Introducing solid food is an exciting milestone for your baby and you. But it may also bring up a host of questions and uncertainties. Perhaps a relative thinks you should start feeding cereal at four months because that’s what the recommendation was when she raised her children. Maybe you’re anxious to start solids to help your child sleep through the night. Or maybe you’re just wondering what food to start with and how much to give. For many moms, the whole feeding thing can become very stressful.
Fortunately, it’s not as difficult as you may think. A lot of it is just relying on your own motherly intuition about when your baby is ready for solid food. Here are a few guidelines to help you get started.
When to Start Solids
Breastmilk or iron-fortified infant formula provides ample nourishment for the first six to nine months of your child’s life (breastmilk for up to one year). So, there’s no rush to add anything else. In fact, starting solid foods before six months, especially if allergies run in your family, increases the chance of an infant developing food allergies.1 At around six months, a baby’s digestive system has the necessary enzymes and antibodies to handle solid foods. But that doesn’t mean you have to start right at six months. Every child develops at a different pace. Rather than looking at the calendar, watch your baby for physical signs of readiness. Your infant should be able to sit upright and pick up food with his hands. He must also have lost the tongue-thrust reflex which causes him to automatically push the food right back out of his mouth. When your child is ready for solids, he will become noticeably interested in what you’re eating. He may even try to grab food off your plate. Also, don’t start solids for the sole purpose of wanting your child to sleep through the night. Babies wake for comfort as well as hunger and just because your baby is full, doesn’t mean he will sleep.
How to Start Solids
The first tastes of solid food are mainly to help your child become accustomed to the texture, not to replace breastfeeding—so small servings are best. Offer a small amount of food on a baby spoon. Stop when she turns away or closes her mouth. One or two tablespoons of food is plenty for those first feedings. It’s also wise to feed solids between regular feedings, rather than just before or after breastfeeding. Never put baby food in a bottle. The unfamiliar texture may cause choking.
Each new food you introduce should be offered alone (or with a food already introduced), so if there’s a sensitivity or allergy, you will recognize it. Wait three to five days before introducing the next food. Allergic reactions may include bloating, gassiness, diarrhea, rash around mouth or anus, or runny nose not associated with a cold. Do not introduce a new food if your infant is sick. You will not know if reactions are from her illness or the food.
What Foods to Start With
The best first foods are low in protein and easy to digest. Rice cereal is a common choice because it’s unlikely to cause allergic reactions. Other good cereal choices are millet and quinoa (available at natural foods stores) which are good sources of iron, as well as other vitamins and minerals. Fruits like bananas, apples, pears, avocado and vegetables such as green beans, winter squash, sweet potatoes are also excellent first foods.
For the first year, you’ll want to avoid acidic foods like citrus, strawberries, and tomatoes; cow’s milk; high nitrate vegetables like spinach and nonorganic carrots; egg whites; chocolate; and nuts as they are highly allergenic. It’s also a good idea to avoid foods with sugar, caffeine, chemical additives, and salt as they can be detrimental to your babies health. In addition, raw honey should never be given to an infant under one year.
Is Organic Necessary?
Infants are especially vulnerable to the effects of pesticides. Children experience rapid growth in a short period of time, and their brain and immune systems are immature. Although The Food Quality Protection Act requires pesticide levels to be safe for children and infants, a study done by the Environmental Working Group found that many commercial grown fruits (including apples, grapes, peaches, pears, and strawberries) exceeded this level and that commercial baby foods contained unsafe levels of carcinogenic and neurotoxic pesticides. 2 In addition, commercially grown soybeans, and some grains, fruits, and vegetables are genetically modified. Products containing genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) are not required to divulge that information on their labels. You must buy organic to ensure your food is GMO-free. Organic food is becoming increasingly available. Check your natural food store, farmers’ market, and supermarket.
Homemade versus Storebought
Although the baby food manufacturers don’t want you to know it, you really don’t need to feed your infant special food from boxes and jars. Babies can eat fresh, natural, unprocessed foods just like anyone else. Homemade baby food is nutritious, inexpensive, and easy to make. You don’t even need special equipment. Apples, peaches, and pears can be stewed and pureed in your blender or food processor. Winter squash, sweet potatoes, green beans, zucchini can be steamed until soft and pureed with a little water. Bananas and avocados are simple to prepare. Just mash the ripe fruit with a fork until smooth. Commercial baby food is convenient but food is often diluted with water and starchy fillers. The paper-thin flakes of rice cereal hardly resemble food at all. By starting your children on processed foods, you are training their tastebuds to think that this is what food should taste like. It’s no surprise that kids these days seem to prefer processed foods to fresh when that was their first food experience.
Making Homemade Babyfood
For a busy new mother, making a whole separate meal for your baby can seem overwhelming. But guess what – you don’t have to. Homemade whole grain infant cereal (recipe follows) makes a great breakfast for the rest of the family too. The steamed vegetables you’re having for dinner can be pureed in your blender or food processor for baby food. Or to make things really easy, get a little manual baby food grinder and just mash up whatever the rest of the family is eating right at the table. For convience, you can cook up a batch of vegetables, fruits, beans, and/or grains when you have time. Puree them in your blender or food processor, and freeze in ice cube trays. Then you’ll have a prepared meal for your baby whenever you need it.
It’s a common myth that infants need iron supplementation. If you are breastfeeding your child and were not anemic during pregnancy, your child is likely getting enough iron. Though breastmilk is low in iron, the iron is very well absorbed. Infant cereal manufacturers play up the fact that their products are iron-fortified, but the type of iron they add is not absorbed well by the body.
Your best bet is to serve whole grains like millet and quinoa that are naturally high in iron. To fortify your infant’s food further, you can add some dulse flakes or granulated kelp. (You can find them at your natural foods store in the Asian or macrobiotic section.) These sea vegetables are concentrated sources of minerals, including iron. As your infant becomes comfortable with solid foods around 9 months, you can add iron-rich legumes like lentils or adzuki beans to further enrich her diet.
Following are some recipes to help you get started. As you can see, these are recipes that your baby can eat and the rest of the family can enjoy as well.
Whole Grain Infant Cereal
Brown rice, millet, and quinoa are the least allergenic grains making them good choices for infant cereal. Millet and quinoa are good sources of iron. To fortify cereal further, add a pinch of dulse flakes or granulated kelp to the cooked cereal.
In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast 1 to 2 cups organic brown rice, millet, or quinoa (or a combination) for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat when grains begin to pop and give off a nutty aroma. (Lightly toasting grains makes them more digestible and prevents the cereal from become gluey when cooked.) Cool grains completely and store in a covered jar.
To prepare cereal:
Grind desired amount of toasted grain (about 2 or 3 tablespoons for an infant) to fine powder in a blender or grinder. A coffee grinder gets a particularly fine texture. In a saucepan, whisk together 1 part cereal powder and 6 parts water. Bring to a boil, and simmer uncovered for 30 to 40 minutes (stirring occasionally), or until soft and smooth. Add extra water if necessary.
Note: The rest of the family can enjoy this cereal too. Use 1 part cereal to 4 parts water. Cook 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
The whole family will enjoy this as a side dish at dinner or sauce for pancakes or French toast. Go ahead and use more fruit to double or triple the recipe. The water measurement may not need to be doubled or tripled, however. Start with less water and add more if you need it.
1 pear, peeled and diced
1 apple, peeled and diced
1/2 cup water
Place fruit and water in pan. Cover and simmer over low heat until soft. Add more water if necessary to keep fruit from scorching. Puree or mash.
Makes about 2 cups
Note: Freeze Pear-Applesauce in ice-cube trays. When firm, remove to freezer bag or container. Cubes can be stored in freezer for several months and will thaw quickly when needed.
Avocados are an excellent first food for babies. They are easy to digest and contain lots of good fats to nourish your child’s brain and nervous system. Plus, they don’t cause constipation like grains or bananas might. Best of all, they’re simple to prepare. Mash up what you need for your baby and then use the rest on sandwiches or salad for the rest of the family.
Mash the flesh of a ripe avocado with a fork. Add a little breastmilk or water to thin it if necessary.
L. Businco, G. Bruno, P.B. Giampietro, and M. Ferrara, “Is Prevention of Food Allergy Worthwhile?” Journal of Investigative Allergies and Clinical Immunology, 3, no. 5 (1993): 231-236.
Richard Wiles, Kert Davies, and Christopher Campbell, “Overexposed: Organophosphate Insecticides in Children’s Food,” Environmental Working Group/The Tides Center, January 1998.
For more information:
The Baby Book (Revised and Updated Edition), by William Sears, M.D., and Martha Sears, R.N. Little Brown, 2003.
Feeding The Whole Family by Cynthia Lair. Moon Smile Press, 1997.
Natural Family Living by Peggy O’Mara with Jane McConnell. Pocket Books, 2000.
Simply Natural Baby Food by Cathe Olson. GOCO Publishing, 2003.