My daughters are toddlers now, but I’ll never forget my reaction the first time someone asked me if I was excited to start them on solids: I almost cried. Up until that point, I was their only food source, and I liked that level of dependence. Plus, the closer we inched to the six-month-mark, the more I was reminded that time moves too quickly. Alas, the clock wasn’t going to slow down, and my girls were guaranteed to get hungrier. But when it came to starting babies on solids, I felt lost.
There are a lot of opinions on when, how, and what to feed babies who are starting solid foods. Give them vegetables first, lest you want to create a picky eater; purée their foods with an expensive blender; skip purées and give them the real stuff; avoid jarred food at all costs. Humans have been feeding their infant children for thousands of years. Could it be that difficult?
Well, if you were to compile all of the advice — and, let’s face it, old wives’ tales — from blogs, friends, and grandparents, maybe. But with the help of two pediatricians, and my ravenous six-month-olds, I learned that introducing solids to babies doesn’t have to be that daunting — just a bit messy.
When to start
“The general recommendation — and this is what the American Academy of Pediatrics says — is between four to six months of age. So there’s a range,” Dr. Katherine Williamson, a pediatrician at Mission Hospital and the president of the AAP Orange County chapter, tells SheKnows. “My recommendation on top of that is generally closer to six months of age, but, ultimately, when the baby is ready in that time frame.”
Williamson isn’t the only one to recommend waiting until the six-month mark; the AAP, World Health Organization, and UNICEF all suggest exclusive breastfeeding for the first half-year of a baby’s life while their digestive tracts are still developing. Breastfeeding has numerous benefits for babies, including protection against illness and diseases, weight regulation, and general nutrition. It’s great for parents, too, as it can help diminish risks of type-2 diabetes, breast and ovarian cancers, and hypertension.
However, that might not work for everyone (and that’s okay!). What’s most important, Williamson says, is that you talk to your pediatrician to determine what’s best for your family’s needs.
Watch for signs of readiness
Babies develop at their own rates, and there’s no need to rush them, Dr. Kim Schneider, a pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, tells SheKnows. Instead, she says babies will demonstrate a couple of vital signs to let you know, the first of which is that they’ve doubled their birth weights. “By that point, they’ve usually grown enough that they can take in a little extra solid food to maintain their weight gain, as they start needing more nutrition,” she says. Schneider adds that another critical indicator is that they can hold their heads up by themselves if they’re propped or seated in a high chair.
Perhaps one of the cutest signs that a baby is ready to chow down is her interest in what you’re eating. “Babies at that age are going to be watching their parents pretty consistently in everything that they do, but they are going to be especially interested in food… they’ll actually move their heads towards the food source,” Williamson says.
Of course, these signs don’t guarantee readiness. Schneider says parents should watch to see what babies do after you’ve fed them a small spoonful. If they push it out the first few times, don’t be discouraged, as that’s a natural reflex. “That has to go away over time, and they have to learn how to pull [food] off of the spoon,” she says. “But if they’re still consistently pushing it out, you might want to try again in a couple of weeks until they get the hang of pulling it in.”
Which brings us to another point: don’t force your baby to eat. Doing so could cause them to have an “oral aversion where they start refusing because it’s something that they control,” Schneider says. It’s more than okay to take a break and try again in a week. If the pattern continues, consult with your pediatrician.
Choose a method
Open wide and say ahh! When it comes to feeding your growing baby, there are two main camps: spoon-feeding purées or baby-led weaning. Purées have long been a favorite for parents because they’re relatively simple to make and store, and they’re easy for babies to digest. You can steam a variety of fruits, vegetables, and even proteins, toss ’em in the blender, and voilà! You’ve got yourself a small meal.
But in recent years, baby-led weaning, in which parents forgo spoons altogether in favor of easy-to-eat finger foods, has become a popular option. Whereas puréed meals help babies get accustomed to eating off of a spoon, baby-led weaning makes the experience more interactive. “I like the concept of baby-led weaning because I think, in general, it has that concept in mind that your baby is taking an active role in feeding themselves,” Williamson says. “They’re touching the food, they’re having a relationship with the food. Their brain knows that their hand is touching the food, can feel that texture. I love that.”
But which is best for you?
The excellent news, Williamson and Schneider say, is that both options are great. “This is a philosophy I adhere to with food whether they’re babies or toddlers or older: Follow the baby’s cue,” Williamson says. “If the baby doesn’t like purées, go for the chunky. If the baby doesn’t like the chunky, go for the purée.” Every baby is different, she adds, and there’s no one-size-fits-all option. Heck, it’s fine to mix it up and sometimes purée while offering chunky finger foods other times.
That said, there are some things to be cautious of if you’re going to go the baby-led weaning route. First and foremost, you must ensure that all of the food is easy for babies to gum to avoid choking hazards, Schneider says. So, don’t start with whole grapes, large chunks of cheese, hard veggies, or things like hot dogs. She also says, “a good time to try [baby-led weaning] is when they’re sitting up by themselves and starting to bring their hands and putting things in their mouths… That’s usually somewhere between seven and nine months.”
Which foods to start with
You’ve chosen a method. Now, it’s onto the good stuff — bring on the grub!
A lot of parents start with rice cereal or oatmeal, which are easily digestible and less likely to pose an allergen risk, Williamson says. You can add some formula or breast milk to the cereal to make it creamy, and then spoon-feed about a tablespoon to start. But one thing you should never do is fill up a bottle with thick cereal and feed it to babies unattended; doing so could pose a severe choking hazard.
And while baby cereals are popular choices, you don’t have to start there, Schneider adds. Go ahead and jump into veggies and fruits — and, no, you don’t have to worry about the order in which you introduce them. “The theory is that if you do fruits first, they won’t eat vegetables. That’s probably not true,” Scheider says, adding that there’s no scientific evidence to support claims that babies won’t eat veggies if you start them on something sweeter, like pears. “I think the bigger issue is more introducing one thing at a time, so you know if they have any problems with it.”
Once you’ve let your baby try a food a few times in a row and determined it’s not an allergen, you’re okay to start mixing it with other foods you’ve tried. Peas and carrots, mango and avocado, bananas and strawberries — the possibilities are endless!
About those potential allergens: Williamson recommends introducing things like eggs and peanut butter earlier in your baby’s food journey. “Always check with your doctor if there are concerns about food allergies in the family,” she says. “But as a general rule, offering those highly allergenic foods earlier is potentially going to lessen the likelihood of having allergic reactions later on.”
A safe way to introduce these foods is using SpoonfulONE. The brand uses science-based nutrition and portions 30mg of protein into each serving so that the meal is big enough to increase antibody production.
“The immune cells in the stomach begin to recognize the foods,” the brand states on its website. “When eaten on an ongoing basis, SpoonfulONE teaches the immune system that the 16 foods are just foods, not allergens.”
The brand offers mix-ins, puffs or crackers that cover everything from peanuts and milk to cod and walnuts. You can rest assured knowing that every product is tested three times for heavy metals, protein integrity, harmful bacteria, and foodborne risks like salmonella.
Opt for a Grow Kit to get a few months’ worth of mix-ins and puffs for your baby. Each one clearly indicates how old your kiddo should be to try out the new foods.
Once you’re ready to dive into finger foods, you can introduce well-cooked pasta, scrambled eggs, minced meat, mushed-up beans, and fish. Just make sure that they’re easy to gum to prevent choking.
Which foods to avoid
While Williamson says, “the new rule is that there are essentially no rules when it comes to food,” she warns there is one caveat: Do not feed babies any amount of honey, due to the risk of infant botulism. “The only thing that babies absolutely can’t have is honey. That’s what I usually tell parents, and I reiterate a couple of times,” she adds. “Literally, they can have everything else.”
It’s also smart to hold off on “anything that is going to require more intentional chewing,” like popcorn or uncooked apples, until they’re around one year old, Schneider adds.
Getting into a rhythm
In the beginning, “food is just an additive” and “should never replace a meal of breast milk or formula,” Williamson says. At this stage, you’re solely introducing babies to new textures and tastes and are not relying on food to provide the bulk (or, any, really) of their caloric intake.
“The general rule of thumb is: by six months of age, babies are trying food; it’s just a supplementation to their diet,” she continues. “By nine months of age, give or take, half of what they’re taking in should be food, and half should be milk, whether it’s formula or breast milk. And by a year of age, the majority of what they take in is food, and milk, at that point, is a supplement.”
Start with a tablespoon a day and gradually increase the amount over time. You’ll want to consult with your pediatrician to determine what’s best for your baby’s individual needs.
So, should you cut out breast milk by the time they’re a year old? Not necessarily. The AAP and WHO say you can breastfeed up to two years or more if you want, and Schneider says you don’t have to limit how much your child drinks, so long as they are eating, too. “The main thing at that stage is that we want them to have a variety of foods that they’re eating because you’re not going to breastfeed them forever,” she adds. “Try to make sure they’re getting a well-balanced diet.”
But if you’re ready to transition to cow’s milk (or non-dairy milk), Schneider recommends “no more than 16 to 24 ounces in a day.”
About those dirty diapers
Now onto everyone’s favorite topic: poop! You’ve dealt with those sticky newborn poops, Googled every baby poop color under the sun, and have changed countless blowouts. Now get ready for the next stage.
“When babies start eating solid foods, it is very common for their stool textures and colors to change,” Williamson says. “Oftentimes, their stool takes on the color of the food that they are eating, and it can often be much thicker than when they are drinking only breastmilk or formula. As long as they continue to have daily soft stools and do not seem to have difficulty with bowel movements, this is not a concern.”
But if you do notice harder stools or constipation, Williamson recommends offering up to two ounces of water or feeding puréed pears or prunes.
Still have questions? Always consult your pediatrician to determine what’s best for your little one. Happy eating!
A version of this article was originally published in March 2014.
Speaking of poop, make those changes more enjoyable (kinda?) with the cutest diaper prints out there.