Introducing solid food to your baby is a milestone that can be fun, unpredictable and undeniably messy. Like walking and using the potty, eating is a skill that takes time and practice to master. As a parent, your job is to provide your baby with a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods in a pleasant and relaxed setting. It’s your baby’s job to learn what and how much to eat—with no pressure from anyone.
Introducing solid food is different for every baby
While introducing solid food is easy for some babies, for others, it can be a challenge. Staying calm and removing any expectations will help make it more enjoyable for both of you. “Some infants take their sweet time accepting new foods, and forcing the issue will only make the transition more stressful,” explains Loraine H. Stern, MD, co-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) book Nutrition: What Every Parent Needs to Know.
Advice for introducing solid food
To help you make your baby’s transition to introducing solid food a smooth one, we’ve gathered advice from Stern and other experts on the best time to start solid foods, how to introduce a new food, which foods to begin with and which ones to avoid. You’ll also find a handy guide to preparing 11 healthful baby foods to help start your child off on a well-balanced diet for life.
Don’t start introducing solid food too soon
Most babies don’t lose the extrusion reflex—which makes them instinctively push out their tongue when anything other than liquid is placed in their mouth—until 3 to 4 months of age, and infant digestive systems are often not mature enough to process solid foods until after 4 months.
Before introducing solid food, your baby should be able to sit independently, hold up his head and be capable of transferring food from a spoon to his mouth. He should show interest in eating—by gazing at what’s on your plate, leaning in toward food or opening his mouth as if to eat. For most babies, this happens at some point between 4 and 6 months of age. But don’t rush it. “Waiting until your baby is good and ready will make the process easier for everyone,” says Stern. And contrary to folklore, adding solids will not make him more likely to sleep through the night.
Choose strategically when introducing solid food
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about what food is best to start with, says Eileen Behan, RD, author of The Baby Food Bible. From fruits and veggies like butternut squash puree to infant cereal and even red meat, almost any nutritious, single-ingredient food, puréed without added sugar or sodium, should be okay (see Baby Foods to Avoid for a list of exceptions). Despite what some say, there’s no evidence that your baby will fancy vegetables more if you feed them to him before other foods, Behan says.
For years, doctors have advised starting with fortified rice cereal because it’s easy to digest, contains iron and has a low allergy risk. But you can introduce solid food from other groups are also nutritious and well tolerated. Recent reports of “worrisome” levels of arsenic, a known human carcinogen, in rice products have made many people wary of feeding rice cereal to their infants. However, the AAP says that, pending further research, parents need not avoid rice cereal altogether, but that babies should be fed a variety of grains, including oats and barley, to minimize arsenic exposure.
When introducing solid food, go slow
When introducing solid food, the initial goal is for your baby to get used to the idea of eating, and learn how to move food from a spoon to the back of his mouth and then swallow it, Behan explains. It’s a gradual process that could take weeks. In the meantime, breast milk or formula will remain his main source of nutrients.
When first introducing solid food, your infant’s meals should consist of just half a teaspoon or two of a thick liquid (such as a blend of infant cereal or puréed, strained carrots mixed with breast milk or water). After your baby has mastered eating this, you can gradually start increasing the thickness and quantity of his food. By 7 to 10 months of age, he should be ready for mashed, ground or very finely chopped table food like mashed banana, pear puree, beef puree, or steamed and chopped zucchini.
Ultimately, your goal for introducing solid food should be to feed your baby at regular times of day. But in the beginning, it’s best to do it when he’s showing signs of hunger, Stern says. Start with one solid feeding a day for the first few months. Around 9 to 10 months, it should be time to add a second meal. By 12 months, he’ll be ready for two to three meals a day.
Look for signs that your baby is finished
Your baby’s appetite will vary from one meal to the next, so when you first introduce solid food, don’t use how much he’s eaten in the past to gauge whether he’s had enough. Feed him until he seems to lose interest or the desire to eat—for example, if he turns his head away or keeps his mouth closed. It’s important to respect his internal cues and not force him to eat when he doesn’t want to, says Behan.
Go one by one when introducing solid food
The AAP recommends introducing solid foods one at a time, two to three days apart, to give your baby time to adjust and to help identify potential intolerances or food allergies. Watch for signs such as diarrhea, rash or vomiting. If you suspect a problem, stop giving the food to your baby and discuss it with his doctor.
Don’t give up too easily
When your baby turns away, closes his mouth or spits out a food, he may be telling you it’s time to stop. But don’t assume that he doesn’t like something because he makes a face or appears to reject it, Behan says. He may not be hungry, may have gas or may be tired of sitting in his highchair. Behan’s advice: Wait a few days, then offer it again—and again. “Many babies need to try a food eight to 15 times before it becomes familiar and accepted,” she explains. “If you give up after only a few tries, you could be limiting your child’s food choices before he has even had a chance to learn what he likes.”
When introducing solid food, go for variety
When introducing solid food, make it your goal to expose your baby to as many new foods as possible—especially as he gets older, Behan stresses. Variety is not only vital nutritionally; it could help him discover more foods that he likes and discourage picky eating. “The more colors, flavors and textures your child is exposed to, the more he will eventually come to accept.”
Remember: Once your baby is eating solids, providing healthy meals at regular times, keeping him company at the table and respecting his likes and dislikes will go a long way toward creating good eating habits and relaxing mealtimes. And when introducing solid food, being a good role model by eating a healthy diet yourself is also important. And if all goes according to plan, you could wind up with a kid who eats well and may even prefer salmon and broccoli to French fries and hot dogs.
By Stacy Whitman
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