Starting Solids: What to Feed Baby, and When

By Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D.

Soon, it will be time to feed your child more than breast milk or infant formula. By any measure, adding solid foods is an exciting milestone, for babies and their parents. Here are the how-to's of feeding baby, including what to offer and when.

Developmental matters

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests starting so-called complementary foods – foods other than breast milk or infant formula – at about six months of age. By this time, most infants will have reached the developmental milestones that enable them to safely eat baby foods such as infant cereal, pureed meat, fruits, and vegetables.

It's important to understand how an infant's development influences their eating during the first year. Here are some general guidelines to consider. (Your child's progress toward a diet with more complementary foods may be different, so ask your pediatrician what's right for your baby.)

  • Before four months of age, your child's kidney and digestive system are not mature enough to handle any foods except breast milk and infant formula. That's why you should never add infant cereal to your child's baby bottle.
  • Around age 6 months, babies can sit up with support and hold up their head for short periods of time. A child can lean toward food and away from it when he's not interested in eating.
  • By 6 months, your child needs more nutrients than infant formula or breast milk provides, including iron.
  • Between six and nine months of age, your baby can safely eat semi-solid foods, such as mashed banana, and by eight months, he or she will start chewing and swallowing more solid foods.
  • Between age nine and 12 months, babies begin to feed themselves, drink from a sippy cup and begin eating bite-sized pieces of the same healthy foods the family is eating.

How to know when your child is ready to eat complementary foods

Many signs point to a child's readiness for complementary foods, including his interest in what you and other family members are eating! Here are some other important signals:

Your child:

  • Opens his or her mouth when presented with food
  • Is able to receive food from baby spoon and doesn't thrust the utensil out with his tongue
  • Can move foods from the front of his or her mouth to the back
  • Has doubled his or her birth weight and weights at least 13 pounds

Baby, let's eat!

You and your baby are ready to move on to complementary foods. His first foods should be pureed or quite runny, such as infant cereal mixed with breast milk or infant formula. Start out baby with iron-rich foods, such as iron-fortified infant cereal or pureed meat. Then, introduce fruits and vegetables in any order.

Aim for three meals a day, as you start to build a more structured feeding schedule and to integrate baby into family mealtimes. He or she probably won't eat much as first because part of the process for baby is becoming accustomed to the experience of sitting up and taking food from a spoon, which is preferably a small shallow one with no hard edges or one that's coated in plastic.

When you begin complementary foods, breast milk or infant formula will dominate your baby's diet. As time goes on, he'll rely more and more on complementary foods.

Don' t worry if baby doesn't eat all that you think he should. Young children know when they've had enough food, or need more. Pay attention to your child's hunger cues, and allow him or her to alert you when he or she is done eating.

What foods to avoid

Experts recommend introducing foods one at a time to see if there is any allergic reaction, and waiting a few days before adding another new food. There's no need to be overly concerned about food allergy, however.

According to the AAP, there is no research supporting delaying feeding infants foods that, in the past, have been thought of a highly allergenic, including fish, eggs, and peanuts. In addition, says the AAP, there is no convincing evidence that waiting to introduce complementary foods beyond six months lowers the risk of food allergy. Of course, if your baby has a reaction to any food, take it out of his diet immediately and call the doctor right away.

Infants should not have honey because they are at greater risk for food poisoning from it, should it be contaminated with the bacteria that causes botulism.

Don't make cow's milk your child's primary drink until after your child's first birthday. Cow's milk is low in iron and consuming too much may result in iron deficiency. As for other beverages, limit daily juice intake to four to six ounces, and don't give baby juice before six months of age.

Take care to prevent choking. Never leave an infant unattended or guarded by an older child. Certain foods are more prone to cause choking because they can block a child's small airway. They include: whole nuts and seeds, raw carrots and celery, large chunks of cheese, meat, and poultry, and hot dogs cut into coin-shaped pieces.

About the Author

Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D., is a registered dietitian, a writer, and mother of three. She has worked at the Joslin Diabetes Center and the American Heart Association, and for seven years counseled children and adults about healthy eating and disease prevention at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates in Boston.

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