Babies

Hand to Mouth: How to help babies start to sample solid food

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When you first start introducing your baby to solid foods, it can be overwhelming to figure out what is best. I have gone through the process with our two little boys and will provide guidelines along with tips and suggestions based on firsthand experience.

Every child is different and you may need to adjust your approach from baby to baby. (And remember that during the first six months, exclusive breastfeeding is recommended—with continued breastfeeding until at least the baby’s first birthday long as that’s what you and your baby want.)

When a baby is about 6 months old, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends introducing him or her to solid foods. The goal during the initial phase is to have your baby get to sample foods that are rich in nutrients and varied in textures. As your baby is ready, you can encourage her to start drinking from a cup and using baby spoons and her fingers to feed herself.

A quick note about the process of allowing babies to feed themselves: It is a messy process! I can still picture our boys sitting in their high chairs, peas and yogurt spread all over their tray and themselves.

There is much debate around spoon-feeding versus baby-led feeding — what leads to the best outcome as far as weight, pickiness, etc. In my experience, ploughing through the messy phase of letting our boys mostly feed themselves has resulted in two children who are overall flexible with what they will eat and who enjoy food. (This lines up with the results of a study published last year in JAMA Pediatrics, which found that babies who fed themselves were less likely to be fussy at 2 years old compared with those who were spoon-fed.)

During this initial phase, remember to look for your baby’s hunger and fullness cues. For example, if she turns her head while eating, this is a sign she is full. Consider trying to teach your baby simple signs to help her communicate when she has eaten enough; we found this very helpful.

Offer new foods one at a time, and wait three to five days before starting a different one. This is to check for any signs of intolerance such as diarrhea or excessive gas. A general suggested order of food introduction is: single-grain cereal, followed by vegetables, fruit, and meats.

6-month quick tips:

  • When choosing dry cereal, opt for whole grain varieties like: mixed grain, oatmeal, or rice cereal. 
  • To boost the nutrient density of dry cereals, mix them with breast milk or formula. 
  • Introduce pureed vegetables before starting fruits; this can help to avoid getting your child hooked on the sweet taste of fruit. 
  • When offering a fruit, combine it with vegetables to reduce the sweetness. For example: Mix applesauce with carrots or sweet potato. 
  • Shred cooked meat to make it easy for your child to gum and chew. 
  •  Potentially allergenic foods do not need to be avoided, foods like eggs, dairy, fish, and peanut butter, etc. can e included. It has even been shown that early introduction of potentially allergenic food like peanuts can help prevent peanut allergies.

Somewhere around 9 months is when babies are ready to advance to finger foods. You can discuss your baby’s readiness at well visits with the pediatrician. When adding in finger foods, provide them at meals along with two to three nutrient-rich snacks a day. Good snacks would be fruits, vegetables, or beans, or other protein-rich foods.

Avoid potential choking hazards such as raw vegetables or hard fruits, whole grapes, dried fruit, peanuts, nuts, seeds, whole hot dogs, popcorn, marshmallows, large chunks of cheese or meat, hard candy, jelly beans, or gummies. All meal and snack times should be supervised and ideally occur seated at the table.

9-month quick tips:

  • Prepare a batch of soft-cooked cubed vegetables. The following can be a snack or addition to meals: broccoli, peas, sweet potato, squash, carrots, or zucchini. 
  • Keep canned beans on hand or make a pot of cooked beans; they deliver fiber and protein. When giving them to your baby, first smash them lightly between your fingers. 
  • Add in naturally soft foods like: yogurt, scrambled eggs, canned fruit (in its own juice), cottage cheese, shredded cheese, or applesauce. 
  • Cube up foods that are easy to gum, such as: watermelon, ripe banana, avocado, peach slices, cantaloupe, or blueberries. 
  • For convenient on-the-go snacks, choose fruit or vegetable puree pouches. 
  • Add a nutrient boost to a teething biscuit with a light spread of peanut butter or hummus. 
  • Lastly, be a role model and persevere.

Here are some tips to help you through this fun and challenging phase.

  1. Let your baby see you eating bites of some of the same foods he is; if he is snacking on sweet potato cubes, peas, or applesauce, you should have some too. 
  2. Know that your little one will go through phases when she all of a sudden rejects something that she loved for months. This shouldn’t mean that the food disappears from her eating routine; take a break and reintroduce the food in a couple of days or a week. Or try the same food in different forms; for example, if mashed sweet potatoes aren’t a hit anymore, try roasted sweet potato cubes. 
  3. Remind yourself  that the body is hardwired not to starve. Don’t just give your baby his favorite foods at every meal. Your baby will naturally eat less at some meals than others and at some growth phases, his intake will drop. Of course, keep an eye on this, and if it persists, discuss it with your child’s pediatrician.

My own children definitely had some challenging food phases, especially as toddlers. Persistence in getting them to eat a variety of foods was — and is — worth it. Sure, they would prefer to live on mac and cheese or pizza, but they will eat, most always happily, whatever is served at meals and snacks — from tofu to salad to steak to roasted vegetables. You are the gatekeeper of what comes in your cupboards and refrigerator. For the most part, surround your children with the best choices to nourish their bodies.

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