So your little one is ready to start solids, how exciting! Now what? By the time your baby is 6-months old, there are some essential nutrients they need, that can only be met by food. Knowing what to feed them, to meet these needs, can be daunting and confusing and where I feel conventional starting solids guidelines fall short. So I wanted to share some information to help steer you in the direction of the most nourishing first foods to support your little ones growth and development.
How we approach mealtimes is really important, because the energy we bring to the table, sets the tone. Mealtimes should be a pleasant experience for your baby so they can develop a healthy relationship with food. So, approach this time with a sense of calm and without expectation – you and your baby and very connected, so your baby will be able to sense if mealtime is not a relaxed experience for you. And of course, be ready to embrace the mess!
Knowing and understanding the components of safe eating is crucial so that you’re able to stay calm and confident. I personally found undertaking a children’s first aid course incredibly beneficial when it came to starting solids with my little guy.
Between 6–12 months your baby actually requires more daily iron than an adult male! Iron is an essential nutrient required to make hemoglobin, a key component of red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout the body. Up until now, your baby has used the iron stored from birth to support their developmental needs. Because breast milk is a poor source of iron, and their stores are beginning to deplete, solid foods need to provide the iron they need to: reduce the risk of anemia and ensure proper weight gain, appetite and energy levels. Iron is essential for cognitive and behavioral development and the damage done from inadequate iron intake, is irreversible.
Only animal foods contain a form of iron called heme-iron, which is the most easily absorbed form of iron. Plant-based iron is called non-heme iron and is absorbed at a much lower rate. Foods that are “fortified” with iron contain a synthetic form of iron that is poorly absorbed and can cause constipation – this includes the typically recommended iron-fortified cereals, but I’ll talk more them shortly. Foods naturally rich in iron include: organic grass-fed liver, organic grass-fed red meat and chicken (the darker cuts like thigh), organic egg yolks, wild-caught salmon. Plant-based sources include: prunes, apricots, black strap molasses, beans & lentils and dark green leafy vegetables.
Zinc is essential for growth, learning and immune function. It’s involved in over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body, including digestion and contributes to the health of your baby’s intestinal lining, skin and cognitive development. Low levels of zinc can stunt growth and reduce appetite, as well as increase the likelihood of infections, eczema and allergies.
The body does not store zinc, so zinc-rich foods should be consumed daily from 6 months. The best sources include: organic grass-fed liver, organic grass-fed red meat and chicken, organic grass-fed eggs, oysters (canned are safer than fresh), organic dairy, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, lentils & chickpeas.
Calcium is essential for building strong bones and teeth and promoting proper nerve and muscle function and once your baby stops consuming as much breast milk or formula, their calcium needs increase.
While dairy is known to be a rich source of calcium, there are many non-dairy foods that can help your baby meet their calcium needs, like: tinned salmon with bones, leafy greens, sesame seeds, chia seeds, dried figs, oats, parsley, broccoli and artichoke. Once baby is 10 months old, unsweetened and unflavoured kefir and yogurt can be introduced in small amounts, along with white cheese like labneh, ricotta and cottage cheese – these will be lower in salt than yellow cheese.
Vitamin D –
Vitamin D is required for the proper development of bones and teeth. It’s also necessary to support immune function and strengthen the immune system – adequate vitamin D levels have been shown to reduce the instance of upper respiratory infections in children.
Vitamin D is made in the skin through exposure to the suns UVB rays, and can also be obtained through food. Vitamin D deficiency in children can lead to rickets and weak bones in adulthood. Boost your baby’s vitamins D with safe sun exposure and foods like: wild-caught oily fish (salmon, sardines and trout, organic grass-fed butter, cod liver oil, organic grass-fed egg yolks and organic grass-fed liver. If adequate vitamin D levels cannot be met through dietary intake and sun exposure – as may be the case in colder climates – supplementation may be required. Always seek the advice of a healthcare professional before giving any supplements to your baby.
Nourishing fats –
Breast milk is a source of nourishing fat – especially essential fatty acids (EFAs) and saturated fat – because a baby’s growth and development depends on this vital macronutrient. One of the first digestive enzymes baby’s produce is lipase, which, enables them to breakdown and absorb fats. The omega-3s, EPA & DHA, are necessary for the proper development of your baby’s brain – the brain and nervous system are predominately made up of fatty tissue and 80% of your baby’s brain growth will happen in the first 5-years.
Fat also increases the absorption of important fat-soluble vitamins A, E, D & K, and minerals such as calcium, magnesium and zinc. It helps protects major organs, stabilises blood sugar and keeps baby satiated for longer.
It’s essential that a baby’s diet is rich in fat, however not all fats are beneficial. Include nourishing fats often, like: ghee, grass-fed butter, wild-caught salmon, organic pastured eggs, organic yoghurt and kefir (if dairy is tolerated), avocado, coconut oil, nut & seed butters, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds and cod liver oil. Avoid industrial seed oils like: canola, corn, safflower and soybean, hydrogenated oils, trans fats and margarine.
Probiotics & Prebiotics –
Offering your baby probiotic and prebiotic-rich foods is one of the best things you can do for their health. Breast milk contains beneficial bacteria and prebiotics, but most foods that are commonly fed to babies starting solids lack both.
Probiotic-rich fermented foods, like: sauerkraut, coconut water kefir, milk kefir and yoghurt (if dairy is tolerated), help to aid digestion, support immunity, and actually increase the nutritional content of foods. We know that offering children a variety of foods helps to broaden their palates, but “sour” is an important flavour that isn’t usually given to little ones in western cultures. Traditionally fermented foods are a wonderful way to introduce sour flavours. Dip a spoon or finger in the juice of sauerkraut or other fermented vegetable and let baby taste it – even the juice has beneficial qualities.
Prebiotics are basically fibres that can’t be broken down in the small intestine, and end up in the large intestine, to fuel the growth and survival of all the microorganisms living in your baby’s gut. Prebiotic-rich foods include: chickpeas, lentils, beans, garlic, onion, asparagus, beetroot, peas, corn, cashews, pistachios, pomegranate, watermelon, peach, nectarine, oats, barley and rye.
HOW TO INTRODUCE FOODS
Slowly. Introduce a new food every 4-days. The reason why you want to spread out the introduction of foods is so you can monitor your baby for any adverse reactions. If you do notice a reaction, take that food out (you can try again at a later date) and wait 4-days before introducing another new food. It can be helpful to keep a journal of what you introduce and when.
WHAT FIRST FOODS TO INTRODUCE
When it comes to sourcing produce, we want to aim for as clean and chemical-free as possible. If you can afford to feed your child organic foods, just once in their life, do it for the first 2 years when they are most susceptible to the damaging effects of pesticides and chemicals. To make things more affordable, shop conventional produce using the Environmental Working Groups “Clean 15” list, as these fruits and vegetables will contain the least amount of pesticides. For conventional produce on the “Dirty Dozen” list, soak in water with a little apple cider vinegar for 15-minutes, then wash and dry to help remove some of the pesticide residue on the skin.
Favour animal products from organic and grass-fed sources and wild-caught fish, to ensure animal friendliness as well as maximum nutrition.
Offer vegetables first. Humans are naturally drawn to sweet flavors, and breast milk and formula are also both very sweet, so babies have an innate craving for sweet foods. Keep fruit to a minimum and avoid mixing fruit in to vegetable purees as this gives babies a false appreciation of the real taste of vegetables and will likely result in rejection down the track when you offer the unsweetened version.
6 – 9 MONTHS
- Liver (chicken liver has the mildest flavour)
- Red meat – beef, lamb & chicken (thigh/dark meat contains more iron)
- Egg yolk *
- Coconut milk & cream
- Coconut oil
- Avocado oil
- Cod liver oil
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Chia, hemp and flaxseeds seeds
- Cooked vegetables – sweet potato, pumpkin, zucchini, carrots, parsnip, cauliflower, broccoli, beetroot, peas
- Fruit – pear, apple, blueberries, apricot, watermelon, mango, peach
- Nut butters * (unsalted, no added oil)
- Seed butters (unsalted, no added oil)
- Bone broth – chicken & beef
- Sauerkraut brine (small amounts)
- Coconut water kefir (small amounts)
10 – 12 MONTHS
- Egg white *
- Lentils (soaked/soured)
- Beans (soaked/soured)
- Chickpeas (soaked/soured)
- Oats (soaked/soured)
- Buckwheat (soaked/soured)
- Millet (soaked/soured)
- Amaranth (soaked/soured)
- Teff (soaked/soured)
- Sesame seeds & tahini (hulled) *
- Shellfish *
- Herbs & spices
- Organic fermented soy * (tempeh)
- Vegetables – mushrooms, eggplant, potato, green beans, capsicum
- White fish
- Goats of sheep’s yogurt – unflavoured/unsweetened
- White cheese * – labneh, cottage cheese, ricotta
- Wheat * – spelt, rye, barley, sourdough
The Australian Society of Clinical Immunology & Allergy recommends that allergenic foods be introduced to babies, when they begin solids and before the age of 12 months (provided there is no family history of allergies).
Delaying the introduction of these foods does not help prevent food allergy in the future. In fact, some studies show that early and frequent exposures to these allergens – a few times a week – will actually decrease the risk of allergies. If a baby is breastfed, and mum also eats allergenic foods, then baby will be getting small exposure through her milk too. I talk more on how to introduce the top 9 allergens in Introducing Allergens To Babies.
WHY I DON’T RECOMMEND RICE CEREAL
Your baby will grow more rapidly in the first year of life than at any other time in their life! As a result, it’s critical that those first baby foods contain all the nutrients your baby needs, right now.
Unfortunately a lot of mothers groups, baby blogs, doctors and paediatricians still recommend iron-fortified rice cereal as the first food for babies.
Rice cereal is a refined grain that’s been stripped of all its nutrients – it’s really just sugar to your baby’s body. Rice cereals have been fortified with a synthetic form of iron that is poorly absorbed and commonly causes constipation. Not only are grains hard for your baby to digest – young babies are lacking the digestive enzymes needed to breakdown grains properly – but all grains contain phytic acid, an anti-nutrient which blocks the absorption of other essential growing nutrients like: iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium. This does not mean that gains can’t be part of a healthy balanced diet for your child, they absolutely can, when they are prepared properly (by soaking or sprouting) and when they are a little older.
There is a place for iron-fortified rice cereal in the diet of plant-based babies, or babies who don’t have regular access to iron-rich foods like meat.
FOODS TO AVOID BEFORE 12 MONTHS
- Honey, raw or pasteurized, may cause botulism.
- Although the scientific evidence is surprisingly weak that babies immature kidneys can’t handle salt, or that salt contributes to high blood pressure later in life (you can read more here), it is best to avoid excess salt. Foods that are high in salt are usually processed, like: ham, salami, haloumi, crackers, chips and biscuits and don’t hold nutritional value for your baby.
- Cows milk. Other dairy can be introduced earlier and I prefer starting with fermented forms like kefir or yogurt and favour goats or sheep’s milk versions as these will be easier for baby to digest.
- Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons and limes are very acidic and can cause nappy rash or rashes around baby’s mouth. If a reaction occurs, delay offering for a couple of weeks, then reintroduce and watch for reaction. No need to delay if there is no reaction.
- Tomatoes and strawberries, like citrus, can cause skin reactions.
- Whole nuts pose a choking hazard.
REOFFERING REJECTED FOODS
If your little one doesn’t like a certain food the first time you offer it, that doesn’t mean they never will. Babies can go through many phases of interest and disinterest when it comes to food – one day they like something and the next day they don’t. Research suggests it can between 10 – 60 exposures of a certain food for baby to accept it. Perseverance is the key! Don’t stress about it, don’t make a big deal about it, and don’t try to convince them to eat.
Repeat exposure (with no pressure) is the only way they’ll have a chance of growing to like something, because familiarity breeds acceptance. Try serving new or previously rejected foods alongside things they enjoy – sure, they’ll probably eat the foods they know and like first (it may be all they eat) but the likelihood that they’ll try the new foods increases exponentially each time.
If you’ve found yourself here and you’re unsure if your baby is quite ready to start solids, I talk more on the developmental signs of readiness to look out for in When Is My Baby Ready To Start Solids? Or if you’d like some more personalised support getting started, please reach out to me here, I’d love to help!