In a few weeks, you’ll likely be sent home from your baby’s 6-month well-baby checkup with a blessing from your pediatrician to go forth and “start solids.” Yay, fun!
You’ll go home and realize that you have NO idea what the hell you’re doing. I mean, shouldn’t the doctor give you an instruction manual — or something!?
The bad news is … there is no official manual for this endeavor. The good news is, it doesn’t really matter! There are many different ways to skin this cat.
First, some background info:
When to Start
- Breastfed babies: 6 months (give or take)
- Formula-fed babies: 5 to 6 months (or, as soon as readiness cues are given, read below)
- *Since formula-fed babies are not routinely exposed to a variety of flavors and smells, they are encouraged to start solids a little earlier in order to maximize flavor exposure during the first-year-window-of-food-acceptance-opportunity-thing (more below).
These are general rules of thumb; of course, there are always exceptions. If you started early or want to wait a little longer (but not too long), it’s all good. Pediatricians are all over the board on this as well – some will recommend starting solids as soon as four months, especially the old-timers.
You can start on the earlier end (ie, closer to 4 months) if your baby is showing signs of readiness. These include:
- Sitting up/holding her head up (do you eat lying down? Me neither.)
- Reaching for and showing interest in your food
- Being able to pick up a small item with her pointer finger and thumb and put it in her mouth
While your own mother may have started feeding you on rice cereal as early as six weeks (“and you turned out just fine!”), there’s good reason to wait as long as you have:
Maturity of the digestive system
Between four and seven months, small spaces in a baby’s intestinal lining close completely and the digestive tract becomes more selective about what gets through. Before the intestinal lining properly closes, it’s possible (in theory) for potentially allergenic food molecules to enter the bloodstream. Once food molecules are in the blood, the immune system may produce antibodies to that food, creating a [preventable] food allergy.
*If you’re interested, there are opposing views on this issue: one camp believes in the notion of a “virgin gut,” while the other doesn’t. If you can stomach the nitty-gritty scientific details on “intestinal permeability,” check out this page to learn more about the “pro” argument and this blog post to learn more about the “nay” argument. **Either way, your baby’s stomach isn’t ready for solid foods before 4-6 months, so don’t stress out too much about this. Go with your gut. (Get it?)
The tongue-thrust reflex helps prevent babies from choking. This reflex causes the tongue to push food out of the mouth, rather than back into the mouth. From 4-6 months, this reflex gradually diminishes, giving that spoonful of sweet potatoes a fighting chance of making it through.
Months 6-12, at a glance
In the early months, the concept of starting solids really just means augmenting your baby’s regular milk or formula with food. Over the course of this half year, he will naturally decrease his milk/formula intake as he begins to receive sufficient caloric intake from solid foods. Only toward the end of his first year will you notice him eating in patterns more similar to yours (eating three regular meals a day, getting milk/formula as needed).
For simplicity’s sake, let’s divide this into four not-so-distinct phases:
The Exploratory Phase: the first month (Month 6, or whenever you start[ed])
This is a fun time of exploring new flavors, textures, and smells. We’re also getting used to sitting in a high chair and getting acquainted with bowls, bibs, and other appurtenances. Don’t expect your baby to get any significant calories from food during this phase; this first month is really just an intro. For the most part, he will continue to consume the same amount of milk or formula as before (sorry, boobs, you’re not off the hook yet). *You’ll receive an email about this phase just before the 6-month mark. <— Are you subscribed to our email newsletter “Crib Notes?” If not, subscribe here.
Flavor Immersion: 7-9 months
During this phase, we’ll move to a regular, 3x-a-day meal schedule as baby starts consuming larger quantities of food. We’re focusing on variety and adoption of healthy foods by repetition (more on this later). We’ll also introduce a sippy cup during this phase.
Finger Feeding: 10-12 months
Baby should begin self-feeding during this phase, if he hasn’t already. In this phase, we focus on hand-held foods that can be self-administered. You can begin to introduce utensils if you think your babe is ready. He should be eating a wide variety of foods by this time. Breastfeeding (or bottle feeding) will occur less frequently.
Regular Eating: 12 months +
By 12 months, your baby should be eating three regular meals a day, just like you, and snacking as needed. By this point, you’ll want him to be completely weaned off the bottle, if he’s not already. Nursing moms will be breastfeeding less frequently, as baby is deriving more and more calories from food.
Choosing Your Approach: Baby Food vs. Baby Led Weaning
Traditionally, most Americans start by feeding baby food, which is food that’s been pureed into mush: sweet potatoes, bananas, rice cereal, etc. You can easily make these foods at home or you can buy them at the store. Store-bought baby foods are usually classified into three main categories: Stage 1 is a thin puree, Stage 2 is a little thicker, and Stage 3 usually contains chunks-of-stuff. Babies are typically spoon-fed for several months until they are able to feed themselves.
Another approach that’s becoming more popular as of late is called “Baby Led Weaning” (BLW, for short). Don’t let the fancy name confuse you. In a nutshell, baby-led weaning simply means that you bypass the spoon-feeding-of-purees stage and allow your baby to self-feed finger foods as his motor skills allow him.
There are pros and cons to each.
The big advantage to feeding baby food is that you can puree just about anything [with your Super Bassomatic 2150, of course]. Meaning… you have leftover carrots, hamburger, and broccoli from dinner? Great, throw it in the blender annnnd… done. You can expose your baby to a wider variety of foods using purees. In fact, you can whip up anything you can dream up. With BLW, you have to feed foods that your baby can actually grab and chew (gum?).
On the flipside, the advantage to BLW is that you don’t have to worry about buying, making, (or containing, storing, freezing…) baby food (though you may be steaming a lot of fruits and veggies), since you are simply feeding her normal table food. This will indeed simplify your life. You also don’t have to spoon-feed your baby at every meal, which can be frustrating, messy, and time consuming. Also, BLW babies fine-tune their motor skills a bit earlier, with many learning to use utensils by the 12-month mark. (By the way, scientists are just starting to weigh these approaches against one another, and so far they’ve determined pretty much the same thing as any open-minded, observant parent…both have pros and cons. There is no “superior method,” so just do what works best for you and your family.)
Case in point: Lucie, my first born, was very happy to be spoon-fed. She didn’t show much interest in self-feeding for the first few months. Alice, on the other hand, wouldn’t let me NEAR her with a spoon of puree. She ONLY wanted to feed herself, so we followed the BLW approach for her and have never looked back.
Point being: Your baby will probably be the one who decides how they want to eat. Your best bet is to follow her lead. Try a little of both. And by the way, it’s not an all-or-nothing thing, meaning – you don’t have to rigidly subscribe to one approach or the other. I always see women debating and defending their approach-of-choice on the baby boards. I mean, who really cares? Just follow the whatever works (“WW”) method and don’t get too hung up on it.
The Importance of Months 6-12
Your Job: Maximizing the “Try Anything” Window
There is a natural window of opportunity that exists during infancy; let’s call it the “try anything” window. It goes something like this: during infancy (before the second year of life), babies are naturally willing to taste and adopt new flavors, textures, and smells. Studies have shown that the earlier (and more often) a baby is exposed to a new food, the more likely he is to accept it in the long-term.
However, once toddlerhood begins, the “neophobic response” kicks in and kids suddenly become averse to new foods. In fact, even a slight variation of a familiar food (real apples vs. applesauce, for example) can result in rejection. Slam. This aversion peaks around 18 months, and during this time your child may even reject foods she previously accepted (crrrap, and you were doing so good!). It alwaaaays happens right around the time you are bragging to all your friends about how much your baby looooves vegetables – ha!
Why is this? Evolution, maybe: think back to our ancestors living in the woods. It would be quite dangerous, from an evolutionary perspective, for a toddling child to walk around the forest sampling new things (poisonous mushrooms, berries, etc.). Thus, the aversion to new flavors in toddlerhood may be a survival mechanism [who knows].
The bottom line is that you need to take full advantage of the first year to expose your child to as many flavors and textures as possible before this window closes. The mistake a lot of parents make is to introduce a small handful of easy (and usually bland) foods in the first year. When toddlerhood comes around and parents decide to expand their palate a bit, the new foods are promptly rejected without a second look.
“Children introduced to lumpy solids after the age of 9 months [as opposed to before] were reported as having more feeding problems at 7 years (e.g., food refusal and food ‘fussiness’)” (Coulthard, Harris, Emmett & Northstone, 2009).
On this matter, if you snooze, you lose. If you want to reduce picky-eater-ness in your child, throw as many flavors and textures at them during the first year as you can. More on this later.
That’s a little preview of what’s to come. Get ready for some funnnn!
It’s time to enter the exploratory phase of eating real food – hollerrrr! If you’ve ever had your jaw wired shut, you understand JUST how boring a liquid-only diet can be. This is an exciting new chapter in baby’s life.
Remember, there aren’t any rules for doing this (ok, well, just a few). The goal this month is for baby to explore new flavors, textures, and smells. We’re also getting used to sitting in a high chair and getting acquainted with bowls, bibs, and spoons (or, if you’re going the non-puree route, just a bib).
Don’t expect your baby to get any significant calories from food during the first month or so. At this point, you are simply augmenting his or her normal milk intake with some food. That’s all. Normal intake of breastmilk or formula should still be providing the majority of baby’s nutrition throughout the first year.
Speaking of which, what is “normal” right now?
Milk/Formula Intake at 6 Months
At 6 months of age, the average baby drinks about 24-32 oz of milk or formula per day. Breastfed babies tend to drink less than formula-fed babies (up to 50% less, in fact), so if your breastfed baby is drinking far less than a friend’s formula-fed baby, don’t panic; breastmilk is metabolized more efficiently, so less of it is required.
“Let your baby set the pace, but if he continues to consistently take more than 32 ounces or less than 20 ounces, run it by your pediatrician.”
— Dr. Alan Greene
Your baby’s first taste of food should be a fun event. Get your camera out so you can memorialize the occasion.
Choose a date and time when your baby is well rested and you are feeling sane as well; weekends are a good time to start so everyone can be there, but again, it sooo doesn’t matter. Do it whenever you’re feeling motivated. Start about an hour or more after a normal milk/formula feed so that he’s a little hungry, but not so hungry he’s eating his arm.
We’re just aiming for a couple of spoonfuls here, folks, so keep your expectations low. If he’s totally not into it and you’re forcing it, I suggest you scrub the mission and try again in another week. The last thing you want is for this to turn into a stress-inducing endeavor.
For the first week or two, just feed him once a day or so until you get your routine down (more frequently is totally fine too if you’re up for it).
Introducing New Foods
The old-school approach is to offer the same food (and only that food) for 3-4 days in a row before introducing a new one. The aim with this was to easily identify food allergies and sensitivities, but new research shows that this approach is unnecessarily conservative. Plus, these early foods are not ones that babies are likely to be allergic to anyway.
Studies have shown, however, that babies learn to like new flavors more quickly when they are introduced in rapid succession. Think of speed dating, but with baby food. This also allows you to offer more foods if one or more foods are rejected (as they will be!). Bottom line: There’s no need to have a waiting period before offering new foods.
Repeated Exposure is Critical
As a general rule of thumb, babies will readily accept sweet foods, like fruits, without any prodding. On the other hand, some vegetables, especially the bitter ones, will require repeated exposure before baby will accept them. Sometimes, up to 10 times! (Actually, 10 is sort of a magic number when it comes to trying foods enough to like them.) This might seem unusual, but it’s actually how we evolved to learn what’s safe to eat.
It goes like this: you feed him broccoli, he spits it out, you feed him broccoli, he spits it out… rinse and repeat seven more times until finally he says, “Broccoli, YUM! Gimme some more.” Bingo, he’s now in the broccoli club. This is totally normal, so don’t give up! Most people don’t know this (after all, it’s not exactly intuitive), so they quit vegetables forever and get stuck in a rut of feeding only starches and sweets. (Side note: adults can learn to like foods, too, and the same “rules” apply — repeated exposure (~10-12x) = likeability.)
Again, once babies hit toddlerhood, neophobia sets in and they become less and less keen on trying new foods, so take advantage of the next 6-10 months to expand their palates as much as possible. The more foods your child is willing to eat (or try), the easier your life is going to be. (Point being: You know you’re really on the right track when taking your toddler out for sushi — raw fish and all — is fair game. Win-win-win.)
There are a few different paths you can take to kick this off: the cereal route, the baby food route, or the BLW (baby-led weaning) route.
Over the last 35 years or so, iron-fortified rice cereal has become the de facto “first food” recommended for most American babies, mainly because it’s non-allergenic and easily digestible. Ask any older pediatrician, read any book on starting solids, ask most moms, “What is the food my baby should eat first?” and the answer is inevitably, “rice cereal, mixed with some breast milk or formula.” Blah. Unfortunately, it’s become ingrained in our baby-feeding culture.
When we were given the go-ahead to start solids for Lucie, our sweet, Santa-like 70-something-year-old pediatrician said to start her on rice cereal. Sweet! So I loaded her into the stroller, headed down to the grocery store and bought a huge box of (don’t laugh…) Rice Krispies. JEAH. [How was I supposed to know?]
I ran into a mommy friend on my walk home and told her of our impending adventure. “No, noooooo, not Rice Krispies!” she said, trying to stifle her laughter, “you have to get the special baby rice cereal, it’s all… ground up and stuff.” I was all, “Yahhhh, I knew that. Tssss. I was just… heading home to make Rice Krispie treats” [and you’re taking advice from me?? This is scary. Just sayin ;-)].
When considering baby cereal, know this: there’s a debate going on around white rice cereal.
Here’s the deal: white rice cereal is neither rice nor cereal; it’s actually highly-processed white rice flour with some vitamins and minerals added back in. White rice flour is extremely highly-glycemic. In fact, the conversion of white rice flour to glucose begins while the cereal is still in the baby’s mouth — and the “cereal” is nearly 100% glucose (sugar) by the time it is absorbed in the intestines. And although most baby cereals have added iron, the iron is very poorly absorbed. Only about 7% of the iron intake is incorporated into red blood cells.
Pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene, author of Feeding Baby Green, likens it to feeding your baby spoonfuls of white sugar.
Ok, so what? Who doesn’t love sugar?
Keep in mind that the imprinting of early tastes is very strong and will influence what a baby will come to accept later in childhood and adulthood. Exposure to a certain food earlier in infancy (5 or 6 months) has a MUCH stronger effect than exposure at a later age (10 months, for example). By offering rice cereal as a child’s first food (which then inevitably becomes a staple of the first-year diet, trust me on this one), you may be setting the stage for high-glycemic, refined carbohydrates to become the mainstay of your kiddo’s diet.
Think about it: if all you had ever eaten in your life was ice cream… and then someone introduced you to broccoli, do you think it would work? At best, it would be an uphill battle. While nobody knows for sure if the use of white rice cereal is the culprit of the obesity epidemic, it seems logical that it probably doesn’t help, especially if you have a family history of diabetes and/or obesity.
In conclusion (ahem), if you really want to go the cereal route, consider choosing a whole grain rice – or even oatmeal cereal. The whole grain cereals are usually found riiiight next to the white rice version (and believe me, one box of this stuff will last a freaking eternity, so don’t go out buying a 36-pack from Costco, k? You could feed an army of babies). (For a little more on the whole cereal situation, read this Q&A).
If you choose to start with baby cereal (of any kind), you will simply mix the cereal with breast milk or formula in a small bowl and spoon-feed in very small spoonfuls to start. You may need to play with the consistency and temperature to find a sweet spot. Don’t be surprised if the first few spoonfuls are… refunded, if you will. It takes a while for a baby to get used to the concept of mouthing and swallowing non-liquids.
The Constipation Proclamation
Anecdotally, I will also tell you that iron-fortified foods can cause really gnarly constipation in little babes. My friend Lauren cautioned me about this after an emergency trip to the pediatrician where her daughter was treated for anal fissures from constipation. Anal fissures, y’all. I don’t even need to know what that is to know I don’t want it.
Combine iron-fortified stuff with other constipating foods like banana, applesauce, rice, bread, pasta, iron-fortified formula, etc., and you (your baby, rather) may be in a real pickle. All I’m saying is… go easy on the iron supplementation until you can calibrate what your baby can digestively tolerate. Also, please don’t get stuck in the rut where you have to give Miralax to your baby every day because he’s chronically constipated. If you have to do that, something is seriously wrong with his diet. Just sayin’.
Baby Food Purees
Contrary to what most people think, you definitely do not have to start your baby off on cereal (I may have mentioned this already ;-)).
“There is no good reason not to introduce meats, vegetables, and fruits as the first complementary foods.”
— Dr. Frank R. Greer, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition
A plain puree of a single root vegetable mixed with your baby’s normal milk/formula is an excellent first food. I recommend sweet potatoes because BABIES LOVE SWEET POTATOES, y’all. They just do.
For the first couple of weeks, I suggest introducing some or all of the following foods (again, just for simplicity’s sake; there are MANY others you can feed them as well):
- Sweet potatoes or yams
- Ripe banana
Because they are sweet(ish) like breast milk and formula (but not too sweet), these foods have a very high success rate as first foods. Once your baby decides that eating is cool, we can quickly move onto more challenging foods.
Store Bought vs. Homemade
Yes, homemade food offers many advantages over store-bought baby food. First, it’s way cheaper to make your own. In fact, you can make and freeze a large quantity of food for a very small amount of money. Second, if you make it at home, you know exactly what’s going in it – and what’s not. You can also get creative and mix different flavors together for the sake of variety.
Having said all that (ahem), I will be the first to admit that the vast majority of moms will use at least some store-bought baby food simply for convenience. Unless you are the Martha Stewart type, lots of moms are willing to pay a little more for the convenience and the portable packaging (the little glass jar). It happens.
If you are gung ho about making your baby’s food yourself, by all means you should do it. Making your own baby food can be very fun and rewarding (and cheap!). However, if you don’t have the time, then buy it at the market and don’t think twice about it. Your baby will be happy either way. Pinky swear.
Selecting Commercial Baby Food
When shopping for baby food, avoid food with added sugar and modified food starch, which are just empty calories. Organic is always better if you can afford it. If you want to take the middle ground, just buy organic for the “dirty dozen,” which are foods that typically contain the highest levels of pesticides: celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, cherries, kale/collard greens, potatoes, and imported grapes. Oh, and you don’t have to worry much about salt because it’s no longer added to commercial baby food.
My favorite brand of baby food is Earth’s Best, which is organic and widely available. At the Safeway near my house you can get 9 for $10 (and I live in Cost-ifornia, so hopefully yours is cheaper). Not too shabby.
Again, letting baby feed himself from the get-go (or once he’s mastered picking up small objects) is another great option. I suggest you at least try some finger foods to see how he reacts. Some babies will stare at the food on their tray, not knowing what to do with it, while others will start munching their way to happiness and never look back. Yes, BLW can make life much easier!
In general, the same first food ideas apply to BLW, although some of them aren’t practical because they can’t easily be self-administered at this young age. Ideally, you want to cut finger foods into matchstick shapes so baby has a handle to grab (motor skills at this age? Not so good). Foods like broccoli are perfectly shaped because they can easily grab the stalk and eat the floret.
When making finger foods for baby, a steamer is your best friend. You can steam the food as little or as much as you need to achieve the desired softness (trust me: I could turn a carrot into a limp noodle!). You can use your regular steamer pot (or steamer basket) on your stove top, or you can use an electric steamer, like this one.
Remember, you can throw multiple foods into the steamer at the same time – there’s no need to cook them separately. For Alice, I threw all her food for the day in the steamer each morning and did it all at once (below).
Ideas for BLW first foods for month 1:
Vegetables and fruits [cut into matchsticks, then steamed]:
- Sweet potatoes
Ripe fruit, cut into matchstick shapes:
- Slices of avocado (not too soft because it will fall apart)
You can cut slippery fruits with a crinkle cutter or even coat them in cereal to make them easier to hold.
- Toast or bread “fingers”
- Balls or “fingers” of sticky rice (ahem, VERY sticky) – I suggest using “sushi rice”
Be careful not to let breads, rice, and pastas become the mainstay of your baby’s diet. Trrrust me, it’s easy to do, even with the best intentions.
Bonus tip: large sticks of cold, raw cucumber are great for teething pain. Cold, (whole) raw carrots work well too. (Read more about teething remedies.)
You can offer strips of chicken or beef that baby can gnaw on (a great source of iron!). The book Baby-Led Weaning even suggests baby can eat (gnaw? suck?) meat right off the bone [it’s very primitive, I love it].
Remember, finger foods don’t have to be made specifically for a baby. Any food you’re eating can be shared, provided it isn’t too high in salt, sugar, or other additives, like MSG. Babies should eat no more than 1 g of salt per day (this is only about ⅕ of a teaspoon, FYI — a tiny amount), as their immature kidneys can’t process it very well. Outside of that, the sky’s the limit!
What About Choking?
Choking is not typically a concern when baby is feeding himself, but do be sure to properly cut up spherical or round-shaped chokey foods, like grapes, plum tomatoes, large carrots, bananas, etc. [Seriously, don’t forget to cut bananas length-wise first. I’ve heard of a lot of babies choking on bananas.] To learn more about what babies really do choke on, click here.
We know that about 80% of a newborn’s iron stores are accumulated during the 3rd trimester of pregnancy, so preemies are at a higher risk for iron deficiency. The iron stores for full-term babies, on the other hand, may begin to dwindle sometime between 6 and 9 months — the studies are conflicting.
So do babies need iron supplementation after 6 months of age, as commonly thought? Ask ten different doctors and you’ll get ten different answers.
Some studies indicate that iron supplementation is necessary for breastfed babies, while others show that iron supplementation reduces the amount of iron absorbed from breast milk. While breast milk is not high in iron, the iron from it is extremely well-absorbed. Hence, some studies suggest that iron from breast milk is enough on its own. Formula-fed babies, in theory, are getting plenty of iron from their formula, although it’s poorly absorbed.
So wait, what?
Because the research is so conflicting, concerns about your baby’s iron needs should be directed to your pediatrician. [Translation: I have no idea and I don’t think doctors do either.]
(Although, the official AAP policy for breastfed infants is to recommend iron supplementation at about 4 months, until dietary iron is adequate.)
It’s safe to say that naturally iron-rich foods are always a good idea.
Short List of No-Nos
There is a very short list of foods you shouldn’t give your baby prior to the 12-month mark. The no-no’s are as follows:
- Cow’s milk
- Foods high in salt, sugar, and/or other additives
The Lowdown on Food Allergies
Food allergies are on the rise for some unknown reason, but it’s not as scary as you’ve [perhaps] been led to believe. (The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI) reports that 6 percent of children age 0-2 have a food allergy and 9 percent of children 3-5 years old have a food allergy.)
The good news is that about 80 percent of the children allergic to eggs, milk, wheat, and soy outgrow the condition by the time they’re five. Thank goodness for that, because children’s food allergies can be scary and extremely burdensome for the whole family.
The vast majority of food allergies are triggered by one of “the big eight”: milk, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and wheat.
While many pediatricians and allergists still recommend waiting to introduce these foods for 1-3 years, especially for those from “high risk” allergy families, recent studies have shown that waiting to introduce these foods to babies has NOT been proven to make any difference in preventing allergies to these foods. In fact, the most up-to-date research shows just the opposite: early introduction of the most common “allergy foods” probably decreases a child’s chances of developing food allergies. Go figure.
“There is no current convincing evidence that delaying their introduction beyond this period [4-6 months] has a significant protective effect on the development of atopic disease [e.g., allergies, eczema, etc.]… this includes delaying the introduction of foods that are considered to be highly allergic, such as fish, eggs, and foods containing peanut protein.”
Since I’m a huge fan of science, it seems to me that waiting to introduce these foods is pointless. Plus, you’re missing out on some great foods to give to your baby in the meantime. But again, I’m no doctor: please discuss food allergy concerns and timing of food introduction with your pediatrician or allergist.
A note in closing:
As new parents, we always want to know the absolute “best” way of doing everything, but try not to overthink it. Cuz with Baby #2 (or so?), the Starting Solids Manual looks something like this:
“Feed them whatever, kthanks.”
As my friend Laura says, “Baby #3 is lucky if I even remember to feed her.” Whichever route you take will be fine, just have fun with it. 😉