A solid start

Introducing solids to your young baby’s diet is a very exciting milestone. It’s also a time fraught with questions from parents wanting the very best for their child. Sometimes, information regarding what types of foods and how much to give seems conflicting. All babies are different and it’s important to trust your parental instincts, but there are some general guidelines that should be followed to ensure your baby’s best health.

Starting your child on solids is a unique time because this is when you can really set your child up to have good eating patterns for the future. At this stage in your child’s life, you have complete control over what they eat. As they get older, introducing new foods can become more difficult and, when they go to school and earn pocket money, their food choices are no longer in your control. That’s why putting some effort in at the start is so important. If you can make healthy foods a normal part of your child’s diet and can make eating a relaxed and pleasurable experience, you are well and truly starting off on the right foot.


When to begin solids

Six months of feeding breastmilk exclusively months is now commonly regarded as the optimal timeframe for achieving the best health outcomes for your baby, both in the short and long terms. Groups including the World Health Organization and the National Health and Medical Research Council are among the strong advocates of this six-month exclusive breastfeeding recommendation. It is, however, recognised that this is a general rule and that for some individual children there may be a benefit of starting solids earlier.

Some mothers are unable to breastfeed for a variety of reasons and, if that’s the case, infant formula should be the only drink given — other milks are no substitute for formula or breastmilk and should not be used as a substitute. At the six-month mark, although you begin to introduce solids at this stage, it’s recommended that you still breastfeed or use formula until your baby is 12 months old. Trying to introduce solids too early has the potential to create problems, including increasing the risk of food allergies, decreasing the breastmilk production, increasing the load on your baby’s kidneys and constipation from poor digestion.

Some parents are tempted to introduce solids earlier than six months for various reasons, including: 

  • Hoping it will help baby sleep through the night. If solids are introduced before a baby’s digestive system is ready, digestive discomfort (constipation, indigestion, wind) can result, which may even worsen your baby’s sleep.
  • Concern that the mother is not producing enough milk. If Mum really doesn’t have enough milk, this can often be assisted with sound dietary advice and certain herbal remedies. Unfortunately, supplementing with solids at this time may only lessen a mother’s milk supply because of lessening demand from her baby.
  • The baby experiencing reflux with feeds. This can often be corrected through changes to the mother’s diet or with baby-appropriate strains of digestive bacteria and/or commercially available colostrum given appropriately to the baby (this should be done under supervision by a healthcare practitioner). Homoeopathy can also be helpful for babies with reflux.

Before babies are ready for solids, they will still display what is called an “extrusion reflex”. This is a reflex reaction whereby the baby’s tongue will tend to push food out of its mouth the moment it touches the tongue. This reflex tends to disappear around the six-month mark.


Signs your baby is ready for solids

  • Your baby is watching you eat and reaching for food.
  • Your baby is leaning forward and opening her mouth when food is offered and is able to close her lips around the food.
  • Your baby has good head and neck control and is able to turn away from food if she doesn’t want it.
  • Your baby’s birth weight doubles.


Timing is everything

The six-month general rule does acknowledge that some babies will benefit from the introduction of solids at a younger age. So how early is too early? Babies under four months will have trouble digesting solid foods and research has shown that those introduced to solids too early (before four months) cry twice as much. Research also suggests that introducing foods before 15 weeks of age increases the probability of developing several childhood and adult diseases, including respiratory illnesses.

Food can also be introduced too late and research indicates that babies who are not introduced to solids until after 10 months are significantly less likely to have a wide variety of foods in their diet than those offered solids from six months. Faltering growth, decreased immune protection, increase diarrhoeal disease and possible malnutrition are other potential consequences of starting solids too late.

Before a baby is born, he doesn’t have any of the helpful (or, for that matter, unhelpful) bacteria present in his digestive system. In fact, your baby’s first contact with the bacteria that make the beginning of his digestive flora occurs at birth as he passes through the birth canal. These bacteria make up the rudimentary beginnings of the digestive flora that will assist your baby’s digestion for the rest of his life.

While your baby is so young, his digestive system is still very immature and making the move from a single food (milk) to a variety of foods can really challenge a baby’s digestive system. It’s for this reason that it’s recommended to start slowly. If you get too excited and give too much food too early, the baby may experience uncomfortable symptoms including diarrhoea, constipation or even allergic reactions.


Getting started

At first, solid foods are only little extras or new tastes, as the main source of nourishment is very much breastmilk. Many babies will eat only a very small amount to begin with, perhaps only a teaspoonful, while others will eat more. It’s recommended that you start your baby on only one food at a time and leave 3-5 days before introducing a new food. This makes it much easier to narrow down any your baby may react to. First foods need to be very simple and should not have any added salt or sugar. They should also be warmed to body temperature, which is very comfortable for children who have been accustomed to consuming breastmilk.

Morning is the best time to start introducing new taste sensations. In the morning your baby will be well rested and calm and much more open to new experiences. Starting new foods in the morning also means you have the rest of the day to observe your baby for any problems that may arise. Foods that have already been introduced can be given later in the day when your baby is less inclined to enjoy a challenge and when she can also tend to be hungrier.


6-7 months

At this age, your baby begins to chew, has a stronger sucking ability and the extrusion reflex should be disappearing. This is when food should be cooked or mashed and then pureed until smooth and offered after a milk feed. By breast (or bottle) feeding first, not only do you ensure your baby is receiving all the nutritional benefits of the milk feed, but it also relaxes both mother and baby. Until now, your baby has tasted milk only, so foods offered need to be simple and bland; single-cooked vegetables or fruits are best. Start with only 1-2 teaspoons of food and gradually increase as your baby becomes more comfortable with different foods. Offer one new food every 3-4 days as you gradually expand your baby’s repertoire.

Good foods to start with include ripe banana, pears, carrots (peeled, soaked for 1-2 hours and well cooked), sweet potato (peeled, soaked, well cooked), pumpkin, parsnip, broccoli, peas, paw paw, rockmelon, cauliflower and ground brown-rice cereal. These can be pureed with breastmilk or formula to improve the consistency.


7-9 months

As your baby gets older, she will show more enthusiasm for food and may be eating around â…“-½ cup of food at a time. By about nine months, your baby should be eating three solid “meals” per day of around ½-1 cup. At this stage, coarser foods are appropriate, including mashed and some chopped foods — the consistency should be similar to that of cottage cheese. Some good foods to incorporate at this stage include avocado, oats (once a week only) and yoghurt as well as increasing the variety of fruits and vegetables consumed.


9-12 months

At this stage, your baby will be much more comfortable with solid foods and will be very enthusiastic about playing with his food and trying to feed himself. This should be encouraged and finger foods such as sandwiches, steamed vegetables or fruits such as mango, strawberries and banana allow babies to increase these skills. You will find that some foods are easily accepted and others are rejected.

Try to keep mealtimes relaxed and don’t force you baby to eat any foods. If you offer a rejected food several times in a relaxed way, often your baby will come to accept it. By this stage, meals should be about ¾-1 cup of food with each meal and it’s preferable for your baby to eat this meal while the rest of the family has a meal. This encourages the development of social skills and helps the household to maintain some routine. Over this time, it’s good to encourage as many new foods as possible because as children get older they can become more forceful in their rejection of new foods.

Appropriate foods to introduce include pasta, cooked egg yolk, cheese, finely chopped meats, legumes and citrus.


Homemade vs store-bought

Many mums ask about homemade versus store-bought food for their baby. Most are aware that homemade is preferable but are concerned about having enough time to make food. Initially, the foods your child will eat are so basic that there really is not a lot of preparation time involved. You can also cook and puree or mash more food than you need and store leftovers in ice cube trays in the freezer for easy meals down the track. As your child’s food options broaden, he can eat food similar to that of the rest of the family, which will just need to be mashed or chopped into finger food.

Commercial foods are not all bad. They are certainly convenient and hygienic. If you choose brands that use high-quality ingredients, use minimal preservatives and additives and contain no salt or sugar, they can be useful occasionally. Some problems with using commercial babyfood include:

  • Price — it’s cheaper to make your own babyfood, especially when using the same ingredients that the rest of the family is eating.
  • Reduced variety of tastes — usually consuming home-cooked foods will expose your infant to a broader array.
  • Hidden sweeteners — while labelled as containing “no added sugar”, many commercial baby foods will sweeten their products with fruit juices or concentrates or skim milk powder. This will reinforce your child’s innate tendency to prefer sweet foods and potentially sway her food choices later in life.
  • Fewer textures — despite coming with different textures, commercial foods will still tend to be softer and more consistent in texture than home-cooked foods.

Introducing solids is a very exciting time. It’s a time where your baby is exploring new taste sensations and learning new skills. It’s also a time when parents can plant the seed of positive and healthy eating practices, the benefits of which will carry on throughout your child’s life. It may be a messy time and there may even be a few tears, but there will also be lots of laughter and delight as your child’s personality continues to come out. Remember to enjoy it — they’re not little for long.


Foods not suitable for children under 12 months

  • Honey — is unsuitable as it contains lots of simple sugars and can contain a form of bacteria capable of causing severe illness in infants. This appears to be more of a problem in America than Australia and some honeys will indicate they are sterilised, which means they have been treated to inactivate these bacteria. After 12 months, children are less susceptible to these bacteria.
  • Nuts — are a very common allergen and some children can react very strongly to them. They also present a risk of choking. If there’s a family history of nut allergy, you need to talk to your healthcare provider about how and when to introduce them.
  • Tea — contains tannins that can reduce absorption of important nutrients.
  • Fruit juice — is too sweet and not recommended for children under 12 months. After 12 months, juices should be diluted to one-quarter juice and three-quarters boiled water.
  • Cow’s milk — cow’s milk shouldn’t be given to children under 12 months as its nutritional profile is not correct for growing infants. Breastmilk or formula are the only forms of milk recommended until 12 months. Even after 12 months, notice whether coughs, runny noses or recurrent middle ear infections suddenly begin after introducing cow’s milk. These can be signs that the milk is upsetting your child’s health.

Kate Mirow is a naturopath and lecturer at the Australasian College of Natural Therapies. She is currently practising at Your Health, a holistic clinic in Manly, NSW.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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