For months your baby has thrived with just breast milk or formula on the menu. But now that he's getting bigger, he seems to want more out of lunch than mere milk. When is the best time to introduce solid foods to your infant? What foods should come first?
When to Begin
Start With Cereal
Veggies Next, Then Fruit
Where's the Meat?
Baby Food Basics
As you begin this new stage in your relationship with your baby, it's important to understand the roles you each need to play so that he grows well now and develops life-long healthy eating habits.
- You're in charge of making healthy, appropriate food available to your child in a way he can handle.
- Your child is in charge of what and when and how much he eats of your offerings.
- He's both the learner and the explorer; you are the supportive, reassuring facilitator.
- If you get into a fight, the parent and the relationship will lose.
When to Begin
The newest recommendations are to introduce solids when your baby is about 4 to 6 months old. Some larger babies may want to make the switch earlier. Breast milk or formula should continue to be your baby's primary food until he is 1 year old, or longer if you wish.
Despite what your own mother may have told you, there is no reason to rush solids. The age when you start a child on solids has no impact on his intelligence, now or in the future. And feeding solids to your baby before he's 4 to 6 months old will not help him sleep through the night; a lot of research has been done that debunks that old wives' tale. So go slow and easy; don't push it. Many sensitive children need a very slow, gentle approach, so respect those differences.
As with all feeding, your actions need to follow from what your baby is telling you. He may be ready for solids when he:
- Shows interest in what other people are eating, watching them eat.
- Makes mouthing movements as he watches other people eat.
- Is still hungry after eating a good amount of breast milk or formula.
- Doesn't push his tongue out at a spoon when you try to feed him.
- Pulls in his lower lip for food instead of sticking it out.
- Holds his head up on his own.
- Sits upright easily with some support.
- Follows food with his eyes.
- His lips close over food.
When starting your baby on solid foods, begin slowly, and introduce new foods one at a time. Introduce a new food every week or so to give yourself time to see whether your baby has an allergic reaction or is sensitive to a particular food. Food reactions usually show up as rashes on the face or in the diaper area, by spitting up, or by loose stools.
Babies don't need the sugar or the salt that adults eat, so don't add them to your child's food, even though it may taste bland to you.
Always start with solids on a spoon. Never put solids in a bottle.
- Hold your baby in your lap when you start out. Be sure his head and neck are upright.
- Talk quietly, but don't be distracting. He needs to concentrate when he's starting out.
- Hold the filled spoon in front of your baby and wait until he opens up. Put a little food on his lip to tempt him if his mouth stays closed.
- Wait for him to pay attention to the spoon before you put it in his mouth.
- Go at his pace.
- Stop when he shuts his mouth, turns away, or arches. He's had enough.
- Let him touch his food. It's his way of finding out about it.
- Watch your own facial expression. If you snarl as you present pureed peas, your baby will wonder why he's getting that green stuff.
Start With Cereal
Most babies start out on single-grain baby cereal, usually rice cereal, which is easy to digest. Mixed with breast milk, formula, or water, cereal is an excellent source of iron and B vitamins, as well as the calories your baby needs. Mix it with enough liquid to make a gruel that will be easy for your new eater to swallow — about 1 teaspoon of dry cereal to 4 to 5 teaspoons of milk. After rice, you can try other single-grain cereals, such as oatmeal or barley.
Sit him up in your lap or in his infant chair and give him one tiny spoonful at a time, so he has a chance to taste things and get used to the idea of eating his food rather than drinking it. He'll probably eat only a few teaspoons in total at first. (Of course, you'll still be giving him his milk, too.) If he gags or rejects the food by turning away, he may not be ready. Try again in another week. Never force a baby to eat. He will eventually need about one-half cup of iron-fortified cereal at a feeding.
Veggies Next, Then Fruit
This next step adds new tastes, textures, and vitamins A and C. Because yellow vegetables such as squash and carrots are sweeter than green vegetables, consider offering greens like beans and peas to your baby first. If he gets a taste of the sweeter ones, he may never give the greens a chance! By this time your baby can handle lumps of food in his mouth, and his tongue moves. He chews up and down. Start out with cooked vegetables that are fully pureed. Avoid beets, turnips, and the kohl (dark green) vegetables such as kale and broccoli until your baby is 1 year old. These vegetables have too many nitrates for a younger baby.
Most babies love fruit, whether it's a well-mashed ripe banana or pureed peaches or applesauce. But some fruits and unlimited juices aren't right for babies.
- Some kinds of applesauce have added sugar and spices. Stay away from these.
- Give your baby only a little juice each day, if any at all no more than 4 ounces. While fruit is definitely healthy, fruit juice is mainly sugar and water, and it's not nearly as good to fill up on as breast milk or formula. It may also leave your baby as thirsty as when he started because of a high concentration of salts.
- When you do give your baby fruit juice, use a cup rather than a bottle. Babies who drink juice from a bottle tend to drink too much of it, replacing breast milk, formula, or other more nutritious foods.
Introduce cup feeding when the pureed food is eaten well. Your baby won't do well at first, as he won't know how to seal his lips. But like everything else, practice makes perfect.
Where's the Meat?
Meat or meat substitutes are usually introduced around the end of the first year. These add protein and minerals such as zinc. Cooked meat needs to be very well chopped, ground, or pureed, and often goes down better if mixed with vegetables. If you choose not to give meat to your child, be sure he gets iron-fortified cereal or, if you're formula feeding, an iron-fortified formula. Egg yolks, beans, and other green vegetables are additional sources of iron. Some infants may be allergic to egg whites, so go cautiously if you're in an allergic family.
Baby Food Basics
For first-time eaters, baby food should be soft, smooth, and strained. The many good choices on the market come in several textures, depending on the age of your baby, and in every conceivable flavor. Start with the smoothest.
Keep it simple: Single-component foods are best, not combinations. Don't buy baby food that contains fillers read the labels carefully to be sure you know what you're getting.
You may choose to make your own baby food, pureeing cooked fruits and vegetables until smooth in a food processor. Be sure all foods and utensils are very clean and well-rinsed when you prepare your own food. Freeze larger amounts immediately. Ice cube trays work well for freezing, allowing you to thaw one meal portion (two to four cubes) at a time.
Don't spoon baby food directly from the jar. Instead, place a small amount in a bowl or on a plate to feed your child. This system prevents the leftover food in the jar from becoming spoiled by the enzymes and germs in your baby's mouth that linger on the spoon. If you feed from a jar, throw any uneaten food away.
Never force-feed a baby! When he's had enough, he'll close his mouth, turn away, spit out food, or brush it all away. Stop feeding him at this point, say "All done," clean him off, and put him down. He knows how much he needs.
At around 8 or 9 months, babies begin to master the "pincer" grasp, using the index finger and thumb to pick up small items. Suddenly they love to feed themselves. This is the ideal time to introduce finger foods and get your baby to be part of his own feeding.
Give your child a very few bits of food while he's sitting up on your lap or in a high chair. Place them where he can reach them. If you put them on a plate or in a bowl, be prepared to see the dish tossed overboard! That's part of the fun for him.
Favorite Finger Foods
Here are some kid-tested favorites:
- Cheerios or small cereal bits (no nuts, please!)
- Crackers or bread sticks (unsalted)
- Bagels (no chocolate, or those that contain bits of anything)
- Well-cooked or steamed small vegetable pieces (carrots, beans, etc.)
- Banana chunks or peeled, very ripe pieces of pears or peaches, or canned fruit
- Scrambled eggs or pieces of a baby omelet (1 egg, no filling)
- Small cubes of cheese
- Pieces of pasta, cooked
- Small pieces of pita bread
Certain foods are notorious choking hazards for babies and children. Never offer these to your child:
- Hot dogs
- Whole grapes, olives, or other small, round foods
- Hard candies, including jelly beans
- Peanuts or other nuts
- Small hard foods of any type
The best way to avoid choking, in addition to avoiding these foods, is to supervise your baby as he eats. That way you can nip a potential choking incident in the bud. Always give your baby food while he's seated and strapped in to his high chair or in your lap. Remember: No eating on the move or lying down.
Gradually replace strained foods with those that have a bit more texture as your child approaches his first birthday. If your baby gets used to soft lumps in his food now, he'll be more likely to accept a variety of foods later on. Back off if he gags or chokes and try again in a week or two. Some sensitive children will need a lot of patience to accept textured food.
Let your baby practice at family mealtimes by offering him a few soft table foods from your own plate. He'll love the chance to eat what he sees you eating. And he'll learn that meals are social times and that he's part of the family.
By 1 year, your child should be offered combinations like macaroni and cheese, simple casseroles, and mini cheese omelets.
Before you add salt, sugar, or spices to any soft foods you are preparing for your own meal, take out a small portion for your child. Good choices are cooked vegetables, rice, or pasta, for example. These foods don't need to be strained or pureed, just soft and perhaps mashed.
Teeth Don't Matter
Remember that you don't need to wait for any or all of your baby's teeth to come in to present these foods. It'll be a year or so before he will have any molars to do grinding. As long as the food you offer him is soft, he'll do just fine gumming things.
Milk Does Matter
Breast milk is still an important part of your baby's diet through the first year, or longer if you wish. Formula is the next best. Give solids first, before those liquid chasers, to encourage your baby to accept new foods. Wean to a cup directly if you wish, but don't start whole cow's milk until after a year, at up to 32 ounces per day.