If you are a new parent, I am sure there are tons of things you are currently researching on like infant development, challenges in breastfeeding, baby’s first smile and eventually, you will get around to research when to introduce foods (other than breast milk or formula) to your growing baby.
When Should My Baby Start Eating Food?
Advice on this has changed a lot over the years. When my brother was a baby, in the early 1970’s, the common practice was to start infants on food at six weeks old. This is far too soon! I am sure it caused digestive problems for many babies whose parents followed this advice. By the early 1980’s, when I had come along, my mother’s pediatrician told her that introducing solids wasn’t really necessary until after one year of age. While this isn’t necessarily false information, the pendulum had definitely swung in the other direction in a span of less than ten years.
Current information on the nutritional and developmental needs of infants has set the age for the introduction of food at around some time after they have reached six months of age. This benchmark was set for a number of reasons. The first is because, until this point, breast milk is sufficiently nutrient dense enough to provide for all of baby’s dietary needs until he or she is six months old. After this time, a baby is not able to absorb as much iron from breast milk as before. This may have to do with the maturation of an infant’s digestive tract and other factors. Additionally, your baby has been growing and developing and has likely acquired several skills that are considered to be necessary for the successful transition to food.
These skills include: sitting upright without assistance, the disappearance of the tongue thrust reflex, the pincher grasp, and expressed interest in eating. There is no real scientific link to insist that sitting upright unassisted be on the list, except that it is probably always listed (in nearly everything on the subject) because of safety. Sitting upright makes it much easier for a child to sit safely in a chair or on the floor and makes it much easier to swallow. Your child definitely needs to be able to keep their head and neck up without support to ensure proper swallowing.
The tongue thrust reflex is an inborn reflex all babies have, compelling their tongue to push forward whenever something enters their mouth. It is the reflex that allows them to successfully suckle from the breast or bottle. However, this needs to be gone for them to be able to bring food from the front to the back of the mouth and swallow it down the throat. Don’t worry mamas! This doesn’t mean you won’t be able to continue to breastfeed, if you want. It simply means that they can successfully attempt eating. Moving food from the front to the back and swallowing is not an inborn reflex. It is a skill your baby will have to learn, so be patient. It is all a process and it will take time! Most babies begin taking things with their whole hand, dragging it to them with their palm. Eventually they learn to pick things up using their thumb and forefinger, this is known as the pincher grasp. This usually develops sometime after six months of age and can come as late as a year of age.
The last factor in assessing your infant’s readiness to eat is interest. They are many ways to gauge this. If your baby is present while you are eating, you may notice him suddenly paying attention to every mouthful you ingest, trying to grab your forks, spoons, plates or even your food or also opening his mouth as you take a bite. All of these things are signs that your baby could be interested in this new thing called food!
What Should My Baby’s First Foods Be?
For many of us, when baby’s first foods are mentioned, we picture rice cereal and pureed fruits and vegetables. Have you ever wondered why we give baby soft, pureed foods? Children so young, have not yet developed the mechanics, movements and teeth to chew and breakdown solid foods in the way that older children and adults do. In fact the number of teeth required and jaw movements necessary to process various textures do not really develop until sometime around and after 24 months to 30 months of age. In this light, your child’s first foods definitely need to be softened in order for them to eat and enjoy them, but this doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy various soft textures and types of food.
What you should specifically offer your baby first varies from culture to culture. For example, when my daughter was young, I started by offering her rice cereal with small pieces of banana. We were living abroad at the time, so I was able to see what other children, the same age as my daughter were eating. Our Italian friends served their son rice cereal as well, flavored with olive oil and parmesan cheese and our Korean friend served their daughter juk, a kind of boiled rice stew, flavored with small pieces of salty fish. So, although they were all getting rice, our cultures and family histories informed how we flavored it. These days, research shows you don’t have to start with rice, or even pureed fruits, vegetables or meats. Many families are starting their little ones off with a technique called Baby Led Weaning.
What Is Baby Led Weaning?
Baby Led Weaning (BLW) is a way of introducing solids to your child which allows your little one to have control over what and how much he eats, rather than being spoon fed by an adult or sibling. Parents still decide what their child will eat, but your infant directs when and how much and how he or she will eat it. Other points of this methodology include:
- Your son or daughter being seated at the table with the family at mealtimes, instead of eating separately.
- Baby is offered the same foods the family will be eating, although they may need to be prepared and presented in a slightly different way. For instance, if you are having spaghetti squash with meatballs, salad, and garlic bread, you would need to make sure the meatballs and noodles are cooked well and cut very small, so baby could easily grasp them. Instead of sauce, small chunks of tomatoes, as well as other vegetables to be put in the salad could be offered, cooked in small pieces. Strips or cubes could also be given to baby to try at the meal.
- Baby should initiate eating and feed him or herself with fingers or a spoon.
- Babies should continue to take the breast or bottle regularly outside of meal times.
Families who practice BLW do so in a variety of ways. Some do spoon feed their children occasionally and offer some purees and cereals. More strict proponents of BLW enforce an only BLW at all times approach.
What Are The Benefits?
- Infants are experiencing a variety of tastes and textures, making it far less likely for them to be picky down the road as toddlers and young children.
- Introducing solids is more convenient and budget friendly. BLW takes a lot less prep and is no added cost to your current food budget. Just serve the ingredients of what you are already making for the family meal.
- Baby learns how to act and interact at family meals and it turns eating into a social activity for him.
- It encourages independence and allows baby to self-regulate and follow their own hunger cues. This makes it much less likely they will struggle with weight and health related issues later on in life.
- It removes the struggle out of mealtimes from the start and usually results in children seeing mealtime as an enjoyable, delectable time of their daily routine.
What Are The Concerns?
- Safety. Many parents are concerned that their child will choke or have some other adverse reaction to food offered this way. You should never serve your child a meal and then leave them unattended. You should also carefully attend to the size and portion of the items on your child’s plate to ensure none are too large and could block their airway. As a result of the way babies at this age move the food from the front of their mouth to the back, gagging occurs much more commonly than choking.
- Nutrition. All parents have the concern of whether their child is meeting nutrition requirements for their age. Introducing solids is never meant to be a time to wean baby onto food alone. Breast milk or formula should be their primary source of nutrition until past their first birthday. Food of any kind should only be a supplement. While iron deficiency can be a concern past the age of six months, infants who show readiness to try baby led weaning are actually able to digest and metabolize iron rich foods from the very start, making it much less likely that they will have low iron scores.
- Sensory Issues. Some children have health issues or conditions, like autism or sensory processing disorders that make it difficult for them to handle certain textures and may not take well to baby led weaning. Additionally, children who are developmentally delayed, may not yet have the physical skills to attempt solids in this way. Finally, because formula has a uniform taste every time, formula fed babies may have a harder transition to solids, regardless of whether you use purees or baby led weaning.
Study Shows Baby-Led Weaning Promotes Healthy Food Preferences
Is Baby Led Weaning For Me?
Every family and every parent-child relationship is different. You will have to decide if this is the best approach for you. If you decide that baby led weaning is something you would like to try, the definitive guide Baby-Led Weaning by Tracey Murkett and Gill Rapley has lots of great and informative tips to help guarantee success.
Remember, keeping things fun and light can head off troubles before they start. If it helps, remember this old adage, “Food is for fun, until they are one!” Happy Parenting!