Your baby is a few months old, and you have established a comfortable breastfeeding rhythm. Then comes the inevitable call from your mother. “What are you feeding that child?” she wants to know. Suddenly you begin to question whether your milk alone is enough for a growing baby.
When do you need to start thinking about feeding solid food?
Solid food should not be introduced until your child shows a readiness for it – usually sometime between six months and a year old. Breastmilk is the most nutritionally complete first food you can give your baby. The current American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines recommend that breastmilk be a baby’s primary source of nutrition for the first year and that solids not be introduced until a baby is at least six months old.
You are likely to encounter pressure from everyone from your mother-in-law to your next-door neighbor to feed your baby solids before six months. The reasons that people want to give a baby solid food as soon as possible are often based on misperceptions.
Solid Food Does Not Help a Baby Sleep Through The Night
Many people believe that “filling a baby up” on cereal will enable him or her to sleep for longer intervals. One loophole in this argument is that babies wake up for many reasons besides hunger, including a need for comfort and cuddling. A full baby is not necessarily a sleepy baby.
For some babies, the introduction of solid food does coincide with sleeping through the night; but, for others, there is no such correlation. In one study of breastfed and formula-fed six-week-old infants, the babies who were given rice cereal before bed showed no difference in sleep habits compared to those who were not. The researchers did find, however, that the majority of babies in the study – regardless of whether they were given cereal – increased their nighttime sleeping over the course of the fifteen-day study.
Because breastmilk is easily digestible, breastfed babies often wake up at night hungry. However, evidence suggests that night waking is a normal pattern for babies and that waking at night may be necessary for a baby’s optimal development.
Solid Food Does Not Help A Baby Gain Weight
A breastfeeding mother who is concerned that her baby is not gaining weight quickly enough may think that supplementing with solid food is the answer. However, breastmilk is designed to meet all of a baby’s nutritional needs for the first year, with no need for any kind of supplementation. It is extremely rare for a well-nourished mother not to have enough milk to feed her baby. Because milk supply is regulated by demand, simply nursing longer and more frequently is the way to boost a mother’s milk supply and increase a baby’s weight gain.
When evaluating your baby’s weight gain, keep in mind that the infant growth charts used by most doctors were developed using formula fed babies. The growth pattern of a breastfed baby may deviate quite a bit from these norms. The most important indicator of your baby’s weight gain is his robust appearance.
Breastfed Babies Do Not Need The Additional Iron In Solid Food
Infant formula and baby cereals are fortified with iron, leading many parents to conclude that babies need supplemental iron. In fact, most breastfed babies who do not eat solid food for the first year will get all the iron they need from breastmilk. Even though the iron content of breastmilk is low, it is very well absorbed by the body (50 percent of the iron in breastmilk is absorbable, as opposed to 4 to 10 percent in iron fortified formula).
The irony is that when babies begin eating solid food, the iron in breastmilk is no longer as well absorbed. Once a breastfed baby starts solid food, she will need additional iron-either from food sources or from iron supplements such as ferrous sulfate or herbal iron. Baby cereals are fortified with iron, but the form of iron used is so poorly absorbable that it is not a reliable source of iron supplementation. Foods that are naturally high in iron are the best choice. Whole grains are rich in iron; buy or make your own whole grain baby cereal (see recipe, below). Add a sprinkle of iron-rich sea vegetables such as kelp or dulse (available in the Asian foods section of your grocery store) to your baby’s food. Other foods high in iron include apricots, peas, and tofu. Cooking foods in a cast-iron skillet can boost their iron content considerably. Foods high in vitamin C enhance the absorption of iron, but a diet high in dairy products can inhibit the absorption of iron.
My Mother Thinks I Should Feed The Baby Solids
Your mother or mother-in-law is apt to encourage you to feed your baby solids as soon as possible, since it was common wisdom a generation ago to give babies rice cereal starting at about six weeks. (Remember, this generation also believed that formula was superior to breastmilk.)
We now know that a baby’s digestive system is not ready to handle solid food before six months, and that breastmilk is the most nutritionally superior food you can give your baby for the first year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Solid food is more important for formula-fed babies, since formula cannot meet all of a baby’s nutritional needs after six months. But for breastfed babies, there is no nutritional reason to introduce solid food earlier than a year.
No Need to Rush
Here are some of the advantages to waiting until after six months to give your baby solids:
Delaying Solids Decreases Your Child’s Risk Of Developing Food Allergies
The earlier a baby is exposed to any food other than breastmilk, the higher the likelihood that he will develop food allergies. A baby younger than six months has an immature digestive system that is not yet ready to handle solid foods. Food given earlier than this can cause adverse reactions. After about six months, a baby begins producing enough digestive enzymes and antibodies to handle solid foods without as high a risk of food allergies.
Introducing Solids Too Early Can Interfere With Your Child’s Growth
No solid food can compete with breastmilk as a source of nutrition for the first year. Filling your baby up with solid food prior to age one simply means that she will get less breastmilk. Common first baby foods-cereals, fruits, and vegetables – are low in calories, but high in carbohydrates. These foods can make a baby feel full-causing her to nurse less-without giving her enough calories to maintain proper growth.
Solids can also tip the scales in the other direction: Because it is easy to overfeed solid food to a young baby who cannot let you know when she has had enough, the early introduction of solid foods can lead to obesity later in life. Breastmilk is the perfect food for a baby, containing no empty calories.
Waiting To Introduce Solids Is More Convenient For You
You may think that life will be easier when your baby begins a diet of solid food, since you will be able to cut out a few nursing sessions. Giving your baby solids is not necessarily more convenient than breastfeeding, however.
Because breastmilk is a baby’s best source of nutrition for the first year, you should still continue to offer your baby the breast before each meal of solid food – so in reality you will not be cutting back much on nursing.
The longer you wait to give your baby solids, the less careful you will have to be about what you feed your baby, since an early introduction of solids can lead to food allergies. If you give your baby’s digestive system a chance to mature, it is more likely that you will be able to feed your baby whatever the rest of the family is eating rather than having to prepare special meals.
Your baby will also be better able to feed himself, as he gets older. Spoon-feeding a baby is a messy, time-consuming affair, requiring that you prepare or buy special foods. Breastfeeding is transportable, it costs nothing, and you can nurse your baby while you eat dinner with the rest of the family. Why not enjoy the convenience of exclusive breastfeeding for as long as you can?
When Is Your Child Ready for Solid Food?
As with all other developmental milestones, readiness for solid food depends on the baby. Just as with weaning and sleeping through the night, it is best to let your child make the call about when he is ready for an expanded diet. Sometime between six and twelve months, your baby will probably begin to indicate a readiness for solid food. Look for the following signs:
Until a baby shows certain signs of physical development, his digestive system is probably not ready for solids. Sometime between four and six months, a baby loses the tongue-thrusting reflex. Trying to feed him solid food before this reflex is gone will result only in the food being spit back out. The tongue-thrushing reflex seems to be nature’s way of protecting the baby against food that he may choke on or that his digestive system is not mature enough to handle.
Signs of readiness for food include the ability to sit up-which can be helpful in swallowing – and the manual dexterity to pick up food and put it in the mouth. The appearance of teeth is sometimes seen as an indicator that a baby is ready for solids. However, teeth are not necessary for chewing food; chewing is done by the molars, which often do not appear until the second year. Babies do very well gumming their food before the molars come in.
A sudden increase in appetite does not necessarily mean your baby is ready for solids; he may simply be going through a growth spurt. If your baby is older than six months, however, and still appears hungry after unrestricted nursing for four to five days, he may be ready to try something new.
INTEREST IN FOOD
Your baby will almost certainly let you know when he is ready for a bite of whatever you are having. Sometime after he can sit up and chew, a baby who previously showed no interest in food will suddenly start watching intently as your spoon goes to your mouth, and he may try to grab food from your plate. This “mooching” is your signal to expand your menu offerings.
First feedings should be small. Until your baby is a year old, food should be viewed as a way to accustom your baby to new tastes and textures and to joining in at mealtimes – not as a source of nutrition. Think of solid food as a condiment rather than as the main course.
Keep foods simple for at least the first few months, to enable you to detect any food sensitivities your baby may have. Introduce each new food alone, rather than in combination with other foods. Feed each new food for three to five days, just a spoonful at a time, and watch for any reaction. Allergic reactions might include a rash around the mouth or bottom, congestion, coughing, wheezing, red eyes, ear infections, constipation, or diarrhea. A mild reaction means you should hold off on serving that food for a few months. A severe reaction should be discussed with your health practitioner.
Foods should be mashed with a fork or put through a food mill until still chunky. A baby who is six months or older should not need to have her food pureed or liquefied. Once your baby is able to pick up small objects between her thumb and forefinger, give her finger foods; just be sure the pieces of food are small enough that they will not present a choking hazard. And do not ever leave your baby alone while she is eating, in case she does choke or gag.
Continue to breastfeed your baby as much as she wants. Offer your breast before meals, so that she gets most of her calories from breastmilk.
Start with foods that are low in protein and easy to assimilate, such as:
Fruits are a good first choice because most babies will be attracted to their sweetness. Bananas are perfect – you can mash them up for a child under nine months, and cut them into small pieces for an older child. Apples and pears can be served stewed and pureed, or grated in small pieces. Peaches and apricots can be mashed or diced. Bits of melon and blueberries make good finger food. Wait until your child is over a year old to serve citrus fruits, as they can be allergenic. Dried fruits such as raisins should be avoided, since they can cause choking and can get stuck between the teeth and cause cavities.
After your baby has gotten accustomed to a few fruits, try serving vegetables. Start out with the sweeter, orange varieties: sweet potato, carrots, and winter squash, cooked and mashed. Potatoes, peas, and green beans can be served mashed or diced. Avocado is one vegetable you can serve raw. Wait until your baby is a year before offering corn and tomatoes, as they can be allergenic.
Rice cereal is typically given as a baby’s very first food. Few babies gulp it down with much gusto, however: All of the taste and texture have been refined out of it, leaving only bland carbohydrates. Whole grain cereals, on the other hand, contain protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, and essential minerals, as well as a hearty flavor and aroma. After your baby is tolerating fruits and vegetables well, you can introduce whole grain cereals, starting with a single grain at a time, and later mixing grains. Oatmeal, brown rice, barley, quinoa, and millet are good grains to start with. Wait on wheat; it is a common allergen. Buy commercially prepared single – or mixed-grain baby cereals, or make your own.
You can serve cooked brown rice, whole grain toast, dry breakfast cereals, and whole grain pasta to an older baby. You may want to start with varieties of bread, cereal, and pasta made from spelt, millet, amaranth, and other grains, as wheat can cause allergies.
Teething biscuits, even the natural varieties, are not a good idea, as they can sit in a baby’s mouth and cause tooth decay. Offer a damp cotton rag for teething on instead.
NUTS AND LEGUMES
While your child is breastfeeding, he does not need a lot of additional protein. After a year, however, when solid food begins to make up more of his diet, good sources of protein include tofu, beans such as chickpeas and pinto beans, legumes such as split peas, hummus (chickpea and garlic paste), and seed and nut butters such as tahini (sesame seed butter), and almond butter. Peanuts are one of the most allergenic foods; although peanut butter is a perennial children’s favorite, it should not be given to children before they are two or three.
MEAT, CHICKEN, FISH, AND EGGS
Animal proteins are the most difficult foods to digest. They are probably not necessary until a child is walking and making more physical demands on himself; some people feel they are unnecessary, period. If you do serve meats or fish, they should be boiled or cooked until very soft, then chopped or flaked finely. Because egg whites can be an allergen, do not give them to your baby until he is over one year old.
Cow’s milk should never be given to a child under a year old, as it is high in protein and minerals, which can put a strain on an infant’s immature kidneys. It is also highly allergenic.
Yogurt can be fed to infants, as it contains bacteria that make it easier to digest.
SUGAR AND SPICE
Babies naturally have a taste for sweet foods, since mother’s milk is sweet. A baby’s unspoiled palate can appreciate the subtle sweetness in fruits, vegetables, and grains, with no need for additional sweeteners. Refined sweeteners-including sugar, glucose, dextrose, sucrose, even molasses and brown sugar-can overwhelm and seduce baby’s senses, causing her to develop a taste for artificially sweetened foods. Sugar is a prime source of empty calories, filling a child up and displacing more nutritional foods. There is no need to add sweeteners to your baby’s food. (Honey should never be given to a child under one, as it may contain botulism spores that a baby’s immune system cannot handle.)
Salt is unnecessary as well. Foods in their natural state contain all the sodium the body needs. Adding salt to a baby’s food can skew his tastes toward heavily salted foods and can place stress on his immature kidneys.
Chemical additives are also best avoided: The effect of artificial sweeteners like saccharin and aspartame, artificial flavors and colors, and additives like MSG is not entirely known in children. Read food labels so you can avoid these unnecessary flavor-enhancers.
A breastfed baby needs no additional liquids for the first year. After your baby is a year old, you can offer him liquids in a trainer cup with handles and a lid. Good beverage choices include water, heavily diluted fruit juices, and weak herbal teas. You may want to continue to hold off on milk for a few years, because it causes reactions in so many children. See page 140 for dairy alternatives.
Common Allergenic Foods
Wait until your baby is at least a year old-two to three years old if allergies run in your family before introducing these foods:
- egg whites
- soy nuts, especially peanuts
Foods Babies can choke on
- apple chunks or slices
- potaoe chips
- dry cereal
- raw carrot sticks
- hard candies or cookies
- rice cakes
- hot dogs or tofu dogs
- whole corn kernels
- meat chunks
- whole nuts
- peanut butter
- whole berries or grapes
Your Budding Gourmet
When your baby is nine to eighteen months old, if she has been handling simple, single-ingredient foods well for a few months, you can begin mixing and matching. There is no reason to rush to add variety to your baby’s diet – she is probably happy keeping it simple, and the longer you wait, the more you give her digestive system a chance to adapt to new foods. You need not worry about creating a picky eater; in fact,breastfed babies seem to readily appreciate a variety of tastes, since the flavor of breastmilk varies with each feeding, depending on what the mother has eaten.
The day will come – sooner, rather than later, if your baby seems to tolerate new foods well and you have no history of family allergies – then you can feed your baby whatever the rest of the family is eating.
One night when Gemma was nine months old, we went to the Chez Panisse Cafe: Gemma’s dinner from our plates would have made her the envy of any gourmand: crusts of good bread followed by some rice, ripe pear; warm goat cheese; perfect little roasted carrots, potatoes, and turnips, lots of garlicky white beans, some filet of sole, and grilled sardine.
She eats braised rabbit with abandon, teethes’ on artichoke leaves and octopus with zeal. I imagine her one-day sitting around with her, friends as they brag about favorite dishes their parents cook.
“My mom makes the most delicious bran-dade,” Gemma might say rapturously.
“What’s that?” her friends would ask. “Ummmm! Salt cod, potato, and lots of garlic all mashed up with olive oil, then gratineed and eaten on croutons.”
“Ewwwl” the other kids would scream. And they’d never accept another invitation to eat lunch at our house.
– Lisa Hanauer, “Baby Food is Whatever I Feed My Baby,” Mothering, Fall 1997.
Homemade Versus Prepared Food
Some mothers never let a spoonful of commercially prepared baby food pass their babies’ lips, swearing by the freshness and affordability of homemade baby food. Others roll their eyes at the thought of playing chef to the under-one set.
Actually, whipping up your baby’s meals yourself does not have to be a complicated endeavor, and it has several advantages. Commercial baby food often contains starchy fillers such as tapioca and rice flour. Fruits and vegetables lose some vitamins, minerals, and taste when processed. Why not cultivate your baby’s taste for fresh foods while she is still impressionable? Making your baby’s food will certainly save you money – the cost of those little jars of baby food adds up. Serving homemade food is simply a matter of taking a little of the fresh food you are eating yourself, and pureeing it for your baby. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Keep a baby food grinder at the table and grind foods from your plate that are appropriate for your baby.
- Steam fresh fruits and vegetables (no need to add more salt or sweeteners) and puree to the desired texture in a food processor or blender. Because fresh baby food will keep for only a few days in the refrigerator, freeze individual portions in ice cube trays or recycled small jars and defrost one serving at a time.
- Make your own whole-grain baby cereal by toasting a grain like brown rice, millet, or quinoa in the oven or a skillet. Grind the grains in a food processor or coffee grinder reserved for that use, immediately before serving them (grains begin to lose nutritional value within a day or two of grinding). To make cereal, simmer a few spoonfuls of ground grains in a half-cup of water. For older children, dress the cereal up with sliced fruit, yogurt, or maple syrup.
- Consider leftover rice – a natural baby food. Stir in a little breastmilk, or heat it with a little chicken stock.
- Make polenta for the family, topped with tomato sauce and cheese, and serve the baby’s plain.
- Oven-roast zucchini, potatoes, yams, and carrots with a little olive oil until soft.
- Mash sweet potatoes mixed with quinoa – a soft grain-for a nutrition-packed meal for a baby or toddler.
- Reserve some vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, lentils, or parsnips to puree for the baby when you are cooking stews, roasts, or soups for the family. For an older baby, you can puree a small portion of the stew or soup.
- Reserve some cooked grains for the baby when you make grain salads for the family.
At a time when many working parents can barely muster enough energy at dinner time to order Chinese take-out, cooking, pureeing, and serving homemade meals for our babies can seem overwhelming. Can the overscheduled – and/or the culinary inept – really start whipping up healthful dishes for the little ones?
In the indelible words of my Aunt Rosalie, who fed six children while working full-time in the 1950s, “Sure you can darling. You just have to expand the meaning of the word cook.” And she’s right. Don’t get trapped into thinking that “homemade” means exhausting rituals involving many boiling pots and virgin coffee grinders.
Remember these simple words: If it’s good enough for you, it’s probably great for your baby. You don’t need to make special baby cereal, for one thing, unless you wish to. You can simply cook oatmeal, then cool and mash one small portion for the little one. Ditto for pancakes. You may also discover that your child introduces you to a favorite dish or two. I’d forgotten how satisfying Cheerios can be until I bought a box for my son to use as finger food. Now he merrily drops them in a heap on the floor while I munch a bowlful for breakfast.
-Gretchen Reynolds, “Reality Check,” Mothering, November/ December 1998.
As you look over the produce at the grocery store, you may wonder if organic food is necessary for your baby, given that it is usually more expensive. In answering this question, consider that pesticides are poisons – to pests and almost certainly to humans. Although Congress passed a Food Quality Protection Act in 1996 that requires all pesticides to be safe for infants and children, a recent study done by the Environmental Working Group found that between five and 25 percent of the fruits consumed in the United States by children under age six contain unsafe levels of toxic chemicals. Peaches, apples, pears, and grapes were the worst offenders. In addition, the report found detectable pesticide levels-including several carcinogens and neurotoxins-in samples of Gerber, Heinz, and Beechnut baby foods.’
Organic food is particularly important for children, because their nervous system and organs are still developing, and their immature kidneys have a harder time ridding the body of toxins. Children tend to eat more fruits than adults, pound for pound, especially when you consider their small size relative to adults.
Organic fruits and vegetables are important for what they contain as well as what they do not. Because organic produce is grown in soil that has been replenished with organic materials, it is richer in many nutrients and contains more trace minerals and micronutrients than conventionally grown produce.
Consider buying seasonal produce from your local farmer’s market. As fruits and vegetables ripen on the vine, they form phytochemicals – the substances in plants that prevent cancer and other diseases. Produce that has to be shipped to market is usually picked before it is ripe, before it has had, a chance to form these phytochemicals. Organically grown, vine-ripened produce also tastes better; there is a world of difference between a tomato or peach from your local farmer’s market and the flavorless, conventionally grown varieties at the supermarket.
Supporting organic farmers means investing in a more sustainable world for your children, since organic farming methods enrich rather than deplete the soil. Buying organic food is an investment in your child’s future.
Fostering a Healthy Attitude Toward Food
Your child’s first feedings are not only training her tastebuds-they are setting a pattern for her lifelong attitude toward food. If you offer her a variety of fresh, healthful choices and allow her to go at her own pace and develop her own tastes, you will be taking the first step in encouraging healthy eating habits for the rest of her life.
– Taken from “Natural Family Living” – The Mothering Magazine Guide to Parenting
Peggy O’Mara with Jane McConnell