Helping your baby build healthy eating habits right for the start – when you introduce solid food – will benefit them for a lifetime. It’s kind of like taking out health insurance for them, if you like.
When, what and how we introduce solid food has the opportunity to nourish your babies developmental needs, create a positive relationship with food and broaden their palette. Plus, it’s so much easier to set babies up with healthy habits early on, than it is to try to break the habits of stubborn toddlers.
Starting solids can be equally as exciting as it is daunting for first-time parents, and with so much conflicting information out there, knowing where to start can be really confusing. As a mum and paediatric nutritionist, I’m pleased to share some of my personal and clinical experience here, alongside research-based information, that I hope helps you approach this milestone with a little more clarity and confidence (and an easy to clean high chair!). Everything is intended as general advice only, and does not replace the individual advice of your health care professional.
*Please note: I’ll be talking about breast milk or breastfeeding here for ease of conversation, but know that this also means bottle feeding, formula feeding or combination feeding.
WHEN TO START
Whilst we can often get caught up on the right ‘age’ to introduce solids, it’s more important to observe your babies developmental signs of readiness. Although your baby might start showing signs they are interested in food sooner, it is best to wait until they are 6-months to start solids – when they are developmentally, physically and digestively ready.
Current research shows that exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6-months, and then continued with the introduction of solids thereafter is important for nutrition, immune protection and a babies growth and development. This research is reflected in the guidelines from the World Health Organisation, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and the American Academy of Paediatrics. Unfortunately breastfeeding isn’t always an option for every mum and baby. The most important thing is that you feed your baby, whether by breast or bottle, and that you do what is right for the two of you.
The guidelines to introduce solids has been set at 6-months because this is when most babies would meet the developmental signs of readiness. However, some babies may reach them a bit earlier and some a bit later. If you have a 4 or 5-month old baby that you feel is starting to show some interest in solids, you can nurture this time by letting them sit with you at the table to watch and learn or offer them baby-safe spoons and bowls to play with so they feel a part of the experience.
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT TO WAIT
While your baby’s digestive system won’t be fully “grown up” until they are at least 2-years old, at around 6-months it will have matured and the lining of the gut wall will be stronger, offering them greater protection from illness and decreases the risk of food allergies, as a more mature digestive system breaks food down more efficiently.
There are a few other important things that happen around 6-months of age:
- Proper food digestion:
Before 6-months, babies lack the digestive enzymes required to breakdown food in to the nutrients that their body can use for growth, energy and biochemical processes. Before this age, they also lack sufficient beneficial bacteria in their gut required to properly digest fibre.
- Decreased risk of food allergies:
In the early months your baby has openings in their gut lining – a normal state called an “open gut” – this allows antibodies from mum’s milk to pass through the gut wall easily and in to babies bloodstream, where they can protect them. This means if solid food is introduced too early, while the gut is open, undigested foods could get in to the bloodstream and could increase the risk of food allergies. Food allergies arise when the immune system sees whole or partially digested food floating around, it views it as a foreign invader, and it attacks it. That particular foods identity is then put into the immune systems memory bank, so the next time that undigested food makes it in to the bloodstream, the immune system reacts and attacks it again.
- Nutritional needs increase:
By the age of 6-months, babies have some essential nutrient needs that must be met by solid food, like: iron, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, essential fatty acids, prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods – I talk more on these in First Foods For Babies. Their accelerated growth means their caloric intake needs are growing too and breast milk will no longer provide them with enough energy to sustain their rapidly growing little body.
- Protection against obesity:
When babies are a bit older they’ develop proper appetite control, which offers greater protection against future obesity.
SIGNS OF READINESS
There’s no magic age and weight a baby needs to be in order for them to start solids. Babies walk and talk at different times and so, just like other developmental milestones, their digestive system is ready for solid food at different times. It’s recommended to wait until your little one meets the developmental sign of readiness.
These observable milestones indicate when their intricate digestive system is ready for the introduction of solid foods:
- Can sit up well without support:
Good postural control greatly influences baby’s ability to coordinate feeding skills, like bringing food to mouth and chewing, as well as ensuring their airway is clear. The digestive system is made up of muscle, so when babies have enough core strength and good head and neck control to sit up unassisted, it’s a good indicator they’re mature enough to digest food.
- Have lost their tongue-thrust reflex:
The tongue-thrust is a natural reflex that happens when something unfamiliar is put in to baby’s mouth and they automatically push it out with their tongue – this protects them against choking. Waiting for this reflex to subside means they’re more ready and willing to chew food.
- Pincer grip:
The pincer grip is when babies begin to use their thumb and forefinger to pick up objects, rather than the palm of their hand. They won’t use it exclusively, but you might notice it when they’re playing with toys or picking something up off the floor.
- Eager to participate in mealtimes:
This is when they become more aware of what you’re eating and may even try and grab at it and try to put it in their mouth. But at this age, babies will put just about anything (and everything) in their mouth, so this sign should only be considered after the first 3 signs have been met.
- Can signal when they’ve had enough:
Just as important as watching for babies interest cues, is watching for their satiated/fullness cues. These cues can include turning their head away from food or a spoon being offered – I’ll talk more on these signs of fullness a bit later.
While it’s recommended to wait to start solids until your baby has met all of the developmental signs of readiness, for both nutritional and developmental reasons, you also don’t want to delay the introduction of solids for too long.
If your baby is around 7-months and hasn’t met all developmental signs of readiness, I would recommend seeing your pediatrician or health care provider. While this can definitely be considered normal and there’s no need to be alarmed, a health care professional can help rule out any other reasons for the delay.
FALSE SIGNS OF READINESS
The idea that your baby will sleep through the night, once they start eating solid food, simply isn’t true and is not a reason to start giving your baby solids before they are developmentally ready.
There are a few false signs of readiness that may also be misleading:
- Waking at night:
At around 4 to 6-months, babies are becoming more aware of the world around them. Because of this, their brains are more stimulated when they wake up, and they’re really just seeking comfort and reassurance from you.
- Frequent breastfeeding:
It’s easy to think that baby may not be satisfied with milk alone when they begin to feed more frequently. Babies do need more calories at around 4-6 months, but their desire to feed more is likely to be coming from the need for comfort, than out of hunger. At this age, they have a new awareness of the outside world, so they may also pull off the breast while nursing to look around. As the potentially overwhelming world opens up around them, nursing more makes them feel safe and secure.
- Size of baby:
Too often mum’s will hear that if their baby is too big, they need less milk and more solid food or if their baby is too small, milk is not enough to satisfy them and they need solid food. The size of your baby isn’t a direct sign of their developmental readiness and is not an indication to give them solid food before their digestive system is ready for it.
- Smacking lips:
Those little smacking lips might make you think they’re hungry and ready for solid food, but they’re actually just copying what they’ve seen you do when you eat. They’re just practicing that action, so there’s no need to offer them food as they smack their lips, before they are truly ready.
Every baby is different and will ‘ask for’ (or non-verbally request) more food at different ages. When solid food is initially introduced, servings will be tiny. Allow baby’s intake of breast milk to remain the same. Food introduction will increase the total calories baby consumes to meet their growing nutritional needs. As food intake slowly increases over time, breast milk consumption will naturally decrease and mother’s supply will adapt to the lessened demand. This exchange of breast milk for food should happen very gradually.
These recommendations on how often to offer food serve as a guide only. Take it slow, watch your baby’s cues and let them lead the way:
- 6 to 7-months – offer food 1x a day.
- 7 to 9-months – offer food 2x a day.
- 9 to 12-months – offer food 2-3x a day.
- 12-months + – aim to be offering offer food 3x meals and 2x snack a day. As always, watch for and be guided by, your baby’s cues.
This one is simple, let baby decide. All parents at some point will naturally worry if they’re feeding their baby enough food at each meal, but do let your baby be the guide as their appetite will naturally ebb and flow. Watch for their cues of satiation instead of trying to dictate how much they need to eat. Start with small amounts, just 1-2 tablespoons, and keep offering your baby food until they start showing signs of disinterest. Avoid trying to convince them to consume more than they’re inclined to, or sneak in a ‘few more spoonfuls’.
We’re all born with the innate knowledge of how much to eat but so many adults have lost touch with this and are no longer in tune with their hunger cues and fullness cues. When given the opportunity and presented with healthy options, babies know how much to eat and which foods they need to properly nourish themselves – that’s pretty amazing, right? So whether you’re starting with baby-led weaning or purees, or a combination of both, introduce solids with a ‘baby-led’ approach.
It can be helpful to change your thinking from “it’s time to feed the baby” to “it’s time to offer the baby food”. Your job as a parent is to offer healthy choices at regular intervals, but it’s up to baby to decide how much they eat. This is called the ‘Division of Responsibility in Feeding’ and it’s an evidence-based approach to feeding children that aims to allow parents to set boundaries through establishing mealtimes and what food is offered at each meal, but gives the child the chance to learn to trust their own hunger and fullness cues. When babies are given this power to decide, control issues and power struggles are less likely to develop, they’ll be more open to trying new things, and it can greatly reduce picky eating as a toddler.
RESPECTING SIGNS OF FULLNESS
When your baby starts showing signs of disinterest, this is when the meal should end. Without encouraging them to eat more, even if you feel they haven’t had enough – don’t worry, they won’t starve themselves. Babies are actually very in-tune with their hunger and satiety cues, respecting those helps them to listen to their body and create an intuitive relationship with food.
- Baby will close their mouth, turn their head from the spoon or show other signs of general disinterest.
With finger foods:
- Baby will go from tasting, eating and exploring food to playing with it, mashing or throwing it on the floor, being generally distracted or disinterested.
- Often their face will change from concentration (when eating) to mischievous (when playing).
Babies need focus to eat and may not eat much if they’re distracted. Having a mealtime routine like washing hands and sitting down to eat, and minimising stimulation by turning off TV/devices or loud music, allows them to focus on their food and remain in tune with their internal cues of fullness.
As with anything new, starting solids can take time, and it will take time for your baby to feel comfortable with the new sensations that go along with eating – the smell, taste and textures of different foods and the sensation of a spoon in their mouth. Don’t be put off by the grimaces or horrible faces that you may be thrown in the beginning.