One of the topics mothers receive the most conflicting advice about is how to introduce solids to their babies. The truth is that there have been rather drastic changes in how things are done over the last few years.
Below are some highlights of the do’s and don’ts of introducing your little one to the wonderful world of food.
A word of caution
Remember that there are little ones with special needs when it comes to feeding, so speak to your doctor if your baby:
- Was born prematurely
- Has any medical conditions or disabilities
- Has severe eczema or any diagnosed allergies.
When to introduce solids?
The World Health Organization still recommends exclusive breast milk feeding until 6 months, and this is probably the safest time to start.
But some other guidelines and research suggests introducing specifically allergenic foods from 4 months onwards. It is reckoned that introducing allergens at an earlier age reduces the chance of the body later developing an allergy. For this reason, many doctors will suggest starting solids at 4 months. The studies on this topic don’t all give the same results, and it’s still fairly controversial.
Ultimately your baby should let you know that he is ready. You can do more harm if you start too early, than if you start a little bit too late. And nowhere does any guideline support giving a baby food before 4 months of age. Chewing his hands is not a sign of hunger; it is a normal developmental milestone and has nothing to do with them needing to eat.
Signs your baby is ready to start solids
The following signs may show that your baby is ready to start eating solid foods. It is important to make sure these signs are in place as babies can choke if they are not ready for swallowing. Feeding them too early can lead to problems like constipation and food intolerances.
- Baby must be able to keep her head completely upright and steady on her own.
- She must be able to sit upright in an infant feeding chair and therefore be able to swallow well. Some doctors even feel that baby should sit independently before introducing them to food.
- She must lose the “extrusion reflex”, so instead of using her tongue to push food out of her mouth, she moves food to the back of her mouth for swallowing.
- She must show interest in food and must be keen to eat.
If you use the above signs for readiness, you’ll notice very few babies are truly ready to start eating before 5 months of age at the earliest.
There is a worldwide trend to eat food as close as possible to its natural state. Bottled baby food does not offer the same quality of nutrients that fresh foods provide, and may also contain unhealthy ingredients like sugar, salt, modified maize starch and stabilisers. It is always better to prepare your own baby food.
This may seem like an overwhelming task, but it’s actually easy. Vegetables can be steamed and pureed, while most fruits can be pureed directly. You only need to steam hard fruits like apple and pear. Make your own porridges like oats, maize or maltabella porridge. These are less refined and healthier than boxed cereals.
Pick organic and free range produce to limit baby’s exposure to pesticides, chemicals and growth hormones.
Start with all fruits and veggies
We used to teach mothers to start with yellow veggies and porridge, and for quite a long time that was going to be all baby ate.
The new goal is to introduce your baby to all the veggies and fruits from the onset, even those not traditionally seen as baby foods like beans, spinach and broccoli. You can add in a new flavour every 2-3 days. Add in 1 new food at a time, so that you can know the cause if baby develops any reactions. However, the chances of a reaction to veggies and fruit are much smaller than to cereal.
The more exposure babies have to different tastes early on, the better they may eat in the long run.
In fact, save cereal for much later
Because it is more likely to cause sensitivities and reactions, cereals are no longer considered the best food to start with. Once baby is eating a variety of fresh fruits and veggies you can add cereal.
Never add cereal to your baby’s bottle as this increases the calorie content and will lead to overfeeding and weight problems.
For many years it was believed that babies don’t need protein before they’re a year old. We now know that from 6 months of age, babies need to get iron from food sources. And the best source of iron is animal protein. Babies also need protein to grow and develop. You can start blending in small amounts of meat, fish or chicken with baby’s vegetables from 6 months of age. They don’t need to eat large quantities, but they do need to ingest some and to get used to it.
While babies around the world enjoy flavourful cuisine, western cultures feed babies plain, bland foods. There are many opinions and very little research on this topic. Adding some natural herbs and spices for culinary excitement will expand your baby’s palate and make feeding time more enjoyable. So, sprinkle some cinnamon over steamed apple, liven up mashed potato with some paprika and parsley and add mixed herbs to mince or lamb. Some little ones may even like mild, spicy foods.
Sugar, salt and artificial flavourings are unhealthy and can lead to poor eating habits and long-term health problems such as obesity and diabetes. These should be avoided until baby is at least a year old.
Don’t assume baby won’t like it
Babies sometimes love unconventional foods like olive paste. At the same time, don’t give up on a new food simply because baby didn’t eat it at the first try. You need to try a new food up to 10 times before you can accurately label it as a no-go.
Your baby doesn’t need a full set of teeth to chew
Babies can chew surprisingly well with their gums and the few teeth on board. As baby grows you need to slowly increase the texture of foods. From 9 months onwards, you can squish their food with a fork and cut it in very small pieces, instead of using a blender. Ideally, baby should eat finger foods from around 12 months of age.
Christine Klynhans is a nursing sister and South African Certified Lactation Consultant (SACLC). She currently works at Parentwood Baby and Family Wellness Centre in Pretoria as a well-baby clinic sister and antenatal teacher. She also has a breastfeeding practice and a Breast Pump Demo Centre. She is passionate about supporting parents on the journey of pregnancy, breastfeeding and the early childhood years. Learn more about Christine Klynhans.