“When should I start baby cereal? What should I worry about? How should I proceed?” With all the noise surrounding baby food — homemade baby food, baby-led weaning, vegan diets for baby — it’s hard to know what, when, and how you should introduce real food to your baby.
New research in solid food introduction has led to new feeding advice for the timing and pace of introducing solid food to your baby. Here are eight rules to keep in mind when starting your baby on solids:
1. Don’t start before 4 months. Most babies aren’t ready for solid food before 4 months of age, and putting cereal in a bottle is not a good idea unless medically indicated and monitored by your pediatrician. Babies who begin solids early are at higher risk for food allergies and obesity later on.
2. Begin at 6 months. The ideal window of opportunity for starting solids is at about six months of age, but your baby will show you when he or she is ready, as each baby is different. Your baby will show greater interest in what you are eating, sit upright without props, and hold his or her head up on his own.
3. Start with an iron-rich food. Rather than focus on what type of food to start with, tailor your baby’s first food to the nutrient iron, which is in great demand at 6 months of age. Iron-fortified cereals (e.g., rice, barley, oat, and more), pureed beef or other meat, and certain pureed veggies are good options with which to start the process.
4. Keep it smooth, but not for too long. When babies are first learning to eat food, they begin with an uptick in texture from liquid breast milk or formula. Soon, pureed foods become the norm. However, your baby will quickly learn to advance to chewing at around 8–9 months of age. This is when you should bring more chopped table foods into his or her diet and gradually get away from pureed foods.
5. Work in self-feeding. Even though it can be a messy prospect, it’s important that your baby learns to eat. Your baby does this best by doing it herself, with your support as needed. Meltable, dissolvable foods like buttery crackers or teething biscuits allow your baby to start to learn to eat independently. Eventually, you will move to more self-feeding—even with a spoon! The goal is to allow your baby to regulate her own food consumption while learning the mechanics of how to eat.
6. Let nutrients rule. Nutrients should be the cornerstone of your decision-making process when choosing which food to start your baby on. Because babies have a tiny tummy and high nutrient needs, especially during the first two years of life, your goal is to get the nutrients in first, and worry about the sweets and fatty foods later. All nutrients are important, but the key nutrients are iron, calcium, vitamin D, and DHA.
7. Variety is the name of the game. The learning curve is steep during this early phase of infant feeding, but your goal is to introduce as much variety within food groups as possible. Why? Your baby will get more nutrients, quickly get used to different flavors, and possibly be less picky later. This honeymoon phase of eating, where your baby likes almost everything you offer, won’t last forever, so make it work for you and your child!
8. Ready? Advance! Past feeding advice has encouraged parents to wait 3-5 days before advancing to the next food or flavor. This advice wasn’t based on research but on notions around preventing food allergies. More recent research has indicated that waiting or even avoiding certain foods does not reduce the incidence or occurrence of food allergies. So if your baby is doing okay with new foods for a couple of days (1-3 days), then go ahead and offer the next new food.
- Start offering your baby solids on time — at about 6 months — and according to your baby’s signs of readiness (sits upright without props or assistance, is interested in food, can hold his head up, for example).
- Move along with a new food every 1-3 days if your baby shows good tolerance (no rashes, hives, diarrhea, vomiting, or other signs of intolerance).
- Important nutrients like iron should govern your decisions about first foods.