So it’s time to start introducing your baby to solid food. By now, you and your baby have learned all about nappy changing, playing, sleeping (or not sleeping), bathing and fitting tiny limbs into tiny clothes.
Introducing family foods, sometimes called ‘solids’, ‘complementary feeding’ or ‘first foods’, to your baby is another learning process you and your baby will embark on.
Starting family foods doesn’t need to be stressful. Follow these simple tips for introducing food to your baby.
Introducing Solids: Why Babies Need Them
As babies get older, they start to need solid food to get enough iron and other essential nutrients for growth and development.
For about the first six months of life, babies use iron stored in their bodies from when they were in the womb.
They also get some iron from breastmilk and infant formula. But babies’ iron stores go down as they grow. And by around six months, they can’t get the iron they need from breastmilk or infant formula alone.
Introducing solids is also essential for helping babies learn to eat, giving them the experience of new tastes and textures from a range of foods.
It develops their teeth and jaws, and it builds other skills that they’ll need later for language development.
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When Should I Introduce Solid Foods to My Baby?
Your baby only needs breast milk or infant formula for the first six months.
At around six months old, most babies – whether they are breast or formula-fed – need more iron and other nutrients, such as zinc and protein.
A baby’s iron stores, which build up while they’re in the uterus, become low by six months. Their body also demands extra kilojoules and nutrient-dense food.
The current recommendation is to introduce solids at around six months but not before four months.
Each baby is an individual and will show signs of readiness for solid foods at different times. However, all babies benefit from having solid foods by seven months of age.
Babies also need solid foods and breast milk or formula to satisfy their hunger and meet their different growing needs.
Signs That It’s Time for Introducing Solids
Your baby’s individual development and behaviour will guide you when you’re trying to work out when to start introducing solids.
Signs your baby is ready for solids to include when your baby:
- has good head and neck control and can sit upright when supported
- shows an interest in food – for example, by looking at what’s on your plate
- reaches out for your food
- opens their mouth when you offer them food on a spoon.
Most babies start to show these signs around six months, but the symptoms happen at different times.
It’s not recommended to introduce solids before four months.
If your baby is nearing seven months of age and hasn’t started solids, you might like to get some advice from your child and family health nurse or GP.
Getting the Timing Right When Introducing Solids
When you’re first introducing solids, it’s a good idea to offer solids when you and your baby are both happy and relaxed.
Your baby is also more likely to try solids after a feed of breastmilk or formula.
When babies are starving, they want the breastmilk or formula that they know satisfies their hunger.
They’ll still have space in their tummies for new foods after they’ve had a feed of breastmilk or formula. As time passes, you’ll learn when your baby is hungry or full, not interested or tired.
Signs of hunger include your baby:
- getting excited when they see you getting their food ready
- leaning towards you while they’re sitting in the highchair
- opening their mouth as you’re about to feed them.
Signs your baby is no longer interested include:
- turning their head away
- losing interest or getting distracted
- pushing the spoon away
- clamping their mouth shut.
Food Types When Introducing Solids
All new foods are exciting for your baby – there’s no need to cook ‘special’ foods.
You can also introduce solids in any order, as long as you include iron-rich foods and the food is the right texture.
Iron-rich foods include:
- iron-fortified infant cereal
- minced meat, poultry and fish
- cooked tofu and legumes
- mashed, boiled egg (don’t give raw or runny egg).
To these iron-rich foods, you can add other healthy foods like:
- vegetables – for example, cooked potato, carrot or green vegetables like broccoli
- fruit – for example, banana, apple, melon or avocado
- grains – for example, oats, bread, rice and pasta
- dairy foods – for example, yoghurt and full-fat cheese.
You can mix first foods – there’s no need to introduce just one food at a time. And if you offer your baby a variety of foods, the baby can try lots of new tastes and get a range of nutrients.
Why Can’t I Give My Baby Solid Foods Before 6 Months?
Babies need to be developmentally ready to eat solid foods. Learning how to move food from the front of the tongue to the back of the mouth then swallow is a skill that needs practice.
Until 4 to 6 months of age, babies still have a ‘tongue extrusion reflex’ – this means they push food out of their mouth with their tongue.
Giving solids before 4 to 6 months can be a choking risk. Until they’re old enough, babies only know how to suck and swallow milk, not how to move more solid textures to the back of their mouth to be destroyed.
Giving solids before your baby is ready can also mean they fill up on solids and won’t drink the milk they need to grow and thrive.
How to Start Introducing Solids?
Solid foods can be introduced in any order as long as they are iron-rich and the food is the right texture. Look for signs that your baby’s ready for solids.
There is no clear recommendation about the best time of day to offer first solids.
But it can be helpful to give your baby solids after a milk feed, mid-morning, so if they’re unsettled, it’s less likely to impact their night-time sleep.
If you find your baby loves solid foods so much that they’re cutting back on their breastfeeds or bottle feeds, reduce the number of solids, you’re offering.
Milk is still an essential source of nutrition for the first 9 to 12 months of life.
Follow Your Baby’s Cues
Your baby will give you signs when they are ready to start eating food. It’s time to start introducing foods when:
- your baby has good head and neck control and can sit upright when supported by you or furniture
- your baby shows an interest in food when you are eating it: looking at your plate when you are eating or reaching for your food
- your baby opens their mouth when you offer them food on a spoon.
Every baby is different and develops at its rate. Babies need only breast milk or formula until they are around six months of age.
It is then recommended to introduce foods to meet your baby’s increased nutritional and developmental needs.
Most babies will start showing signs that they are ready to eat foods at around six months. Food should not be introduced to your baby before they are four months old.
Don’t Force It
Introducing new foods will go best when you and your baby are both relaxed and happy. Your baby will be more receptive to trying fresh foods when they’re not hungry, so try giving them some food after breastfeeding or formula.
Remember that this is a new learning process for your baby. If they begin to get grizzly or refuse to eat one day, don’t force them. Just try again the next day or when they are happy and relaxed.
Be prepared for the mess when your baby is learning to eat food: it is natural for them to use their hands and fingers. Mealtime will become less messy over time.
A baby feeds herself spaghetti, making a mess on her face and hands. Getting messy is part of learning to eat for babies; luckily, it’s pretty cute, too!
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Texture Is Key
Introducing food helps your baby learn how to eat. It gives them experience with new tastes and textures, helps their teeth and jaws to develop, and teaches them how to chew.
They will also practise skills that they will later use for language development.
The texture is important when first introducing foods. Because your baby is new to eating, start with pureed foods easy to move in their mouth and swallow.
Next, move on to mashed foods, then minced and chopped foods, over the following months.
You can also give them ‘finger foods’ to hold in their hands, like pieces of cooked vegetables or bread crusts.
Your baby must learn to chew food by moving from soft foods to foods with a lumpy texture and finger foods so by the time they are around 12 months of age; they can eat a wide variety of nutritious, family foods.
Focus on Iron First
Babies receive iron from their mothers during the third trimester of pregnancy.
Your baby is born with iron stored in their body, which helps them grow and develop; iron is essential for healthy brain development.
As babies grow older, their stored iron levels deplete. They can’t get enough iron from breast milk or formula alone at around six months of age, so babies need to get iron and other nutrients essential for their growing bodies by eating different foods.
When beginning to feed your baby foods, start with iron-rich foods like iron-fortified infant rice cereal, mashed or pureed meats, mashed beans or lentils.
Think Family Foods
As long as they are nutritious and the right texture, it doesn’t matter what your baby’s first foods are.
After baby cereals and purees, move on to mashed foods and finger foods. Try offering a variety of foods from different food groups.
Home-cooked family meals are acceptable for your baby, as long as they are nutritious and you’ve made the texture suitable. You can try:
- mashed vegetables
- mashed cooked eggs (not raw or runny)
- cooked fish
- minced or pureed meat
- mashed beans and lentils
- smooth nut pastes
- bread crusts or toast
- or dairy foods like yoghurt or cheese.
Start Small and Work With Their Appetite
Your baby doesn’t need to eat a lot of food when starting. At first, start with about 1-2 teaspoons of food, then increase the amount according to their appetite.
Babies should eat around three times a day by the time they are 12 months of age and continue to be fed breast milk or formula.
Breastmilk and Infant Formula While Introducing Solids
Keep breastfeeding or using infant formula until at least 12 months, as well as introducing solids.
If you’re not sure whether your baby is getting the right amount of milk once they start solids, the baby’s behaviour will tell you.
For example, if your baby has been eating plenty of solids and isn’t finishing or is refusing milk, they might be ready for less frequent, but more extensive milk feeds each day.
If your baby isn’t interested in solids, they might be too full from milk feeds. This means it might be time to reduce milk feeds.
By around nine months, babies have generally developed enough chewing and swallowing skills to move from having milk before solids to having milk after solids.
Once your baby has reached six months, you can start to offer baby cooled, boiled water in a cup at mealtimes or at other times during the day.
This is so your baby can practise drinking from a cup, but the baby still doesn’t need fluids other than breastmilk or formula at this age.
Once your baby has reached 12 months, you can offer fresh tap water without boiling it.
Foods and drinks to avoid while introducing solids
There are some foods to avoid until your baby is a certain age:
- honey until 12 months – this is to prevent the risk of infant botulism
- raw or runny eggs and foods containing raw eggs like home-made mayonnaise until 12 months – bacteria in raw eggs can be harmful to babies
- reduced-fat dairy until two years
- whole nuts and similar hard foods until three years – these are choking hazards.
There are some drinks to avoid until your baby is a certain age:
- pasteurised full-fat cow’s milk as a main drink until 12 months
- soy milk, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk until two years (you can give fortified soy products before two years old)
- rice, oat, almond or coconut milk until two years old, unless you’ve consulted with your GP or child and family health nurse
- unpasteurised milk of all types, tea, coffee or sugar-sweetened drinks at all ages
- Fruit juice – this should be limited at all ages (fruit has the nutrients baby needs).
What Are the Best Foods and Textures to Start With?
Offer your baby healthy, nutritious foods which will support their growth and development. When they first start on solid foods, they won’t need much.
One to 2 teaspoons is plenty until they learn what’s involved in coordinating their mouth to open, chew and swallow.
Start by offering your baby pureed foods that have a smooth and easy-to-swallow texture.
Even though your baby won’t have teeth to chew and grind their food, they will still use their gums to ‘chew’.
As they get older, they can eat foods with more texture. Chewing also helps with jaw and speech development.
You can try feeding your baby:
- iron-fortified cereals
- pureed or minced red or white meat, including fish
- Cooked vegetables. Aim for white, orange, green and yellow vegetables in their diet each day.
- fruit, either cooked or mashed
- cooked and mashed egg
- dairy foods — for example, unsweetened yoghurt and full-fat cheese
- whole-grain bread, cereal and pasta
As your baby grows, transition them from purees to mashed foods with lumps and textures. You can also serve minced or chopped food, then ‘finger foods’.
These are foods that are cut into small pieces which babies can pick up and eat themselves.
How Important Is Variety?
Aim for variety when it comes to your baby’s foods. Colour, texture and taste are all essential characteristics of first foods.
Where possible, cook and prepare your baby’s foods, so you know what’s in them.
Aim for fresh fruits and vegetables, cooked with a minimum of water until they are soft enough to chew. Freeze small containers or ice-cube trays containing freshly cooked meals.
Most babies show some hesitation when offered new foods and textures.
It’s worth reoffering foods a few times until they show interest, or it’s clear they’re not keen and would prefer something else.
Share suitable food from your plate and get into the habit of offering your different baby tastes.
Avoid adding salt or strong-tasting additives or spices to your baby’s food. Their taste buds are susceptible and can detect even the most subtle flavours. By around 12 months old, most babies should be eating mostly the same food as the rest of the family.
Choking Risks for Babies
It is essential for staff and carers to be alert regarding the risk of babies choking.
Babies are still mastering feeding skills and have no or few teeth, no molars (back teeth) for chewing more complex foods and a smaller trachea (windpipe), which can become more easily blocked at this age.
It is essential that babies sit to eat and that they are supervised while eating.
It is common for young children to ‘gag’, coughing or spitting while learning to eat.
This is different to choking and is not a cause for concern. However, blocking that prevents breathing is a medical emergency.
To reduce the risk of choking:
- Supervise babies whenever they are feeding.
- Avoid putting babies in a cot or bed with a bottle.
- Never prop a bottle up for a baby.
- Make sure babies are developmentally ready to eat before offering solids.
- Ensure that babies are awake and alert when fed.
- Never force a child to eat.
- Offer foods that are a suitable texture, starting with smooth and soft foods and then progressing to a wider variety of tastes and textures.
- Grate, cook or mash hard fruits and vegetables, such as apples or carrots.
- Never give babies pieces of hard, raw fruits and vegetables, nuts, popcorn or other hard foods.
Special Feeding Needs
Disabilities, early illnesses and invasive procedures that may affect feeding will impact the age at which solids should be introduced.
Additionally, a baby’s acceptance of solids and progress toward increasing the variety of foods may be slower.
Working closely with parents is particularly important in these situations. Finding out about any specific plans they may have developed with specialists or other health professionals is critical.
Getting additional information and advice from a family’s doctor or an Accredited Practising Dietitian may be helpful.
Introducing solids is discussed and decided collaboratively with parents, considering the baby’s signs of readiness and any special needs the child has.
Suitable solid foods are introduced from around six months of age, if appropriate.
Choking risks for babies are minimised through supervision – babies are never left unattended with a bottle and always offered foods of the appropriate texture.
Staff or carers and parents are reminded that the progression from breastfeeding or formula to a variety of foods is a positive experience for children and is likely to influence long term eating patterns.
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