The when, what, and how of introducing baby food. Find out the best first foods and what to do at your baby’s first meal to lay the path for healthy eating habits.
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Preparing for your baby’s first meal is usually a very exciting and nervous time for parents as you think about introducing baby food. The little babe that has been living on milk and/or formula is about to begin an activity that they will do everyday for the rest of their lives. Along with the anticipation of introducing this new experience to your baby is often the wonder about exactly when, what, and how it should all go down.
Those are good questions to be asking yourself because creating positive eating experiences from the beginning will have a significant impact on their eating habits in the future. Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any room for error, it will be a learning experience for both parents and babies.
I am just beginning to introduce food to my third child and am surprised to find myself excited about this new milestone again, after all, I have already done this twice before. However, each time I’ve introduced baby food it has been a little different and I have learned more to help me as a Momma and an OT.
If you, too, are on a second, third, or fourth child, there is still value in refreshing your game plan. I want to streamline the wealth of information that is out there on this topic and clear a few things up that often confuse parents. In doing that, I will give you a simple plan that answers the when, what, where, and how from the perspective of a three time mom and pediatric feeding therapist.
At the same time, I always encourage parents to educate themselves and talk to professionals, like your pediatrician, so that you can make the best decision for your baby as you think about starting solid foods.
WHERE SHOULD YOUR BABY EAT?
This may seem obvious, but I wanted to quickly address “where” because occasionally I see things start to go awry here. Always feeding your baby in an upright position seated in a high chair or supportive booster seat is really important primarily for safe swallowing. Having your child sit in a car seat, reclined high chair, or bouncer allows the food to slide right down their throat, often without actively swallowing. This is dangerous because babies can easily cough and aspirate (get food or liquid into their lungs), which is serious business. If your baby is not able to hold themselves upright then they aren’t ready to be eating yet.
I would also strongly encourage you to consistently feed your baby in the kitchen/dining room, around or by the table that you would normally eat. If you don’t typically sit down to eat or mostly eat in front of the TV, now is a good time to change that habit. It will be much easier to start off this way rather than having to backtrack down the line. Setting up this routine will help your baby understand that it is time to eat and that it deserves their full attention (and yours). It sends the message that meal time is a special event. Leave tablets, phones, and toys for outside of meal time. Introducing these things is a slippery slope and you may have difficulty getting your child to eat without them in the future.
Bottom Line: Always feed your baby in a high chair for safe swallowing.
WHEN TO INTRODUCE BABY FOOD FOR BABY?
If you do a quick Google search on the topic of when it is best to feed your baby, you will find conflicting recommendations, which usually leaves parents feeling confused. Most sources now state that 6 months is the ideal time to begin feeding baby solid foods, however, the American Academy of Pediatrics hasn’t changed their previous statement that 4 months is appropriate. Thus, many pediatricians encourage parents to start at this time. I will tell you that most pediatric feeding therapists (myself included) and nutritionists feel strongly that 6 months is better. At this age, food from nutrients are absorbed better, the digestive system is more mature, and babies are able to sit upright with more stability. At the same time, there isn’t a lot of research that shows any ill effects from beginning at 4 months. It is important to keep in mind that once you begin baby food/table food, you are starting the weaning process. While your baby will continue to drink milk/formula as it’s main source of nutrition until the age of one, it will be less once they begin eating food.
If your doctor encourages you to start at 4 months and your feel like you want to wait until 6 months, I would suggest asking them what they feel the benefits are to starting earlier. Always remember that as the parent it is your right to make a choice about what you think is best for your baby. To summarize, at a minimum, your baby should do the following before introducing food:
- Sits up with little or no assistance.
- Shows an interest in food, by looking at what you’re eating or reaching for food.
- Is at least 4 month of age.
Bottom Line: Start feeding your baby around 4-6 months when you as the parent feel it is time, as long as your baby is able to hold themselves upright in a highchair and is showing an interest in food.
WHAT ARE THE BEST FIRST FOODS FOR BABY?
Traditionally, rice cereal was suggested as the best first food for your baby because it is very gentle on the stomach. However, research continues to support that fruits, veggies, and even meats are completely appropriate and safe alternate baby foods to begin feeding your baby. In addition, high levels of arsensic have been found in rice which can be dangerous if your baby is eating rice cereal on a daily basis. Other cereals such as oatmeal and mixed grain varieties are safe alternatives.
Although research repeatedly demonstrates that starting out with other foods is safe, many doctors are still recommending baby cereal first. I did introduce rice cereal first with my older two sons, before arsenic levels were reported, but they never really ate daily portions of this. With my third, his first food was butternut squash.
More important than what food you try first, is that you wait four days before trying a new food to check for any possible allergies or intolerance. Allergies doesn’t just mean anaphylactic shock, it also includes rashes, irritability, diarrhea, and/or constipation. By waiting four days, you can weed out which food is causing any possible reaction.
Bottom Line: Feel free to try pureed fruits, veggies, cereals, or meats with your baby first, but wait four days between trying new food to track any possible allergic reactions.
HOW TO GIVE FIRST FOODS TO YOUR BABY
As I already said, you will want to have your baby securely in their high chair. Prior to them eating for the first time, maybe a month or more ahead of time, I like to have the baby sit with us as the table during meals. At this time, I give the baby spoons, large raw carrots, or big pieces of celery to hold, play with, and mouth on. This gives them a chance to explore different textures, decrease their gag reflex, practice feeding them self, and experiment with moving their tongue around in new positions. They should not be able to get any pieces of the food off.
When your baby meets the criteria that I listed above under “WHEN”, begin by having a totally smooth puree of baby food either home made or store bought and place a little bit on a small flat spoon. I like Baby Einstein and The First Years spoons. While your baby is making eye contact with you, move the spoon toward their mouth. If they reach up to grab the spoon, allow them to help you. If they turn away or break eye contact, wait a minute and try again. Once your baby is looking at you, slowly put the food to their mouth. Ideally, they are going to open their mouth, in which case, you will put a small amount on the front of the tongue and let the baby mouth it off. Do not scrape the food off using their gums. If they don’t open their mouth, demonstrate by opening your mouth and then touch the tip of the spoon to their mouth. Give a smile and “yay” or some type of praise so they know this is what you want them to do. You can learn more about spoon feeding the right way here.
It is not important for them to consume a certain amount at any point, but especially early on. This is a brand new experience that will take them some time to be accustomed to. As adults, we often take for granted how new this all is. Let this first experience be whatever is, no expectations or goals. In most cases, your baby will only eat a few bites, and that is great. One thing you can focus on is creating a positive, laid back experience. You will feed your baby one to two times a day and slowly increase the thickness of foods over time. Do not add any lumps to the food until they are eating a wide variety of table foods. AND allow them to get messy! I know that is REALLY HARD for a lot of parents, but avoid scraping their face or intervening to avoid a mess. Read more about why here.
Bottom Line: Give your baby a few bites of smooth food from a small flat spoon on the front of their tongue without scraping the food off on their tongue when they open their mouth to accept the food.
RED FLAGS TO WATCH FOR
Sometimes feeding your baby doesn’t go as you be expecting it to. While it is important to practice patience, consistency, and keeping a positive environment, sometimes it is helpful to get help. That help can come from your states early intervention program or a feeding therapist (usually an OT or SLP) from a private clinic or local hospital. I recommend seeking additional help if your baby is displaying any of these behaviors:
- Your child is accepting little or no baby food by 8 months old.
- The only way you can get your baby or toddler to eat is by distracting them, such as, feeding them while they walk around, watch tv, or play with an iPAD.
- Your baby refuses to accept any table foods by 11 months.
- Frequent gagging and/or vomiting that prevents them from eating or is due to subtle changes in texture. Get an entire guide to baby gagging that includes tips to overcome it.
Enjoy this exciting time with your baby and talk to your child’s doctor if you are concerned about how they are progressing. Also, be sure to check out Common Mistakes Parents Make to cover all your bases with setting up good eating habits. If you are ready for the next steps in meal time see Feeding Schedule for 6-7 month olds.
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