If you’ve ever gotten into a heated debate about parenting techniques (hasn’t everyone?), you know there’s rarely one “right” answer, as much as we might like there to be. What works for one family often doesn’t work for another. But there are some things that should be pretty standard, right? Like… when to give your baby food? Well, not really.
Although The American Academy of Pediatrics’ general guidelines recommend starting solids at 6 months old, the chief concerns about babies eating solid foods include allergies, possible digestive issues and choking hazards, which is why it’s totally acceptable to be nervous about experimenting. That said, it doesn’t have to be a wormhole of parental anxiety. In addition to talking to your pediatrician, who really is the expert here, there are some simple advisory tips that can make your decision clearer.
But really: Start with your pediatrician, says Yale-trained pediatrician Dr. Douglas C. Curtiss. Here’s the other advice he has to offer along with that of Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica.
Watch for signs of readiness
Curtiss says the most common signs of solid readiness include a child holding their head up and showing interest in food when parents are eating — opening the mouth when food is brought near. Your little guy or gal should also be able to move food to the back of the throat with their tongue — younger, less mature babies tend to thrust the tongue forward rather than swallow, Curtiss explains.
Fisher agrees that “a good soft sign that babies are ready to start solids is watching the parents when they eat and seeming curious or moving their mouth.” This doesn’t necessarily happen at 6 months, though. “Babies are ready to start solid foods usually between 4 and 6 months of age,” Fisher adds. “They should have reached three major milestones in order to be ready to start: age 4 months, weight 12 pounds, good head control… If a parent tries solids and the baby gags or seems uninterested, they should wait a couple of weeks and then try again.”
It’s go time: Experimenting with Baby’s first foods
Here’s one of the most common old wives’ tales that we urge you not fall for. Some parents swear by giving a young baby who does not meet the qualifications for solid foods a rice cereal bottle to “fill them up” or “help them sleep through the night.” This is a terrible idea for two reasons: It poses a serious choking hazard for a newborn and can also destroy a developing digestive tract.
If your child meets the criteria listed by Curtiss and Fisher above and has the approval of their pediatrician, you can move along to the next stage of feeding. “Usually, the first food to be introduced is a single grain cereal, such as rice, mixed with breast milk until it is the consistency of pudding and fed on the spoon,” Curtiss explains. But you can also start with a vegetable such as sweet potato or avocado. Fruits are also a popular choice for little babes developing their taste buds for the first time — and they’re easy to mash.
“The order in which the foods are introduced does not matter,” Fisher says. “The most important factor when introducing solids is to try one food once a day for three to five days to ensure there is no bad reaction (which may include a rash, vomiting or diarrhea).”
Curtiss agrees: “There are no studies that say one order is better than others. Some parents say that babies should be given vegetables before fruits so that they don’t reject the vegetables, but there really are no studies to prove this.” In the case of a reaction, Curtiss recommends stopping any new food and trying it again in a few weeks to determine if it was the cause of the symptoms.
“Generally, we start with one meal per day — breakfast or dinner, whichever the parent prefers,” Curtiss says. “Though if a parent starts with breakfast, we generally recommend not to do it the very first feeding in the morning. When a baby first wakes, she may be too hungry to try to figure out solids. Better to give her what she is good at (nursing) and then give solids at the second meal.”
What to feed your baby month by month
Remember: The most important thing before starting solids is getting your pediatrician’s approval.
A version of this article was originally published in March 2014.