When, how, where, and why to introduce baby’s first foods! The ins and outs of starting baby on something other than breast milk or formula.
As a registered dietitian who works with families, I love asking parents, “What is your baby’s favorite food?” There’s usually an excited response. “Suddenly she loves avocado! Last week she wouldn’t eat it!” Introducing complementary foods – foods and beverages other than breastmilk or formula – is an important learning experience for you and your baby. For many families, this fun stage can be complicated by the tremendous amount of information that is available about introducing first foods. Here are some evidence-based recommendations for families.
When to Introduce First Foods
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends introducing complementary foods when your baby is about six months old. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (dietaryguidelines.gov) recommend exclusive breastfeeding, meaning only receiving breast milk, during the first six months of life. In most cases, experts recommend waiting until the six-month mark, as this is when babies typically reach developmental milestones needed for successful eating. Introducing foods before a baby is ready can mean an increased choking risk, as well as a risk of a baby getting too much or too little energy from the foods that are consumed. Premature introduction of complementary foods may also lead to feeding challenges later on.
Prior to starting solid foods, you should be aware of choking hazards and the difference between choking and gagging. Choking is life threatening. Gagging is a necessary step in learning how to eat. Gagging is a response that helps prevent choking as they learn how to eat. A baby’s gag reflex decreases between six to nine months.
If you’re trying to determine if it’s time to introduce complementary foods into your baby’s diet, look for these signs: Is your baby sitting up mostly unassisted? Holding his head steady? Showing a desire for food? Does your baby keep food in his mouth and swallow it? Infants with medical conditions or developmental delays may not be ready for complementary foods at six months. It’s a good idea to discuss introducing foods with your pediatrician.
The first time you offer your baby complementary foods, choose a time when your baby is not tired. Offer breastmilk or formula before you begin so your baby is not overly hungry. This will help assess readiness for solids. Next have him sit upright with minimal distractions in the area.
Which First Foods for Baby and How Much?
Current research does not support introducing foods in any particular order. However, it is recommended to introduce one single-ingredient food at a time. On their website, AAP and WIC include information about the foods to avoid during the introduction period. Examples include cow’s milk and honey, at least until your child is one year old.
Infants eat small portions at first, so it is essential that foods offered are nutritionally dense. Iron is especially important. Babies are born with iron stores for four to six months, which means that when they are about six months old, babies need to eat iron-rich foods. Choosing foods that are high in iron (for example, mashed beans and pureed meats for infants) and then feeding a variety of different foods, colors, and nutrients is a great place to start.
Introduce complementary foods gradually and observe your baby for an adverse reaction. Try a new food early in the day so there is enough time for a reaction to be observed. New foods that are rejected should be offered again in a week or so. Research shows it can take ten to fifteen attempts for a new food to be accepted by an infant.
How much is enough – or too much? The amount an infant eats varies meal to meal and day to day. The best guide is to follow your baby’s cues of hunger and fullness. Infants might indicate they are hungry by opening their mouths and leaning forward, and indicate that they are full by closing their mouth tightly, becoming distracted, or throwing or playing with food. Follow your baby’s lead on the speed of the feeding, but aim for feedings to generally take no more than thirty minutes.
When complementary foods are first introduced, the bulk of nutrition is still coming from breastmilk or formula. Sometimes your baby might eat one bite or refuse food altogether. It is never a good idea to try to force babies to eat when they’re showing you they are not hungry.
This is a time of learning and discovery for babies, and letting them explore foods is an important part of the process. For example, the first time a baby tries pureed carrots, most of it might end up on their hands and face. During this process, the baby has learned about how carrots feel and smell, which is great exposure. Next time, she might actually eat a big spoonful of those carrots. Ultimately, remember this: Every baby’s feeding and eating journey is different. If you have concerns, please talk to your pediatrician or a registered dietitian.