Feeding Your Baby

Let your baby lead the way to solid foods

Feeding your baby real solid food after six months of breast milk or formula is an exciting time, for you and for him. Before you dive into this big transition though, there are some questions you'll want to ask yourself.

1. Is my baby actually ready for food, or is this my idea?

Some babies are grabbing at mom's food by five months. Others are completely disinterested when you offer them solid food at nine months. There is no rush on this. Babies who are breastfed are getting the perfect food and don't actually need solid food until the end of the first year or later. Discuss this with your pediatrician, but don't be concerned if your baby shows little interest in solid food. Recent research shows that introducing solid foods earlier than 17 weeks may make food allergies more likely.

Besides, when parents pressure kids to eat, it erodes their natural self-regulation and may cause later weight-management issues. It's good to get clear right from the start that your child is in charge of how much food she takes into her body. Your job is just to make sure that what she's offered is healthy. 

2. What do I want my baby taking into his body?

This is worth some thought, and every family will make different decisions, regarding questions like whether organic food is worth the cost, and how long you want to wait before introducing sweets.

3. How can I manage introducing new foods...

...to reduce the risk that my baby will develop food allergies by eating certain foods too early? New research has changed pediatricians' recommendations on this, so I recommend you talk to your pediatrician. But I do see kids with food allergies that are affecting their behavior, so I take allergies seriously. Even if you're not sure they run in your family, you'll want to do a little research on how best to introduce foods so that you notice any allergies.

4. What's the best first food?

It's traditional in the USA for baby to begin with iron-fortified rice cereal. But rice cereal is low in protein and high in carbs, and some scientists point out that humans don't develop the enzymes to properly digest grains until they are around nine months old. That's one reason for the emerging trend to begin with more nutritious foods, like avocado or peas. Babies don't need much iron, and they can get it from natural sources. 

5. How much time do I want to put into food preparation?

Is making my own baby food worth it? You'll be interested to know that the longer you wait to introduce solid foods, the more your baby can handle "real" food instead of purees. That means you minimize the need for baby foods. But even a little food grinder will help you convert the family dinner into a baby-friendly puree if your six month old is grabbing for your spoon. There may be no reason to buy much baby food in jars.

6. What are my goals for my baby's eating?

This may sound like a strange question -- obviously, you want your child to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and to enjoy her food. But there are some other essential goals that you'll want to think about.

To reduce the risk of power struggles and other issues around food, you want your baby to take charge of her own eating as soon as possible.

That may well conflict with another goal most of us have: a clean kitchen, dining room, high chair, and baby! It may even conflict with an image you have of yourself as a nurturing parent spooning food into her chick's open mouth.

But the latest research shows that the sooner babies assume control of their eating, the better. I'm not saying your six month old is ready to handle her own spoon immediately. I'm just suggesting that you see the time period of spoon-feeding as very limited, and instead emphasize foods she can feed herself. This gives your child control of her food and removes the element of pressure. She's exploring food for herself rather than having it foisted on her.

Why not strips or soft chunks of sweet potato, cheese, banana, avocado? Or thawed frozen peas or cheerios to practice her pincer grip. There's no law that babies have to eat food that requires a spoon. 

If you do feed her cereal or other food that requires a spoon, she will almost certainly want to grab it and feed herself. Give her a spoon of her own and let her go at it, even if you keep holding a spoon and feeding her as well. Over time, your baby will start to prefer to feed herself, probably first with hands, and then with a spoon.

In other words, for most babies you won't ever need to follow the conventional path of convincing your baby to open her mouth and so you can spoon in pureed baby food. When she's ready, she'll be grabbing food off your plate. Presuming that what you're eating is healthy, that's perfect. At first, she'll just mouth and suck on that piece of egg, but eventually she'll gum and chew and swallow. Won't she choke? Not likely. Obviously, you won't be letting her start with nuts or carrots or chicken. And of course you would never leave her alone to eat. But since she's in charge of how much she puts in her mouth, and sitting upright, and practicing over time, she's actually less likely to choke.

Please note that if you have a baby who is super sensitive to texture, he might only like pureed foods. Every baby is unique. Go ahead and give him purees if he prefers them. But be sure to offer some foods with each meal that he can pick up and eat himself, like blueberries, so he gradually learns to accept textures in his food.

In the beginning, babies use their whole fist to grab food, but his motivation to eat will help him develop a pincer grasp, which is an important developmental step. Do you have a child who hates to get his hands messy? Cut up small pieces of dryer food such as bread, hard boiled egg, and vegetables.

Your little one really wants to learn to feed himself. If you get out of the way, he will. And the mess? You'll be happy to hear that babies who play with their food are more advanced verbally. (Crazy, I know, but it has to do with being able to explore the food as you learn the name for it.) He'll get neater with practice, I guarantee.

7. How does beginning to eat "real" food impact my baby's current food intake, which is nursing or formula?

Your baby will wean from breast or bottle eventually, and all other food intake leads inexorably toward that weaning. The practice of "Baby-Led Weaning" or "Baby-Led Solids" is simply letting little ones decide for themselves when they're ready to explore "eating" and what foods they want to try. That also means they're naturally "weaning" themselves over time.

Research shows that babies who are allowed to feed themselves, rather than being fed with a spoon, are more likely to try and enjoy a range of foods. They're also happier and more willing to sit with the family at dinner. That's what I call a healthy foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating!

References

"Baby knows best? The impact of weaning style on food preferences and body mass index in early childhood in a case-controlled sample" BMJ Open. February 6, 2012. http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/2/1/e000298

Timing of Baby’s First Solids May Affect Allergy Risk from the New York Times.


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