If you’re confused about starting solid foods with your baby, you are not alone. Parents run into a lot of different answers—on the internet, from friends or family, and even at the pediatrician’s office. Trying to decide what to believe can be overwhelming. So I wanted to take some time to go through some of these issues and let you know what the most current evidence has to say.
When to Feed a Baby
The timing question is relatively straightforward—it’s usually around 6 months of age. At this point, the vast majority of typically-developing babies have reached the milestones necessary for safe and successful feeding. This timing also works well nutritionally because there’s no reason prior to this point that infants need anything besides breast milk (or formula, if that doesn’t work out). And for moms who are able to breastfeed, there are some significant health advantages to waiting until 6 months to introduce supplemental foods—a change from the previous recommendation to introduce foods between 4 and 6 months.
What to Feed a Baby
What you should feed your baby is a more contentious question. Ask a dozen pediatricians, and you’ll get a dozen different answers. (Ok, maybe more like 8 or 9…but we certainly wouldn’t be in complete agreement.) Whenever that’s the case, it’s usually either because the recommendations have changed over time or because we don’t have very good reasons for the advice we give. In this case, it’s a bit of both.
Traditionally, parents have started with rice cereal, and many doctors still recommend this as a first food. There’s some history to dissect here. A few decades ago, when a much higher percentage of babies were formula-fed (and not all formula was iron-fortified), there were a lot of babies with iron-deficiency anemia. That’s a big deal, because low iron levels have a huge developmental impact—we’re talking lost IQ points. To combat this, iron was added to rice cereal, which was already a popular baby food. That was helpful, but iron is available from a lot of other sources as well, including breast milk or iron-fortified formula, meats, legumes, and certain vegetables. It’s also really easy to check for anemia and to make dietary changes or add an iron supplement if needed.
Another reason for rice cereal’s popularity is its low potential for allergic reactions. The thinking used to be that postponing the introduction of potentially allergenic foods would keep children from developing food allergies. But there’s some really convincing evidence from recent studies (with peanuts in particular) that early introduction can teach the immune system to tolerate these foods and actually reduce the risk for allergy. There’s no longer any reason to think that parents need to wait until a child is older than 6 months to introduce peanut products or other potentially allergenic foods (like cow’s milk, eggs, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, or shellfish).
So while rice cereal isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s also not necessary. There are better nutritional choices, and especially with the recent concerns about arsenic content, I’d recommend starting with something else.
But what should you feed a baby? Well—aside from breast milk or infant formula—pretty much the same things you should feed yourself. Basically, you should be shooting for a good mixture of:
- Vegetables and fruits of varied flavors and textures
- Meats, fish, poultry, and eggs
- A variety of whole grains (not exclusively rice)
Dairy products like yogurt may be introduced, but cow’s milk should not take the place of breast milk or formula until 12 months. Parents should avoid choking hazards and honey (due to a rare but real risk for infantile botulism). Beyond that, there’s not a lot of magic, and it really doesn’t make much of a difference which food you pick first.
How to Feed a Baby
No matter which foods you start with, you should feed it to your baby with a spoon—putting food in baby bottles is so 1980’s. It’s also associated with childhood obesity, and it doesn’t actually help babies sleep through the night (sorry). Unless your pediatrician specifically recommends adding cereal to a bottle for a medical reason, you should steer clear of “baby smoothies” and stick with the spoon. Remember, one of the goals of infant feeding is to teach your baby to eat–a skill that will remain quite important for the next 80 years or so.
A lot of doctors advise parents to start with vegetables—because what kid in his right mind would eat squash after tasting pears? There’s zero science there, and it probably doesn’t really matter. It is important to remember that just because a baby refuses a food once doesn’t mean he’ll never like it. Research has shown that it can take between 10 and 15 attempts over several weeks for some babies to accept a certain food. Trust me, it’s a lot harder with a 3-year-old, so stick with it. It’s a good idea to avoid feeding directly from the jar until you know they’ll eat it all—that way, you can refrigerate the rest of the jar for later.
It’s helpful to introduce single-ingredient foods one at a time, adding a new food after several days if your child doesn’t develop a rash or other concerning symptoms. Honestly, this plan doesn’t make reactions any less likely—it just makes it easier for you (and your pediatrician) to figure out what might be causing a potential problem. After this trial, you can mix and match however you please.
As your baby continues to grow and develop, you can begin to introduce soft foods like cut-up bananas, small pieces of well-cooked vegetables or meat, scrambled eggs, or pasta. And then, one day, you’ll realize that she’s eating pretty much the same foods that you are—which is a great reason to make sure you’re setting the right example by making good nutritional choices for yourself, as well. The early nutritional habits we instill in our children will last a lifetime, and there’s no better time to start than with the first foods they eat.