Your pediatrician says to start solids at 4 months, while the World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months. Your mom insists you start with rice cereal, but the lactation consultant suggests starting with fruit. The baby-led weaning advocates say baby needs large chunks of food to suck on, but why do the stores sell all sorts of pureeing tools and jars upon jars of baby food?! The amount of conflicting information regarding the introduction of solid foods for baby can be quite overwhelming for a new mom. It sure was for me!
I had a friend ask me how I figured out what to feed my little guy and my answer was “I did a lot of research, waded through tons of conflicting information, pulled from what I already know about health and nutrition, and relied on my mama instinct.” I feel like that’s really what most parenting decisions come down to—mama instinct. I am definitely not claiming that I have it figured out (I really, really don’t!), but it is something that is near and dear to my heart, and I get asked about what has worked for our family often enough that I thought it might be helpful to share so you have a starting point for figuring out what may work for your family.
When to Start
During our Bradley Childbirth Classes we learned that “food before one is just for fun!” and I was pretty set on exclusively breast feeding for most of the first year, but maybe introducing some foods “for fun” during the late second half of the year. Then at our little guy’s 4 month check up the doctor suggested that we think about introducing solids early because he was a big boy and at 20 lbs the doctor said that he simply wouldn’t be getting enough calories from breast milk alone. I was pretty distraught because “my baby!” (aka my inner control freak was panicking because things weren’t going according to MY plan!). I took baby steps over the next month to get me ready for the introduction. It looked something like this: “this week I will buy baby spoons. Next week I will get the high chair out of storage. The week after that I will clean the high chair. Then I will buy bibs.” Nothing like procrastination at it’s finest! I have since learned that my suspicions were probably right, and what the doctor said about big babies needing more calories probably wasn’t true. However, I have also come to realize that even though “food before one is just for fun” is true in the sense that the babies are still relying on breast milk or formula for the majority of their nutritional needs, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your baby won’t want to eat. And boy, do we have an eater! He showed all of the signs that he was ready to eat, plus his normal routine would be to sit on our laps at the dinner table, and every time we would take a bite, he would move towards it with his mouth open…until the utensil went up over his head and into our mouth…and then he would cry. In addition, it seems like most babies will stick their tongue out or not really get the food in their mouth when they are first trying new foods. That was never the case—it was straight down the hatch every time and give me MORE MORE MORE! I do know some babies who show absolutely no interest in food until later—9 months or so. And that is great, too! They are all different, so that is where you have to use your mama instinct and pay attention to what your child is ready for—not just basing your decisions off of what the doctor says, what your friends’ babies do, or what you read on a blog. I was obviously on the hesitant side of things, but I feel like there are a lot of parents who rush the introduction of solid foods because they are so excited to reach the “milestone.” Having been through it once, my advice is to not rush–you have MANY nights of cleaning up high chairs, sticky kids, and food splattered floors ahead of you. There is no hurry–and there is actually a lot of scientific evidence to back the delayed introductions.
Much like the vast number of diets available for adults, there are ALL sorts of feeding philosophies out there for babies too. While it can be helpful to use these as a guide, remember that you don’t have to stick to a plan that someone else has set up if that’s not what is right for your child. I used the Weston A Price Foundation as a guide, but later adapted things to what works for us. Most important to me is that we make sure we are eating whole foods, and eating for nutrient density—we did that before our little guy joined our family, but I feel like it is more important now than ever. That means we eat “weird” things like liver and beets and sardines—but honestly, those are some of his favorite foods! I think babies have an innate ability to tell what their bodies need, because when presented with a plate full of foods, he will always reach for the most nutrient dense ones first.
Purees vs Baby Led Weaning
We did a combination approach. I read the Baby Led Weaning book. I talked to friends who did it. I wasn’t completely sold, but I thought I would give it a try. It worked for awhile (little man would gum the heck out of asparagus spears, green beans, cucumber sticks, etc), until he got a couple of teeth. Then he was all too excited to put them to use, ripping off large chunks of food that were obviously too big for him. I know, I know, “gagging is part of the learning process”…but I just couldn’t do it. When he actually started choking on a piece of cantaloupe that required back blows and the whole 9 yards, I decided maybe baby led weaning wasn’t for us.
We never did full-on watery purees— we started with soft foods that could be mashed (sweet potatoes, avocado, banana), and our little guy didn’t seem to have a problem with the texture, so we ended up just using our food processor to grind up a little bit of whatever part of our dinner he could eat.
At around 8 months we started introducing “tiny bites” so he could practice his pincher grasp. It felt like he was never going to figure it out, and then one day—he got it! And he hasn’t stopped shoving food in his mouth ever since. At about 10 months he decided he only wanted to feed himself—when we tried to spoon feed him applesauce or yogurt he would smack the spoon out of our hands. We took a little break from these types of foods and then within a couple of weeks he had decided that getting the food INTO his mouth was more important to him than being an independent eater. We are still looking for a good set of utensils for him to practice this skill on his own.
First Foods for Baby
One of our interview questions for our pediatrician was what sort of foods he recommends starting babies on, so I knew long before he actually made his recommendation at 4 months that we would not be on the same page. But I also know that the philosophy of his practice is “you’re the parent. You get to make the decisions” so I took the opportunity to NOT follow his recommendation of using rice cereal. Personally, I had several reasons for this:
1) I don’t do super well with grains myself. Since our little guy inherited half of my genes and my microbiome, there is good reason to believe he may not do well with grains either. Plus it seems strange to feed something to my child that I don’t eat myself.
2) There is more research available now on what babies can actually digest, and it turns out that not until their molars come in (usually after the one year mark) do their bodies produce the enzyme needed to properly digest grains. Even then, grains should be properly soaked/prepared to break down the phytates (for all of us, not just babies!)
3) The usual reasoning behind the recommendation is because it’s a bland taste (although they will also recommend mixing it with fruit if the baby doesn’t like it) and it’s fortified with vitamins. I say why not give them something that tastes GOOD and that contains natural vitamins? Otherwise it’s like saying “I need to eat my Cheerios to get my daily vitamins” which makes no sense because our body can’t even process a lot of those synthetic vitamins that are added to foods.
4) Rice cereal is processed, and we try to not eat many processed foods.
5) I won’t get into the whole micro biome thing, but basically the good and bad bacteria in your belly live off of what moves through, and if you are constantly feeding them processed starches, the microorganisms that feed off those will outnumber the others and soon you have a child who only wants to eat crackers, cookies, and pasta.
…Basically I didn’t feel like we would be missing out on anything by choosing to forgo the rice cereal.
Instead we started with bone broth. I’m going to be honest, this seemed a little controversial at the time because I (surprisingly) could find NO information on giving bone broth to modern children. What I found was usually casual mentions of traditions found in other cultures (ancient and present). When people asked me why I was feeding my baby bone broth my best response was “well, why not?” I have learned in my own health journey that bone broth is an amazing, healing substance full of great nutrients, often used to heal and seal gut disturbances and sickness. And he loved it! We started out just spoon feeding him, and baby spoons don’t hold much, so it was a long process. Eventually he would just drink some out of my mug, although that was rather messy. I would maybe recommend putting it in a bottle or a sippy cup. He wouldn’t have a ton, maybe an ounce at a time—but remember, at this age they have little bellies and don’t need much. Once we moved onto other foods, I would use broth instead of water to water down or mash the foods when I was pureeing them.
From there we moved to avocado. Not only is it a healthy fat (which babies are good at digesting, since breastmilk is over 50% fat), but it was convenient for us because we really like avocados. We would slice one up to go with our dinner, and then mash a little bit for him, and we didn’t have to worry about it going to waste.
Next was bananas, which he LOVED– a little too much. Unfortunately bananas can have a constipating effect, so we had to take a break until his body was better able to process them. Bananas are usually a good fruit to start with because they actually contain the amylase needed to digest the starches they contain.
I used this website a lot. They even have charts you can use to track which foods you are introducing and which foods are appropriate for different ages.
More Foods for Baby
By the end of month 6, our little guy was eating:
Purees: Avocado, Bananas*, Pears, Prunes, Sweet Potatoes*, Carrots, Peas*, Bone Broth*
Baby-Led Weaning: Green Beans, Broccolli, Cucumber
By the end of month 8, our little guy was eating:
All of the above, plus–
Applesauce, Mangos, Artichoke, Spinach, White Potato, Butternut Squash, Sweet Peppers, Asparagus (especially pickled)*, Kale, Celery, Onion, Garlic, Lamb, Beef*, Beef Liver Meatballs, Chicken
By the end of month 10, our little guy was eating:
All of the above, plus–
Blueberries, Grapes*, Melon, Peaches*, Beets*, Peas*, Cauliflower, Leeks, Zucchini, Hummus*, Cheese, Yogurt, Rice, Quinoa, and probably a lot more that I am forgetting but I can’t find the paper I used to track months 8-10.
We are coming up on one year, and our little guy’s diet contains:
All of the above, plus–
Basically all fruits and vegetables, minus citrus–we will introduce that when it comes in season.
Protein: Beans* (black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas), Fish* (salmon, sardines), Sausage
Dairy: very occasional yogurt and cheese (raw and/or organic)
Grains: VERY occasional rice, quinoa, gluten free pasta (although we usually stick with zoodles)
He loves all food, but the foods marked with * are favorites.
Making and Storing Your Own Baby Food
It is kind of shocking how many gadgets are on the market, considering the relatively short amount of time that babies eat pureed food. As I mentioned, we started with foods that could be mashed, because we didn’t want to make a whole batch of something that he ended up not liking. Turns out he liked everything. So we started making larger batches—I would just steam the veggies and throw them in my food processor or blender. Then I would either fill my silicone ice cube trays or if they were thicker purees, use a cookie scoop to make little mounds on a cookie sheet that went into the freezer. Once frozen, I would store in ziplock baggies with the date and ingredients. The best way to defrost is to pull them out ahead of time and let them defrost in the fridge, but I would often forget and resort to using the microwave (not ideal, as it kills the good bacteria, but momming is hard so sometimes you do what you have to do). I actually remember our pediatrician venting his disbelief over the moms who had time to make their own baby food— because “you can buy it at the store!” I decided not to tell him I was one of those “crazy” moms, but here are my reasons for choosing homemade:
- It’s actually really easy. It requires VERY little extra time, especially if you are already making dinner for the rest of your family.
- It’s so much more nutritious, because you’re getting fresh, (sometimes) local foods with all of their good organisms. Also, I am speculating here, but based on smell alone, I think that it must taste better!
- You get to control the quality and variety of the food you are serving, although I have to say I am pleasantly surprised by the number of organic baby foods now a days. I think the quality issue was more important to me when serving meats. As far as variety goes, you see the SAME fruits and vegetables over and over again, albeit in different combinations. When I make my own baby food, the sky is the limit on variety, and I think this has definitely helped my son to have an expansive palate.
- It’s much more affordable.
Don’t get me wrong, there were definitely times where I bought some prepared baby foods—specifically when we needed some prunes to get things moving again after the banana incident, and also when we were going to be traveling. It was nice to have a few of the baby food jars around for storing my homemade foods, too (they are also the perfect size for salad dressing!).
The one “baby feeding gadget” we used regularly were these silicone feeders. They were great for everything from breast milk ice cubes to chunks of cantaloupe and fruit (because we definitely weren’t going to have another choking incident) to frozen blueberries that helped with teething pain. It’s nice to have an option for babies who want to be independent feeders but aren’t quite ready (or if you are sick of cleaning blueberry stains off the floor). Also these bibs from IKEA are hands down, the best!
I often get asked by breastfeeding mamas how introducing solids affects milk supply and nursing routines. The good news is—your milk supply should regulate itself since it is based off of supply and demand! Baby won’t be eating a substantial amount of food for quite awhile, so not much should change in the beginning. It really wasn’t until our little guy was eating three meals a day that I felt we had a good routine going—and it kind of just worked itself into what we were already doing. Here is what our current feeding schedule looks like:
- 7:00 Morning Nursing Session
- 8:00 Breakfast
- 11:00 Post Nap Nursing Session
- 11:30/12 Lunch
- 3:00 Afternoon Nursing Session
- 5:00 Dinner
- 6:30 Bedtime Nursing Session
Once we had taken some pictures and after the novelty of the first few eating sessions had worn off, I realized that introducing solids was going to be a long process that would require a lot of patience. I also realized that dinner time was probably not the best opportunity for that, as there always seemed to be un underlying stress to getting the food on the table, dad getting the kitchen cleaned up before bath and bedtime, and of course the glorious witching hour. So we moved our eating sessions to lunch time. We had no time crunch or other things to do, so it was much less stressful. Gradually his skills increased and we worked up to two meals a day, usually breakfast and dinner (he would often nap through lunch or we would be out running errands). Since he was still nursing, if he “skipped” a meal, he would usually just nurse a little longer to make up for it, and really we wouldn’t even notice. Now that he is approaching a year and we are on a three meal a day schedule, we definitely notice if he is hungry.
As far as snacks go, we try to avoid them. It is often recommended to give babies lots of snacks throughout the day, with the reasoning that they are very active and have small stomaches. I know lots of babies who live on snacks, but I have also noticed that they don’t eat very well at meal times, especially if the snacks are served within an hour or so of a meal. We had this play out in our house last week when my son learned he could help himself to an apple when I opened the fridge door. I also had some other things I needed to do in the kitchen that week and the only thing that would keep him from crying was if he was sitting in his high chair, having a snack. But on those days he hardly touched his dinner. Which has NEVER happened. I do let him have a snack if he is going to a group activity where a snack will be served, but at this point I suppose his breastfeeding sessions would make up most of his “snacks.” We will revisit this once he weans, I suppose!
We started VERY slowly on the introductions. They say you should wait at least 4 days before introducing a new food so that you can check for food sensitivities. Because of my own history with food sensitivities, and my general feelings of not-wanting-my-baby-to-grow-up, I stretched it to at least a week between foods during that first month, but eventually I sped things up. I would definitely recommend keeping a food diary, especially because there can be things that pop up unexpectedly all the time with kiddos (like diaper rash or drool rash) and if you aren’t tracking what they are eating, it can be hard to know if it was related to food or just a side effect of teething or other random occurance.
I tried introducing egg yolks to our little guy around 8 months. He was fine the first couple of days, but then his back broke out in eczema. A lot of people told me that was normal and it happens to all kids, but I was suspicious of the eggs. I tried again a few weeks later and the same thing happened, so we have pulled eggs from his diet and since I am still nursing him I have been trying to avoid them as well. His eczema has cleared up, and hopefully in the future we will be able to try again. Side note: I was eating eggs before he had the reaction, but a friend of mine whose children also have sensitivities told me that often once they’ve had a reaction to a food in their own diet, they tend to become more sensitive to that food through breast milk as well. I’m not sure on the science behind that, but it seems to be true in our case so I am doing my best to avoid eggs.
Another important thing to watch is your baby’s “output” via their diapers. It may sound weird, but that is the best way to know what is happening on the inside, and if you get used to tracking your child’s poop, then maybe you will start to notice trends in your own! Don’t be alarmed if your child has very strange poop when they first start solids—bananas can lead to black, stringy, worm-looking substances. Bright colored foods like carrots and beets can definitely change the color of the stool, and then of course there is just the change in texture and smell. You will probably long for the days of the newborn poop, but don’t worry—in a few short years they will know how to use the toilet…hopefully!
The only supplement our little guy has taken is a probiotic. I thought I may have some thrush when he was exclusively breast feeding, so I put coconut oil and the probiotic powder on my nipples before feedings. I am not so great at remembering to give it to him now, but when I do I will mix it in with applesauce or yogurt. I am a big fan of probiotics for everyone, but especially if the mom had to take antibiotics during labor or pregnancy, since the baby will inherit the gut microbiome of the mother. I have considered giving our little guy some fish oil but I haven’t taken the plunge yet. I personally take a Vitamin D supplement at a high enough dosage for baby to absorb his daily amount through my breastmilk. I’ve been asked about iron supplements, but we choose to eat foods that are high in iron instead-like liver.
Start introducing flavors and variety early. Research shows that the flavor of the foods you eat while you are pregnant actually affect the taste of the amniotic fluid that your baby swallows in uteuro. Same goes for breastfeeding, which is why they say that breastfed babies are more likely to prefer different flavors than babies who get used to the taste of the same formula. I am convinced that this is why my little guy loves hummus and other garlicky foods—because that is basically the starting point of all the foods I cook.
Don’t force your own food preferences upon your kids. Luckily my husband and I are not picky eaters, so we don’t have to pretend to like anything for the baby’s sake. But if there is something that you are not a fan of, I would recommend serving it to your child anyway—otherwise they will never get the opportunity! I was with someone once at a restaurant. and their child’s meal came with carrots. He asked “mom what are these?” but instead of answering the question and encouraging him to try them, her response was “I don’t think you’re going to like those” because she doesn’t like carrots herself. Of course he didn’t even try them after that.
Don’t give up. It can take 12-15 exposures before a child likes a food. Try it in different forms, and overall just keep trying. You never know when they will suddenly change their mind. My son went through a short period of time where he wouldn’t eat cubes of avocado, but he loved guacamole, so I just started mashing it with a little lime juice until he decided he liked it enough to eat it in all forms again.
Start how you want to finish. It’s never too early to start teaching your child table manners. It’s important to me that we eat dinner together every night, and our little guy is always a part of that. He even sits relatively quietly while we pray before the meal, because we do it every night, and he has come to expect it. I am also trying to emphasize that we sit down to eat. Luckily he needs to be in his high chair at this point in time, so that is an easier one to enforce, but I don’t want him to get in the habit of wanting snacks while in the stroller or car seat, or just eating on the run. The hardest part about that one is definitely being positive role models—our culture is all about eating on the run!
Try not to freak out. This one is easier for some of us than others. I can definitely place a little too much emphasis on food sometimes, so I am trying to learn to be flexible. I love that I am able to control what he eats at home, because I know that I am giving him a nutritious, delicious start on a life of good health. I can’t necessarily always control what he eats outside of the home (like when he steals animal crackers from other kids in the nursery) so I am choosing to not stress out over it. I think that is going to be a life long lesson for this control freak mama, but hopefully in the long run it will help to establish healthy attitudes towards eating.
I’m sure there is a lot more that I could cover, but if you’ve made it this far, you deserve a break. Let me know if you have any specific questions that I can help to answer. Wishing you much success in this next stage of your parenting journey!