Introducing your little one to the rainbow of colors, spectrum of textures and variety of flavors food has to offer should be exciting, right? Well, for a lot of new parents, it’s more confusing and complex than just offering up a taste. We turned to Kimberly Dillon, MD, PPG – Pediatrics, for some simple, trustworthy guidance for the moms and dads bringing their toddlers to the table.
When should a parent introduce solid foods to a baby/toddler?
When a baby is approaching six months, it’s a good time to start watching for signs that he/she might be ready for you to start introducing solid foods. There are a few reasons for this. One is that their tongue muscle coordination will often be ready to develop the skill of feeding from a spoon. This will also help develop the muscles needed for speech. That is why we don’t generally recommend putting cereal in a bottle (unless directed to do so by your baby’s primary care provider), using a syringe feeder for baby food or placing foods in a mesh/silicon “fresh food feeder” device. None of those methods help in preparing the baby for speech.
Additionally, an infant’s stomach and intestines aren’t made for digesting foods other than breast milk or formula. It may cause stomach upset or gas. In some cases, the body may even mistake the food as a foreign substance and trigger the development of autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes.
What are the best foods to start with?
We usually recommend iron-fortified infant cereal. Start with 1 tablespoon once or twice a day until the child gets the hang of it. Cereal can be increased to 4 tablespoons twice a day.
Once your infant is doing well on the cereal, you can introduce fruits and vegetables. Generally, we recommend introducing one new food every 4-7 days. That way, if the baby has a reaction, you will have a better idea of what food may have caused it. We recommend starting with green vegetables first. They tend to be more bitter or sour, which can be an acquired taste for the infant. Typically, little ones are much more enthusiastic about eating their greens if they haven’t already had the sweeter yellow and orange vegetables. Continue introducing one new green vegetable and one new fruit. When those are exhausted, then start adding in those yellow and orange vegetables.
Strained meats may be introduced around 7-8 months of age.
What if my baby doesn’t seem to like a food?
Humans, and especially children, are creatures of habit. An infant might be wary of something new, but after a while, the food may grow familiar enough for them to accept it. Honestly, it took me 4 years to develop a fondness for mango as an adult! So, try the new food 10-15 times. If the baby doesn’t seem to like it, then set that food aside for a week or two and reintroduce it. Over time, it may become a new favorite food.
What are some foods parents should avoid?
The biggest thing to avoid are foods that could pose choking hazards. Anything hard that cannot be easily mushed would be at the top of that list, such as nuts and hard candies. Hot dogs and grapes are also quite dangerous since they are the right size to block the child’s airway if swallowed the wrong way. Foods that a child could snap off a large chunk of, such as teething biscuits, are also not recommended.
In addition, I would advise against getting the child in the habit from early on of looking to carbohydrates as their main source of snack. Common baby “snack” foods such as fruit puffs, vegetable puffs and yogurt bites are high in carbohydrates and sugars. Despite their misleading labeling, they tend to have very little benefit in the way of nutrition, instead training the child to have junk food cravings. Rather, try offering fruits and vegetables at every meal and snack time.
Last but not least on the list of foods to avoid would be juice. Did you know that while regular soda has 12 calories of sugar per ounce, apple juice has 20? Fruit juices are made by pressing out the sugar water from the fruit and throwing away everything that makes the food healthy. It would be better to blend up the whole fruit into a smoothie for the child rather than giving juice. Juice is also a major source of tooth decay in small children.
Guidelines for how to prepare or serve the foods
There is no magic to baby food. It is simply in convenient packaging. There is nothing wrong with taking fruits or vegetables and blending them up to give to your baby. Old fashioned ice cube trays are great for freezing perfect serving sizes of baby food for later use.
It is recommended to give 1-2 tablespoons each of fruit and vegetables per meal/snack time and 4 tablespoons of infant cereal twice per day. It is better to measure this out in a bowl and feed with a spoon. Baby food jars come in a variety of sizes, so judging by “half a jar” isn’t the best way to determine how much your child is eating. Also, it isn’t as hygienic to put a half-eaten jar of baby food back in the fridge for later use due to growth of mouth bacteria now added to the jar.
When should parents introduce nuts?
There have been a lot of changes in regard to peanuts over the years. Currently, the recommendation is to introduce peanut butter (thinned down) to the baby around 6 months of age, possibly sooner if there is a big family history of peanut allergy. I tend to recommend just mixing it into the cereal twice a week or so.
As for other nuts, they will pose a choking risk to infants and young children, and it is best to avoid them until they can sit still and chew them well – generally over 4 years of age or perhaps older, depending on the child.
There has also been a lot of interest in substituting nut “milks” for whole milk once a child reaches 1 year old. Despite their labeling, they do not contain proper protein and fat needed for growth and development in children. If a plant-based alternative to cow milk is desired, the American Academy of Pediatrics only approves of soy milk for growing children.