By Dara Gurau, RD
Starting your little one on solids for the first time is an exciting milestone. But all that excitement can come with its share of stress and anxiety.
When I first started feeding my kids, I did a lot of research. As a mom and a dietitian, I wanted to make sure I was feeding my kids in just the right way. There’s a lot of pressure out there today on parents and caregivers when it comes to every aspect of parenting, but especially related to food. With all the confusing messaging out there from social media, celebrities and family and friends, feeding kids has become extremely complex. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Feeding your baby doesn’t have to be an overwhelming and stressful experience. It can actually be a really fun and enjoyable time. The early days of feeding solids can help foster the start of a healthy lifelong relationship with food for your child, something that is extremely important in helping them develop into a happy and healthful eater. But with all the information out there, feeding your children can feel like a very daunting task. Here is everything you need to know to take the stress out of starting solids and make it an enjoyable experience for you and your entire family.
When To Start Solids
The World Health Organization recommends starting solids at six months of age. Up to this age, breastmilk and formula provide all the nutrition your baby needs. After six months of age, breastmilk and formula will still make up the bulk of your baby’s nutrition, but they start to need more iron. Solid foods help provide this iron as well as additional essential nutrients to your baby. They also provide the opportunity to learn new textures, help with allergy prevention, build on motor skill development, and of course, have lots of fun!
To know the exact timing of when to start, there are certain signs you can look out for:
- Your baby is starting to show interest in the food you are eating
- Your baby can hold their head up
- Your baby can sit unassisted in a high chair
- Your baby opens his/her mouth when a spoon is brought to it.
I knew my middle daughter was ready for solids when she was sitting next to me in her highchair and tried to grab a slice of pizza right out of my hands! All of these signs are clues that your little one is now ready to start their adventure in solids.
How To Start Successfully
From day one, my girls have always joined me in the kitchen. When they were infants, they would be next to me in their bouncy chairs. Once they could start grasping toys, they were holding onto spoons and spatulas. And once they were able to sit in their high chair, they sat right alongside me at the dinner table. So once it was time for them to start solids, the transition was very smooth. Having your baby join you and your family in the kitchen or at the dinner table from infancy introduces them to the sights and smells of food, lets them be a part of the family meal and makes the journey to starting solids that much easier.
By six months of age, babies are ready for a variety of textures – from thin purees to lumpy mashed foods to minced and ground and finger foods. All babies are different. Some prefer very smooth purees and some prefer soft finger food. The important thing is to follow your baby’s lead and try not to stress if things don’t go exactly according to your plan.
My eldest would only eat purees. My middle daughter insisted on feeding herself finger food from day one and refused purees in any form. And my youngest liked all textures, so I fed her a combination of purees and finger food. While I had hoped to start with purees for all, I allowed them to be the guide and this helped take the stress out of feeding. If your baby only takes purees, I do recommend still offering some soft finger foods on their tray. This provides them with the opportunity to self-feed, work on their fine motor skills, and explore the feel and texture of food with their hands.
No matter which route you go, the important thing to remember is there is no one right way to feed your baby. You know your little one best, so follow their lead. If you’re not sure what to start with, do a little experiment and offer a few different textures and see what they prefer. By 9 months of age, babies should be eating a variety of textures and participating in family meals. This will be a much easier transition if they are already used to sitting with you and your family at the dinner table. Keep in mind that you may have to modify some of the meals you’re serving to be texture-appropriate or cooked with less salt or sugar.
Signs of Hunger and Fullness
Whether you have decided to start with purees or finger foods, your baby knows best when they are hungry and when they are full. It’s important to let them be your guide and we as parents and caregivers should try our best not to interfere.
Babies are born with an innate ability to recognize hunger and fullness cues. It’s important to let them tell you when they are full, rather than trying to coax them with one more bite or trying to sneak in an extra spoonful or two of purees with the ever popular airplane trick. I know this one because, well, I’ve been there. When my eldest would eat finger foods, we tried to play games with her to encourage her to eat more protein. But all this did was cause her to ignore her own hunger and fullness cues and dislike that food even more.
So pay close attention to your baby’s cues. Here are some of those clues to look for that will tell you when your little one has had enough:
- Closing their mouth when you bring the spoon to them
- Playing with their food more than eating
- Becoming more and more restless in their high chair
- Pushing away food
- Crying in their high chair
On the other hand, here are some clues your baby is still hungry:
- Opening their mouth wide when they see the spoon
- Trying to grab the food on their tray and bring it to their mouth
- Excited and smacks lips when food is on their tray
When you let your baby lead, you will start to learn their signs and cues which will make feeding that much more enjoyable.
How To Introduce New Foods
Once your baby reaches six months of age, their iron requirements start to increase and their iron stores start to become depleted. Low iron stores can affect your baby’s growth and development, so it’s important they get their iron from food. While the traditional thoughts are to start with iron fortified grain cereal, it’s not the only option. Meat, whole eggs, tofu, beans and lentils are all great sources of iron and great options to start with as well.
Once your baby has started with iron-rich foods, the fun can begin! Vegetables and fruit can follow next. Soft cooked apples, peaches, broccoli and carrots are all great options and can be offered as finger foods or mashed to lumpy purees. Follow fruit and vegetables with whole grains. Starting with an iron-fortified single grain cereal is a great way to ensure your baby gets the iron they need. After that, you can introduce other whole grains like oats and barley. Nut and nut butters can be introduced as well along with dairy products like yogurt and cheese. You should wait to introduce cow’s milk as a beverage until around 9-12 months of age.
Remember, all babies are different. Eating solids is a new experience and they are exploring new flavours and textures. If they don’t take to a new food right away, don’t be discouraged. It can take up to 15-20 exposures for babies and kids to accept a new food. So keep offering them a variety of food in a relaxed and low-pressure environment. My eldest refused broccoli at first and now, seven years later, it’s one of her favourite foods. So keep at it!
What About Allergies?
The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends introducing common allergens like eggs, nuts and nut butter, dairy and shellfish at six months of age. Delaying them until more foods have been introduced as was once thought is no longer recommended. It is now known that there are no benefits to delaying the introduction of common allergens, even to babies at higher risk for developing allergies. It is recommended, however, that once your baby has their first taste of these foods like peanut butter, to continue feeding it to them on a regular basis to maintain their tolerance and prevent the development of food allergies.
It’s a good idea to introduce allergenic foods during the daytime so you can monitor your baby’s response. It’s also best to introduce one allergen at a time, then wait two days before introducing another one so if there is a reaction, you can narrow it down fairly quickly and don’t have to do much detective work. When we introduced almond butter for my youngest she broke out into a rash. Had we introduced it to her mixed into yogurt or along with peanut butter, we wouldn’t have been able to narrow down the cause that easily.
Most Importantly, Have Fun (and ignore the mess!)
The first few days, weeks and even months of starting solids can be a learning curve for both you and your baby. It’s a whole new experience and can take time for everyone to get the hang of it. This adventure is a time for your baby to start exploring different textures and flavours. Eating solids is a new skill and they need some time to learn and develop it fully, just like every other skill your baby is learning. So try to relax, ignore the mess and have fun!