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Infant Nutrition: Introducing Solids - The First Step Towards a Healthy Relationship with Food

One of our most important jobs as parents is to provide our children with proper nutrition, and help them establish a positive relationship with food. Did you know a child’s dietary habits and attitudes regarding feeding are largely established by age 3? Parents, guardians, caregivers-we want to get this right!

This blog is the first in a series that will address feeding and nutrition at various stages of development. Dr. Pence previously outlined the benefits of breastfeeding. The next step is the transition from breastmilk or formula to semisolid food. This is an exciting time for caregivers and babies, but can also bring stress and anxiety. I have 2 children, ages 16 yrs and 16 months, and have been through the various transitions of feeding. My first child was a terribly picky eater. I know the stress that picky eaters can cause parents! My second child eats everything, but would not eat until she was able to physically feed herself without help at the age of 8 months. Despite causing my husband and I a few sleepless nights, both are happy and healthy. Hopefully the information I present will ease your mind and allow you to fully enjoy this transition with your baby.

Let the baby drive the bus!
First of all, the belief that infants and young children lack the ability to regulate their food intake is undeniably false. A neurologically-intact child indeed can and will choose to eat in correct proportions, at times when his/her body requires food! Recognizing your child’s cues, and supporting them in this discovery will foster a positive parent/child relationship, and set the stage for a healthy relationship with food.

Much of this information I present comes from my favorite child nutrition book, “Child of Mine, Feeding with Love and Good Sense,” by Ellyn Sader. A recurring theme is that children are responsible for the whether and how much of eating, and parents responsible for the what, when and where of feeding. This division of responsibility should relieve some of the stress associated with feeding your child-you don’t have to worry about how much they eat or if they refuse dinner!

Problems arise when parents try to take over the child’s responsibility and force them to eat certain foods, in imposed amounts. This leads to stress, resistance, uncooperative behavior, and ultimately a dysfunctional relationship with food. We must feed in a way that keeps the child in control of the process.

Since the parent’s role is when to offer food and food selection, it is important to have some knowledge about nutrition and about your child’s developmental abilities to choose food that is appropriate.

Getting started
Here is a tentative timeline for what your baby can do and how/what to feed him/her. Knowing what to look for as your baby swallows, chews, and controls his/her body will guide you in deciding when to introduce different foods. Make your decision based on your individual baby, rather than age. Remember there is no timetable for transitioning through stages of feeding. Following their cues will be your guide.

The first stage of feeding is actually “mouthing”. When your infant puts toys, fingers (anything within reach) in their mouth, they’re toning down their gag reflex, and making their mouth less sensitive to tastes and textures.

Cues that your baby is ready for semi-solid food
Somewhere between 5-7 months your baby will begin to show signs of readiness to eat semi-solid foods. Don’t put cereal in your baby’s bottle before this time. If they’re too young to eat it from a spoon then they’re too young to eat cereal. Start by giving your child a spoon to play with. You know that your baby is ready when:

  • Baby can sit unsupported or alone
  • Baby can keep head straight when sitting
  • Baby can follow food with his/her eyes
  • Baby can open mouth for food and close lips over a spoon
  • Baby can move semisolid food to the back of his/her tongue and swallow

If your child can do these things, then it is safe to begin!

What to feed your baby
Iron fortified single grain cereal mixed with formula or breastmilk is an easily digestible first food to try. There is some evidence that avoiding wheat until 7-9 months decreases allergies. Start with one cereal feeding per day and work up until baby is taking 2-3 servings. Choosing a brand of baby cereal that is iron fortified and has added Vitamin C helps the iron become absorbed better.

How to feed your baby
Make sure baby is sitting upright and facing you. Hold the spoon so your baby can see it and hold it away from his/her mouth so that it’s visible (about 12 inches). Wait until they open their mouth or try to grab the spoon, then place a small amount on their lips. Don’t put the food all the way in your baby’s mouth unless he/she moves forward, “inviting” the food. Let them manipulate the food on their lips and tongue. Don’t wipe away the cereal- it will be messy and this is all part of the learning process.

Watch for signs that they’re done, such as pressing lips together, looking away, or shaking their head. Even if you get these cues after only a few bites, stop. This will allow him/her to learn their own body and respond to hunger instincts appropriately, which sets the stage for developing a lifetime of healthy eating patterns

Moving onto thicker foods…
Around 6-8 months, the following cues will tell you that your baby is ready to move onto the next stage:

  • Baby is sitting up alone
  • Baby is keeping food in their mouth and “mashing” it with up/down movement
  • Baby is pushing food around with their tongue
  • Baby is scraping food from hand into mouth

If your baby has mastered these things, then you’re ready to move onto thicker/lumpier food and finger food.
You can try well-cooked and mashed vegetables or fruit, rice foods that “stick together”, or wheat free cereal (cheerios). The food should stick together so baby can grab a piece and direct it to their mouth. Continue to offer cereal, and add different textures/flavors such as pureed fruit or veggies. Babies at this stage may also be ready to experiment with using a cup. Again, look for signs that they’re ready to advance.

Next up, chopped solid foods!
Next, around 7-10 months, you will notice your baby using a “pincer grasp”- holding food between his/her forefinger and thumb. They will become quite good at chewing and moving food from side to side in their mouth, and biting off food. You can then incorporate chopped foods such as cooked veggies, fruits, cheese, mashed/cooked beans, strips of bread, toast and cereals containing wheat.

At 9-12 month olds they will start getting better at picking up smaller pieces of food and controlling food in their mouth. Incorporating tender chopped meats, cut-up soft raw (such as bananas) or cooked foods, eggs, and even soft casseroles may delight your blooming toddler as they learn to manipulate their hands and mouth to enjoy an expanding variety of tastes and textures.

What to avoid
Never give your baby foods that are hard or soft and round such as grapes or hotdogs as these are major choking hazards. Don’t give them anything with added sugar. Added fats and salt may also disturb your baby’s developing digestive system. Keep in mind that formula or breast milk remains the main source of your child’s nutrition until age 1, and should still be given at regular intervals despite introducing solid food.

The recap
You can make mealtime fun and rewarding by waiting until your child is ready to start solid foods. Don’t start too soon. Let your child dictate how fast they’re feeding and the amounts, and stop when they show signs of disinterest. If your baby does not like solid food, then they’re simply not developmentally ready, and that is okay! If you are tempted to push your child into eating, eating more, or different foods, remember children want to grow and be healthy- they have inherent mechanisms that help them progress through stages of development.

The role of caregivers needs to be that of support, encouragement, and providing a safe atmosphere. Children will be willing to participate in the learning process and be more cooperative if they feel they have control over it. Stay tuned for more information regarding food selection and feeding after your child’s first birthday!