Starting Solids

Is Your Baby Ready to Start Solid Food?

toddler finger food
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The advice to start solids between 4 and 6 months isn't just an arbitrary number. For the first 6 months of your child's life, breast milk or formula will meet all of your child's nutritional needs. Even when you start solids at the earlier end of that spectrum, these new foods are not meant to replace breast milk or formula in any way. These first encounters with food will be supplemental, experimental and all part of a learning process for your child, rather than necessary for survival.

Is Your Baby Ready for Solid Food?

Since birth, your baby has been accustomed to getting his food only from the breast or bottle and via sucking. If anything else managed to make its way into his mouth, his tongue-thrust reflex would kick in and spare him from choking on it. Around 4 months, your baby's tongue-thrust reflex will begin to disappear, which is one indicator that he may be ready to give solid food a try.

But it's not the only indicator. His delicate digestive system has lacked the enzymes necessary to digest anything but breast milk or formula. Around 4 months of age, your baby starts to produce the enzymes needed to take on other foods like cereal.

Your baby has depended on you to support his head when he's upright. When your baby starts to gain control of his own head, his neck muscles are strong enough to keep his throat elongated and help prevent choking.

Previously, your baby's reflexes helped keep him fed.

His rooting, sucking and crying let you know that it was time for your baby to eat. Early on, your baby was not aware of what was going on during a feeding. Later, your baby expressed interest in seeing the bottle or breast, recognizing that a feeding was on the way and even reaching out for it. Around 4 to 6 months, your baby will usually start to express interest in what you're eating and may even try to grab your spoon or get something off your plate.

When your baby was a newborn, you knew it was time to stop feeding him because he stopped sucking or fell asleep. Maybe the bottle or your breasts were empty. As your child gets older, he will turn his head away from the bottle or breast and refuse to drink any more when he's full.

These are all important readiness skills that your baby should have before you start to think about starting solids. A baby who can't support his head can easily choke. A baby who can't turn away from food learns to keep on eating even though he's full (possibly contributing to obesity in the future). A baby who cannot digest cereal suffers from stomach distress. And a baby who is still trying to force food out of his mouth with his tongue is not ready to swallow anything thicker than liquids.

Rather than rush things, just keep feeding breast milk or formula as usual, keep watching for these cues and trust that your baby will be ready in his own good time.

Which Foods to Try Once Your Baby is Ready

Most experts recommend rice cereal as the first food for your baby. It's got a lot going for it, too. It's bland so babies aren't offended by a strong taste, it can be thinned and thickened as necessary without difficulty, it's not highly allergenic and is easily digested.

Still, don't feel like you must start with rice cereal if you don't want to. Other good foods include pears, applesauce, peaches, bananas, sweet potatoes, potatoes and avocados.

Some babies who start out on cereal can even experience a bit of constipation, so foods like peaches and avocados can help alleviate or prevent this. Potatoes are a good starter food because they're often part of your family's meal already. No extra preparation besides mashing and mixing with some liquid like formula or breast milk is necessary.

Another piece of advice you're likely to hear involves starting fruits. Word is if you introduce your baby to fruit first they'll develop a sweet tooth and refuse to eat anything else. I've personally never seen this happen and have yet to see a toddler out in the wild who consumes nothing but fruit. (Macaroni and cheese, maybe, but not fruit exclusively.) Most babies who refuse strained green beans and other vegetables are not spoiled by the natural sweetness of fruit, but rather haven't developed a liking for the stronger flavor of veggies yet.

No matter what order foods are introduced, I think these veggie refusers just need time and persistence.

When it comes to your baby's first foods, you can make your own baby food or buy commercial versions. I prefer homemade because it's easy to control what goes into it and there's little waste. You can make a lot and freeze it in small batches.

Commercial versions are great to keep around when you're short on time or for the diaper bag, however, so they both have benefits.

Prepare about 2 teaspoons of very thin food. It should be only slightly thicker than breast milk or formula. Think heavy cream or buttermilk. It could coat the back of a spoon, but it should still drip off and not cling or stick to it. The consistency should be even with no lumps. If you're making your own rice cereal, this video can show you how, but be aware that the end product here is way too thick for a baby who is just starting solids. There are also some very thorough baby food books that can show you how to prepare your baby's first foods and will supply you with new food ideas as your baby grows.

How to Feed Your Baby

The first few times you try to feed your baby, you should make sure your baby has a bib on (and not much else), sit your baby on your lap and give it a go. Chances are, your baby is not going to manage to swallow much of what you offer. Setting up the first few solid feedings as big productions will just be a wasted effort.

Use a small spoon and definitely go for the soft, covered spoons rather than metal since your baby could bite down and hurt her gums on a metal spoon.

Another suggestion that I loved when my son was first eating was from Dr. William Sears: Just use your finger. I made sure my hands were clean and then I'd just dip my finger into the food and he'd suck and gum it off. It was a nice transition for him in the beginning as he didn't really like the spoon much.

Some experts say to feed your baby in an infant seat and this is acceptable if it can adjust to a mostly upright position. Some seats recline too much to be used for feeding and really, if your baby isn't sitting well enough for a high chair or your lap, then starting solids can wait for a few more weeks until these milestones are reached.

Offer tiny amounts at first and be ready for both a mess and some faces that border on hilarity. Even if your baby is a big fan of food, those first experiences with new tastes can be a shock. Remember that taste is a sense. It is underdeveloped like other infant senses, but just like seeing bright lights or hearing loud noises for the first time, the taste of food can be a bit of a jolt.

Starting Solids and Safety Issues

Heating Food

It's not necessary to heat baby food, though some babies do like it that way. My guideline is that if you eat the food hot, heat it for your baby (like oatmeal or potatoes). If you eat the food cold, serve it to your baby cold (like pears or avocados). If you heat food in a microwave, which I don't recommend, make sure to stir it first to get rid of any hot spots and test the temperature before you feed it to your baby to avoid burning his mouth.

Spoiling Food

Your baby's saliva contains enzymes that will gradually break down food. If you serve your baby food straight from a jar and then return the jar to the fridge, you will find that it's a runny mess the next day. Your best bet is to use a cup or bowl and just get out the amount you think your child is going to eat. At first, this will only be about a teaspoon or so. If your child wants more, use a fresh spoon and add another teaspoon at a time. Don't add what's in the bowl back to the jar if there is any left. Just throw it away.

Allergies

There are foods that cause problems with allergies more than others like milk and eggs. All foods should be introduced one at a time with a few days to a week between new foods in order to watch for allergic reactions or sensitivities, but there is no minimum age limit on when to start introducing new foods. If you introduce rice cereal at six months, for example, and find that it is well tolerated and there are no problems, you could introduce applesauce a few days later. (No need to stop feeding rice while you are introducing applesauce, though, since you know your baby handles that fine.)

Whether or not there is any history of allergies, be sure to watch for the signs of an allergic reaction (hives, difficulty breathing or asthma symptoms, swelling of the mouth or throat, vomiting or diarrhea and loss of consciousness), know how to respond and be ready to call 9-1-1 immediately.

Choking

There are a number of foods that cause choking in babies and young children. Most of these won't be a concern until your child is older and starts taking lumpier foods. Still, be aware of what they are and be ready to deal with a choking emergency.

High Chair Safety

While your child is in the high chair, make sure that he can support himself and hold his head on his own. Always use the strap on the chair and make sure that the chair's tray is not too tight on your baby's chest. Make sure that you watch your child the entire time they are in the chair.

After each feeding, make sure that you clean the high chair. Some have trays that are small enough that they will fit in the dishwasher. This is the best way I've found to get all the cracks and crevices where pureed food likes to hide and spoil.

Introductory Solids Aren't Meals

Remember, the first couple of months that your child is being introduced to solids is meant to be mostly a learning experience. Do not skip any feedings or reduce the amount of formula or breast milk your baby has been receiving. He still needs all the nutrition he's been getting from you or the bottle.

Don't Rush or Overfeed

Take your time in the beginning and remember to pay attention to your child's cues and interest. Plan these times a couple of hours before or after a bottle or breast feeding and let your child take the time that he wants, whether it is a little or a lot. If your child seems uninterested, don't worry about it. Try again another time later in the day or on another day altogether. If your child turns away or refuses to open his mouth, end the feeding and move on to another activity. Don't feel like your child has to eat any set amount. Let him learn to respect what his body is telling him about his level of fullness and nutritional needs. Remember, babies have very small tummies.

Commercially Prepared Foods

Watch out for ingredients in commercial foods. First foods for starting solids will usually be called just that or have the number 1 on the jar. These typically contain a single ingredient, like carrots, and water. Foods for older babies contain many different ingredients. If you accidentally choose food for the wrong age group, you may inadvertently expose your baby to ingredients not yet introduced to his diet. This isn't necessarily a huge danger, but can certainly make tracking down a food allergy more difficult when you're attempting to isolate many ingredients.

Commercial cereals are usually labeled as single ingredient as well.

Pesticides

Rice is a great starter food for babies, but it's also a food that is often heavily sprayed with pesticides. For this reason, whether making your own cereal or buying commercial brands, I suggest going for the organic types.

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