When Should You Introduce Food to Your Baby and How?
We’re providing information on this hot topic so that you can make the best decision for you and your baby.
In a previous post, we discussed balancing solid foods and milk for your baby, but there is a much larger conversation to be had around this topic. One of the most commonly asked questions of new moms is how to feed your baby. In your baby's first few months of life, we often focus attention on the decision to feed baby breast milk, formula, or a blend of the two and whether to pump or naturally breastfeed.
Then, almost as soon as we are feeling confident and starting to hit a rhythm with breastfeeding or bottle feeding, boom! It’s time to start thinking about the next phase: when you should introduce foods to your baby and how?
When Should You Take the Next Step and Begin to Introduce New Foods?
In this post, we’re going to provide information on a couple different ways to feed your baby to help you make the best choice for your growing family. After reading this post, we strongly suggest speaking with your pediatrician and possibly a nutritionist. These experts know your individual child, their nutritional needs, and their development and are able to make clinical recommendations for your child.
Part of your job as a parent is to learn about the options and recommendations, and then to make the right decision for your child and your family.
Before we get any further, let’s talk terminology:
Baby Food: Pureed foods either purchased from a store, often found in a resealable pouch or jar, or made at home. Introduction of these foods is known generally as standard or traditional weaning.
Solids: Actual food that is safe for babies six month of age or older to explore eating on their own. This can cause some confusion as some people use “solids” to refer to anything that isn’t milk. In this blog post, when we refer to solids, we mean actual whole foods rather than pureed versions.
Weaning: The state of reducing your child’s milk consumption, and increasing their consumption of foods. Please take note that the introduction of certain foods does not automatically imply that you are weaning your child. We’ll cover more on weaning in an upcoming post. For now, just relax and think about the exciting time that is discovering new foods, flavors and textures your baby is about to experience!
We polled our Instagram followers to see how they chose to introduce foods to their babies. Almost half of respondents said they used some combination of spoon feeding and baby led weaning. About 1 fourth said they used the traditional spoon feeding, and another fourth said they used baby led weaning.
Breast Milk is Best:
While the focus of this post is on introducing new foods to your baby, some parents will choose to stay the course with breastfeeding or bottle feeding. Breast milk is safe, wholesome, and nutritious. With a diet consisting of breast milk, you don’t have to worry about whether your baby is getting a balanced diet, staying hydrated, or is being exposed to potentially harmful pathogens before their gut and immune systems are ready to fight off these invaders.
Generally, pediatricians and nutritionists recommend beginning to introduce foods, pureed or solid, to your baby around six months old because this is generally when they will begin to grow and experience demand for more nutrient-dense foods.
Introducing Foods to Your Baby:
It’s important to remember that when you first begin to introduce your baby to new foods, you aren’t fully replacing their meals. There really doesn’t need to be a tug of war between new foods and milk. You should breastfeed or give your baby a bottle before feeding them foods (either pureed or solids), so that they do not depend on food to become full, just to explore. This will also reduce the chance of a decrease in your milk supply, which is important for maintaining your baby’s nutrition.
Some experts advise that your baby’s first foods are experimental and should be encouraged but not should not replace the nutrition they receive from breast milk and/or formula. Breastmilk, or formula, should be the main source of nutrition and pretty much everything else for your baby’s first year of life.
Signs Your Baby Is Ready to Start Experimenting with Simple, Baby Safe Foods:
If you’re nervous about when to start introducing foods to your baby you can let them tell you when they’re ready. The following are signs to watch for based on research from the Mayo Clinic.
Sit upright with support
Your baby should be able to sit upright, either by themselves or in a highchair. This means that they have good head control and control of their “trunk” or torso.
Another important cue is that they have good control of their tongue. We might not realize it as adults but your tongue plays an important role in eating not just tasting food. Babies are born with what is called a “tongue reflex”. This is a natural response to something being put into their mouths. Babies will use their tongue to push food out. Once babies get about 4-6 months old, they will typically stop using their tongues to push food out of their mouths and instead, babies will begin to develop the coordination to move solid food from the front of the mouth to the back for swallowing. They aren’t perfect eaters at this point, but they are learning!
Curiosity about food
Does it feel like your baby is eyeing your plate during dinner time? When baby leans forward or takes an interest in your food, that is another important sign to watch for in Baby Led Weaning. They are curious about foods and desire to try them...or even mimic you. When they are ready to begin trying solids, babies will begin to reach for your foods or your utensils as you eat.
Babies love experimenting with self-feeding from very early on, and this will help them develop their fine-motor skills, and a healthy appetite, as they will simply stop feeding themselves when they are full. Avoid using hard raw foods such as carrot sticks or apple slices, and instead offer them soft fruit such as bananas, or steamed broccoli to start with.
Standard Weaning or the Early Introduction of Baby Foods
Some parents choose to start off with pureed foods. These are an easy way to safely introduce new foods to your baby and their developing bodies. Other parents decide to wait a bit longer and begin introducing solids. This decision is ultimately up to your baby, your pediatrician, and you.
Some pediatricians now recommend introducing pureed baby food as early as four months. There is developing evidence that exposure to different foods at this age can help to minimize sensitivity or allergies to these foods later on. Talk to your pediatrician before introducing foods at this age to determine whether they are developmentally ready to start this next step. To learn more about the signs that your baby is ready to start solid foods, check out this article and infographic.
Starting with Cereals
Some professionals will recommend starting with cereals. Cereals are fortified with iron, making them perfect for your baby, who will experience a drop in iron near the 9-month mark. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you do not begin introducing cereals before your baby is at least four months old.
Pro Tip: To make single-grain cereals even easier to introduce to your baby mix them with breast milk rather than water. You will need to keep some spare breastmilk on hand to mix with the cereal (use your Breast Pump Cushion from BeauGen to make pumping a little extra that much easier!). Most cereals will include instructions for this on their packaging, but you’ll want to include enough breast milk to make it quite runny at first. Once your baby has become used to swallowing the runny cereal, you can thicken it up a bit.
Other experts aren’t particularly wild about baby cereals. They are simple or basic in nutrition. Most cereals lack the rich nutrients that are available in other foods. These experts recognize that cereals are often recommended as early foods as they are high in iron and not commonly an allergy risk, which is likely why they recommend it.
Veggies and Fruits
Veggies and fruits are great to introduce to your baby as one of their first foods, but remember to puree them finely to avoid any clumps or larger bits that could cause a choking hazard. Start simple with pureed carrots, mashed bananas, or pureed apples, and then mix and match some fruits, veggies, and even chicken (once your baby is old enough!) together to help extend your baby’s taste buds a bit. You can buy pureed fruits and vegetables in the store or make your own in a food processor or blender.
Pro Tip: When making your own baby foods, use ice cube trays to portion the food and freeze it so that it lasts longer. Store the frozen cubes of food in a reusable bag, like Junobie’s reusable storage bags, and when you are ready to prepare a meal for your baby, simply thaw a cube and you're ready to go. If only all meal prep could be that easy!
If you're not interested in making your own baby foods, you can find them now at major grocery stores including Aldi, Target, and Walmart. There are also other brands where you can easily order online to save time like, Once Upon a Farm, Amara Organic Baby Foods, and even Gerber. Yumi and Little Blends offer subscription options.
Baby Led Weaning or the Early Introduction of Solid Foods
Introducing solids early is a way of getting your baby used to textures and getting them excited about flavors. You can skip buying prepared foods for your baby and let them explore the world of food for themselves. When introducing actual solid foods, you should consult your pediatrician or health expert on whether your child is ready. Many suggest that you start introducing solid foods around six months of age. It is important to note that many professional organizations, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), recommend waiting until this time to begin introducing solid foods. At six months old, your baby’s digestive system is better able to break down solid foods, and handle the potential pathogens that come with them. Another reason to wait for six months is because this is generally a stage where babies need a bit more nutrition based on their growth and development.
Some parents might want to start baby led weaning before six months but experts say this is controversial. Many babies at this stage will not have yet reached the developmental milestones recommended for introducing solids, and their digestive system may not be ready to handle foods of this type. Consult your pediatrician before beginning to introduce foods of any type and together you can make the right decision.
Why Parents Choose Baby Led Weaning
Some studies have shown that babies who are allowed to explore feeding themselves will be less fussy, more adventurous in their food choices, and develop better motor skills. Other parents choose baby led weaning because rather than buying baby foods, you can prepare foods for them at home, saving money at the grocery store. With this school of thought, simply select baby safe meal options and have them on hand to feed to your baby. You can make these foods ahead of time and store them in your refrigerator like pasta.
How to Start Baby Led Weaning:
In this school of thought, babies will give parents the signs and cues that they are ready to begin exploring the world of solid foods. If you notice that your baby seems to remain hungry after nursing or taking a bottle, then perhaps it is time to supplement your baby’s diet with some solids.
If your baby is starting to exhibit the signs that he or she is ready to explore solid foods, there are a few great options to start with. Start off simple, with foods that are easy for babies to chew with their gums, or mash with their fingers. Vegetables like roasted or steamed butternut or sweet potato, and fruits like apple, avocado, or pear work perfectly.
Play is a natural part of this experience as your baby starts to learn the sensory experiences of foods. Even though it can be messy, allowing them to play with their food is a healthy and necessary part of baby led weaning.
Companies like Raised Real can help with specially designed skill building meals. Other companies like Beech Nut, who traditionally offer pureed baby foods, also offer recipes and tips for older babies learning to feed themselves.
When you make the choice to introduce your baby to solid foods, there are food safety tools and feeders that you can use to make sure they are only taking small, safe amounts. Net feeders are often rattle or popsicle-shaped tools that allow you to encase the solid food in a silicone or net-like material which only allows small bits of food or juice to pass through. These are great options for introducing your baby to the tastes of new foods before allowing them to start the next phase of the journey, which is often baby led weaning.
Regardless of whether you start with pureed foods or solids, your baby might take a nursing strike. Nursing strikes are when your baby refuses to nurse, or take a bottle, and is seeking food instead. Your baby will likely become excited to try new flavors and experience new textures, so these strikes aren’t a terrible thing.
There can be the downside or worry that your milk supply will suffer if your baby isn’t nursing. During nursing strikes, pump to keep up your milk supply and try to give your baby breast milk through a bottle or sippy cup. This will help you maintain your supply as well as keep your baby hydrated and able to try different foods.
How to Balance Solids and Breast Milk or Formula
Balancing solids and milk doesn’t need to be a tightrope act. Your baby will be very dependent on some form of milk until becoming a toddler, which is absolutely fine. You might find that your baby doesn’t have any interest in solids at all – which is also perfectly okay. Don’t force them into eating solids if they don’t want to. Breast milk or formula has everything they need for their first year of life, and forcing them into eating might give them an unhealthy idea about food and put them off solids completely.
Remember: when introducing your baby to foods for the first time, offer them milk first, to make sure that they get the full nutrition that they need for the day. Then let them taste new foods, taking as much or as little as they want. If your baby spits up a bit, it might simply because they are too full. This isn’t necessarily something to be worried about, but if it persists, or you are worried about the amount, call your pediatrician.
Pro Tip: Introduce one food per day. If a food causes an allergic reaction, gas, constipation, or other discomfort, you will be able to quickly identify that food and avoid it in the future.
Foods To Avoid
While there are so many foods you can offer your baby, more than most moms think, there are some foods that should be avoided within the first year.
You should not introduce honey to your baby early on. It could cause botulism, which is a serious illness if you introduce honey too early.
Cow’s milk should be avoided for the first year, rather use breastmilk or formula for cereals. However, it is fine to use cow’s milk to cook or bake foods for your baby.
Nuts, Popcorn, Whole Grapes, etc.
These are serious choking hazards. Also included in this category are cherry tomatoes, blueberries, and other small round foods. Pediatricians and dieticians alike recommend that these should be avoided for the first two years of your child’s life.
You know best, and so does your baby. They will keep coming back for their milk after some experimenting with solids. Keep things simple in the beginning and don’t rush them, soon they will be completely off milk and you will be wishing the simple milk-only days would be back!
When it comes to your baby and introducing new foods, don’t stress. Your baby will give you cues and your pediatrician will give you guidance. If you are still unsure, you can consult a pediatric dietician or nutritionist. In future posts, we’ll give some specific foods as suggestions to try with your baby.
Whether you choose traditional weaning or baby led weaning, you're no longer left in the lurch once your baby becomes a toddler. Now there are companies who specialize in offering prepackaged meals for toddlers that simply need unboxed and heated in the microwave. Nurture Life is a great option for busy families who want to make the most of every meal for their little ones.