By Rebecca Turner, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, and mom
What is more adorable than a happy baby relishing their favorite solid foods and let’s face it, getting as much all over their faces, on their hands and in their hair, as in their mouths? Absolutely nothing – at least not until it is time to clean up! Starting a baby on solid food is a huge milestone. Caution: it’s messy, but fun. Most parents begin this transition puzzled with many questions. When to start? What comes first? How much to offer? This natural process doesn’t have to be a challenge.
It is important to note, the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) all recommend that breast milk or infant formula should be a baby’s main source of nutrition until at least six months of age. Earlier introduction of solids may have certain risk factors (including an early risk of obesity, and gastrointestinal problems); so consult your pediatrician first.
As a dietitian and a proud mom, here are a few simple guidelines I am following to ensure that my baby’s food is just right to grow on.
When to start?
How can you tell when it is time to begin the journey into solids? My best advice is to watch your baby, not the calendar for cues. Signs to look for include the ability to sit up, hold their head up unassisted, able to turn their head toward or away from food, and have doubled their birth weight. Often parents assume if their baby appears interested in food they must be hungry. As a mom, I disagree because most babies at the age of 4-6 months will put anything in their mouths.
What comes first?
A common first baby food is a single-grain, iron-fortified cereal such as rice or oatmeal. Pureed fruits and vegetables are acceptable in addition to baby cereal. It doesn’t matter what comes first as long as they receive a variety of both. Favorable firsts include carrots, pears, prunes, sweet potatoes, avocado, bananas, and peaches. Parents can buy commercial baby food or better yet, make their own. A few months after initiating solids, most pediatricians recommend a variety of nutrient-rich foods daily such as yogurts, lean meats, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and eggs while continuing sufficient breast milk or formula.
Parents should delay introducing peanut butter, popcorn, nuts, raisins, grapes, celery, hard candy or whole hot dogs, as these foods pose serious choking hazards. Avoid honey until after a baby is 12 months old, because it can cause a potentially dangerous condition called infant botulism. Remember, babies are not born with a taste for sugar. Start good eating habits early and limit sweets, candies, and sugar sweetened beverages to special occasions. If they don’t have it, they won’t demand it over the healthy foods their bodies need.
Don’t get too excited! Offer your baby just one new food at a time, and wait 3-4 days before starting another. After each new food is introduced, watch for allergic reactions such as diarrhea, rash, or vomiting. If one of these occurs, discontinue that food and consult your pediatrician.
How much to offer?
Parents tend to worry that they are feeding too much, or not enough. Fortunately, it’s not as complicated as you think. At first, introduce solid foods once each day or every other day if your baby seems hesitant. Allow the baby to do the regulating. It’s the child’s job to determine how much to eat. It’s the parent’s job to provide healthy foods. As a simple guideline, the World Health Organization recommends that infants have solids two to three times a day between 6-8 months, increasing to three to four times daily between 9-11 months and additional nutritious snacks offered once or twice a day, as desired between 12 – 24 months.
Switching to cow’s milk
After your baby’s first birthday it’s time to switch to whole milk. There really isn’t any magic to this. Just shift over, without worrying about weaning or a slow transition. Even most one-year-olds who were on soy formulas do well with a switch to cow’s milk. According to the pediatricians, most children need 2 to 2 ½ cups of cow’s milk every day. Dr. Gerri A. Cannon-Smith, a Mississippi pediatrician with over 25 years of practice recommends, ”At one year of age, milk becomes an important part of a child’s diet. It provides nine essential vitamins and minerals that are important for development and good health, including calcium, potassium and vitamin D – three of the four nutrients children often lack.” Milk also provides protein for growth, plus carbohydrates, which will provide the energy a toddler needs throughout day.
Without a doubt, adequate nutrition during infancy and early childhood is vital to growth and development. Your decision to incorporate nutrient-rich food choices into your baby’s diet will give them a strong start in life. Remember, you are taking the first steps in helping your little one develop healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.
The information provided in this article is not intended to replace the advice and instruction of a pediatrician. Before introducing new foods, switching to cow’s milk or other important milestones in your infant or toddler’s development, always consult your pediatrician.