutritional source for about the first six months and the major source of nutrition throughout the first twelve months. When you add solid foods to your baby’s diet, continue breastfeeding until at least 12 months. You can continue to breastfeed after 12 months if you and your baby desire. Don’t forget to check with your child’s doctor about whether your child will need vitamin D and iron supplements during the first year.
•• Introducing the First Food
When it’s time to start introducing solids, there is no medical evidence that introducing solid foods in any particular order has an advantage for your baby, according to the AAP. Baby cereals are often recommended as first foods, but this is based more on tradition and culture than on any scientific evidence, and it’s one tradition that babies could definitely do without. It is likely cereals were initially recommended to combat iron deficiencies. However, meat, poultry, and fish all contain heme iron, which is more efficiently absorbed in the digestive tract than non-heme iron, the form found in plants like spinach and beans as well as fortified cereals.
Why is it not a great idea to feed babies cereal grains as a first food? Because babies produce only a minuscule amount of salivary amylase, an enzyme that helps digest grains. They produce almost no pancreatic amylase until after molars are developed. Most babies’ digestive systems are simply not able to handle grains/cereal (especially wheat) until at least one year old at the earliest. If babies are not producing amylase, they are not digesting grains. Undigested grains can destroy your baby’s intestinal lining and disrupt the balance of good bacteria in the gut.
Many doctors warn that feeding cereal grains too early can even lead to grain allergies later. Some researches feel that in addition to grain allergies, this can also lead to behavioral problems, mood issues, nutritional deficiencies, and other food allergies.
Furthermore, grains are not nutrient dense, so if they can’t digest the grains, the grains are taking the place of quality, nourishing foods that the baby could be digesting more easily. Be especially leery of rice cereals, which may contain arsenic.
There are many healthy, pre-made options, including organic baby food. Homemade baby food is a popular option for parents who want to know exactly what goes into their baby’s mouth—and making it is not so tough. Tip: Choose a food to try, then puree it (no lumps), and pour it into an ice cube tray and freeze. Just pop out a cube and defrost for a quick meal.
Though many pediatricians will recommend starting vegetables before fruits, there is no evidence that your baby will develop a dislike for vegetables if fruits are given first. Babies are born with a preference for sweets, and the order of introducing foods will not change this. Tip: Home-prepared spinach, beets, green beans, squash, and carrots may contain large amounts of nitrates. Nitrates can cause an unusual type of anemia (low blood count) in young babies. Commercially prepared vegetables test for nitrates and are safer. Peas, corn, and sweet potatoes are better choices for home-prepared baby foods.
If your baby has been mostly breastfeeding, he may benefit from baby food made with meat, which contains more easily absorbed sources of iron and zinc that are needed by 4–6 months of age. Generally, meats and vegetables contain more nutrients per serving than fruits or grains. Many pediatricians recommend against giving eggs and fish in the first year of life because of allergic reactions, but there is no evidence that introducing these nutrient-dense foods after 4–6 months of age determines whether your baby will be allergic to them, says the AAP.
Once your baby learns to eat one food, gradually give him other foods. Give your baby one new food at a time, and wait at least three days before starting another. After each new food, watch for any allergic reactions such as diarrhea, rash, or vomiting. If any of these occur, stop using the new food and consult with your child’s pediatrician.
Within a few months of starting solid foods, your baby’s daily diet should include a variety of foods each day like: breast milk/formula, meats, vegetables, fruits, eggs, and weekly fish (low-mercury, ocean-caught fish).
•• Finger Foods
Once your baby can sit up and bring her hands or other objects to her mouth, you can give her finger foods to help her learn to feed herself. To avoid choking, make sure anything you give your baby is soft, easy to swallow, and cut into small pieces. Some examples include:
- Small pieces of banana
- Well-cooked and cut up veggies
- Well-cooked chicken, finely chopped
- Scrambled eggs
At each of your baby’s daily meals, she should be eating about four ounces, or the amount in one small jar of strained baby food. Limit giving your baby foods that are made for adults. These foods often contain more salt and other preservatives.
If you want to give your baby fresh food, use a blender or food processor, or just mash softer foods with a fork. All fresh foods should be cooked with no added salt or seasoning. Though you can feed your baby raw bananas (mashed), most other fruits and vegetables should be cooked until they are soft.
Do not give your baby any food that requires chewing at this age. Do not give your baby any food that can be choking hazards, including hot dogs (including meat sticks (baby food “hot dogs”); nuts and seeds; chunks of meat or cheese; whole grapes; popcorn; chunks of peanut butter; raw vegetables; fruit chunks, such as apple chunks; and hard, gooey, or sticky candy. Additionally, cow’s milk (to prevent anemia), honey (to prevent infant botulism), and juices (to reduce sugar) should be withheld until your child’s first birthday.
•• What to Expect
When your baby starts eating solid foods, his stools will become smellier, more solid, and variable in color. Peas and other green vegetables may turn the stool a deep-green color; beets may make it red (Beets sometimes make urine red as well.). If your baby’s meals are not strained, his stools may contain undigested pieces of food, like hulls. All of this is normal. If the stools are extremely loose, watery, or full of mucus, it may mean the digestive tract is irritated. In this case, reduce the quantity and introduce foods more slowly.
Sources: Starting Solid Foods (2008, American Academy of Pediatrics) and The Role and Requirements of Digestible Dietary Carbohydrates in Infants and Toddlers (2012, The National Center for Biotechnology Information).