Providing a baby with great nutrition is relatively easy while pregnant or nursing. Not only does your body basically do it on its own, but just in case, doctors tell expecting mothers do’s and don’ts on diet, and there’s widespread encouragement to take prenatal vitamins and to breast feed (or give high quality formula). But by the time you get to the subject of solid baby food: it’s crickets.
The onus is on the parents, and it’s hard to find information on feeding baby solids.
It seemed weird to spend that much time worrying about everything I put into my mouth while I was pregnant and nursing only to abruptly stop when he started eating “real” food.
I asked my pediatrician but he admitted there were no hard and fast rules. Rice cereal first or not at all? Avoid peanuts and other highly-allergic foods until age one or introduce them early? What about foods like meat or eggs?
When Should I Start?
You’ve got to start at the “Goldilocks time”: when it’s just right. An early introduction could lead to bad consequences. A baby’s digestive system isn’t ready, it could pose a choking hazard, and it might increase the chances of contracting chronic diseases in the future (like obesity).
Just the same, introducing solids too late also leads to negative outcomes. As great as breastmilk is, it isn’t enough to sustain older babies. There’s no “extra credit” for exclusively nursing longer than 6 months. Babies need the added nutrients found in solids.
I started at five months because W seemed bored with a bottle/nursing in that he was easily distracted and didn’t seem to want to drink much (even from fast flow nipples). He was always trying to grab what I was eating. I think he liked more interaction from me during feeds, so starting solids then was right for him.
How Often Should I Feed Solids vs. Liquids?
I chose to feed W three “meals” a day (solids) with liquid “snacks” (breastmilk or formula) between meals and before bed. Solid foods under age one are supposed to complement breastmilk.
A typical day would be to nurse when he woke up (around 7 am), then breakfast an hour or two later. Nurse to nap. Lunch after his first nap (of solid food). Then I’d nurse him before his second nap and as a snack when he woke up. I’d feed him dinner around 5:30-6, then I’d nurse before bed. I basically spent the entire day feeding that child. As always, I let him eat as much or little as he wanted for each meal (liquid or solid).
Do I Have to Start with Rice Cereal?
No. You can start with whatever you want, so long as it’s real food (no junk, duh). Just keep in mind the consistency has got to be pretty smooth and liquidy, especially at first. Your child has had nothing but liquids her entire life!
The reason rice cereal is considered “first” is because it’s marketed by baby food makers that way and it’s tradition (i.e., mom/friends did it). That being said, rice cereal has a lot going for it. It’s finely milled and packed with added supplements (including iron). The thin texture is easier for a baby to swallow.
However, it doesn’t *have* to be first. Some people give fruit first because it’s sweet, mashable, and most babies like the taste.
But if you want to give meat first (I did!), go for it. Even the AAP admits it doesn’t matter what food you start with (as long as it’s healthy). I started with beef because I was concerned about W getting enough iron (see also Baby Food Part 3). This isn’t as weird as it sounds—I pureed it and then added some rice cereal and breast milk to thin it.
When to Introduce “Highly Allergic” Foods
There is now a widely-recognized benefit to introducing the supposedly “highly allergic” foods like peanuts and gluten early. The benefit is a reduction in becoming allergic to them. The guidance has shifted significantly. The AAP used to recommend avoiding such foods until a child was 1-3 years old.
Now they propose giving those foods early to prevent allergies.
I gave W peanut and tree-nut (such as almond) butter starting at about six months. Then he got multi-grain baby cereal that contained wheat (aka, gluten), albeit in smaller doses since it was multi-grain. Finally, I also offered eggs (hard boiled) and fish when he was ready for more texture. These commonly allergic foods were easy for him to eat if I cut them with cereal and added breastmilk or formula to thin the texture. This was especially important for sticky food, like nut butters.
Some rules of thumb for the introduction of any new food are:
- Give it in the morning so you can observe any potential interactions when *you* are awake and aware.
- Add new foods only every few days so if there is a problem, you know what the culprit is.
A Word on Dairy/Nut Milk
The beverage of choice under age one is breastmilk or formula. Babies shouldn’t drink cow/goat/animal or almond/cashew/rice/soy/vegetable/nut milks before they are one. This is a hard-and-fast rule. Those other alternatives do not provide enough nutrition to a baby. The amount of calcium in dairy milk can also inhibit the absorption of iron. Vegetable milks don’t have enough fat. Even water isn’t necessary.
What Nutrients Does a Baby Need?
Here’s what I discovered. Babies need iron, and they need a lot of it (11 mg a day). To put that in perspective, dads only need 8 mg per day. Iron is crucial for brain health and a lack of iron can put babies at risk for permanent, irreversible cognitive delays.
Babies need zinc for their brains as well as for the growth and repair of cells. They also need calcium (bones) and vitamin D (400 mg). Breast milk is deficient in D (because from an evolutionary perspective, it’s readily available from exposure to the sun) though it’s better absorbed than that in formula. Vitamin D is needed for calcium absorption.
Brain and eye development are enhanced with Omega-3s and DHA. Children need their A, B, Cs (and Ds and Es vitamins) for brain, skin, eye, immunity, cells, etc. They also need fat in their diets. Healthy fats feed the brain, and many vitamins in fruits and vegetables are better absorbed if eaten with fats.
Once I learned the basics of what baby needs, I looked up top foods with those nutrients and made my menu from there. In the next post (Baby Food Part 3), I’ll share the foods I gave to W and how I prepared them. If you want to learn what kind of tools you need to get started, try Baby Food, Part 1.
Q: When did you feed your baby solids? What did you start with? How did it go?