When starting on solids for the first time, it can feel like a confusing and overwhelming feat. When is the best time to start? What foods are best to start them on and how do you start? Here is everything you need to know about introducing solid foods to your baby.
Introduction to Starting on Solids
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that “Every infant and child has the right to good nutrition”. From the moment they are born, an infant’s growth and development is dependent on them receiving the care and nutrition they need. In the early months, this nutrition comes in the form of milk – whether it be from a breast or a bottle. As a baby grows, they develop a need for nutrients that come from other sources and many parents report feeling anxious about offering new and unfamiliar foods to their young infant.
So, when should you start solid foods? How should you start solid foods, and what should the first foods be? What about allergies and allergy prevention? Read on to find the answers to all of these questions and more in this ultimate guide to starting solids.
Why is starting solids such an important time for a baby?
The way in which your child is introduced to solid foods will have an impact on their health and eating habits as babies and beyond. Introducing solids is important for helping babies learn how to eat a variety of foods from different food groups and it also exposes them to new tastes and food textures which is important for a healthy and balanced diet as they grow older. Eating solid foods also helps to develop the teeth and jaws and the motions made whilst eating help to build the muscles that are needed for speaking.
In fact, your baby’s eating habits can have a very strong impact on their speech and language development which is why it is important that over time they are given new foods that encourage chewing and swallowing.
What does the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend for starting on solids?
The World Health Organization (WHO) is the United Nations agency that works to promote healthy and sustainable lifestyles across the globe. The WHO recommends that at around 6 months of age, an infant has a need for energy and nutrients that exceeds what can be provided through breastmilk or formula alone. They state that at 6 months of age, an infant is developmentally ready to begin eating certain solid foods.
The WHO refers to this as ‘complementary feeding’ because the recommendation is that the baby continues on breast milk (or infant formula) whilst these additional foods are given. Infants can eat pureed, mashed foods or semi-solid foods from 6 months and these can be given 2-3 times per day. Between 9-11 months, complementary foods can be given 3-4 times per day and by 12-23 months, the child should be eating 3-4 meals per day along with 1-2 snacks that can be offered in between meals.
From 8 months of age, most infants can eat ‘finger foods’ and by the age of 12 months, most children can eat what the rest of the family are eating as long as the consistency of the food is appropriate for the child’s age. Initially, new foods should be introduced in small amounts and this will naturally increase as the child grows. Remember never to push food onto your baby; keep in mind your baby’s nutrition needs but take a gentle approach with your baby’s diet and offer a good variety as time goes on. It’s quite natural for your baby to refuse or dislike certain foods.
If you would like to read more about what the WHO says about starting solids, click here: Infant and young child feeding (who.int)
Can babies start solids at 4 months?
Most experts recommend that babies do not start eating solid foods before 4 months of age and the preferred time to begin offering solid foods is from 6 months of age. There may be rare situations where a doctor or paediatrician might recommend that solid foods are introduced earlier but this should only be done strictly under the guidance of a doctor and for specific medical reasons. Even though your young baby might seem ‘very hungry’ or is having a growth spurt – prior to 6 months of age they should be getting all they need from exclusive breastfeeding or formula feeding. If your young baby seems to be more hungry, offer the breast or bottle with increased frequency or increase the size of their milk feeds rather than resorting to giving them other kinds of sustenance at this early age.
Why can’t babies have food before 4 months?
In the first 6 months of life, a baby is able to use up iron stores that have been in their bodies since their time in the womb. By about 6 months, the iron stores have reduced and a baby is developmentally ready to get some of their nutrition from other sources – such as solid foods.
Studies have revealed that introducing solids before 4 months of age can have all kinds of negative impacts on a baby who is not developmentally ready for this step. Children who have solids before 4 months of age are at an increased risk of developing eczema, celiac disease, type 1 diabetes and increased body weight in childhood. Basically, it is just not worth the risk for your baby. If you would like to read more about the research, check out this website: Starting Solids: 4 Months, 6 Months, or Somewhere In Between? | The Science of Mom
What happens if you introduce solid foods too late?
As babies grow older, they need additional vitamins and nutrients to support their healthy growth and development. If solids are introduced too late, there is a risk of delayed growth which can also lead to an array of developmental delays. Babies who receive poor nutrition can be underweight, lack energy to move and learn and can be diagnosed as ‘failing to thrive’.
In addition to growth issues, children who are not exposed to solid foods at the right time can develop issues related to their oral motor-sensory skills. Since chewing and swallowing helps children strengthen their oral and facial muscles, children can experience an impact on their eating and speech if solid foods are introduced too late. There are also studies that state that children are more likely to develop a food allergy if foods are introduced too late.
There is also another concern that has come to light in more recent years which involves babies only being fed with the squeezy pouches that can be conveniently bought in supermarkets. When older babies and children are not given the opportunity to eat age-appropriate and safe foods that encourage chewing, they can experience great difficulties in learning how to eat proper meals and foods.
Whilst food pouches might be very convenient for parents, they also oversimplify the eating process and involve more sucking than chewing. If you choose to buy baby food in pouches, remember to empty the food into a bowl and use a spoon rather than letting your baby suck directly from the pouch. Here is a great article with more information about the dangers of being over-reliant on baby food pouches: The important facts on baby food pouches | First Five Years
How do I know when my baby is ready for solids?
Knowing the right time to introduce your baby to solids can feel worrisome, but there are a few indicators to help parents recognise if their baby is ready for this next step. To begin solids, a baby should have good head and neck control and be able to sit upright whilst being supported. They should also be showing an interest in food and opening their mouth when food is offered to them on a spoon. A baby must also be able to move food to the back of their throat to swallow so if you try solids and your baby seems to be pushing the food out of their mouth because they can’t seem to get it to where it needs to go, then they are likely not quite ready.
Most babies will begin to show signs of being ready for solids by around 6 months of age. If your baby is close to 7 months old and you think they are still not showing signs of being ready for solids, it is a good idea to seek some advice from your doctor or healthcare professional.
Personally, I tried to start my son Andy on solid foods from the age of 6 months but he didn’t take to them very well. He was a healthy weight and very satisfied with breastmilk and breastfeeding. When I tried various solid foods he would spit most of them out and wasn’t showing much interest. I decided that he wasn’t quite ready and I gave it a break, waiting until he was 7 months old before trying again. At 7 months he was much more receptive to trying some fruits and vegetables and we persisted with it, having much more success.
Each baby will show signs of readiness at different ages and that’s ok, but make sure you keep in mind the health recommendations regarding starting too early and leaving it too late. Somewhere between 6 months and 7 months old is usually the appropriate age, and when most babies will be receptive to eating solids.
What foods should I start baby on?
There are no official hard and fast rules when it comes to introducing a baby to solid foods but experts do suggest only introducing one type of food at a time and ensuring that foods introduced are not a choking hazard (such as raw apple, whole nuts or raw carrot).
Many parents begin with an iron-fortified cereal as a first solid food and these are good because you can control the consistency of the cereal to be either smooth or thick. The cereal can be mixed with either breast milk or formula and is a relatively bland taste that your baby shouldn’t be too surprised by.
Some experts suggest that cooked vegetables should be introduced before fruits but once again, there are no fixed rules besides ensuring that the foods you choose are soft and safe for your baby.
Here is a list of some common healthy foods that are easy for a baby to eat and are great options with which to start:
– Cooked sweet potato
– Baby cereal
– Cooked apples and pears
– Mushy peas
– Cooked pumpkin
Some parents prefer to puree or mash first foods and others prefer to offer them in soft finger-food pieces. Offering your baby finger foods is often referred to as ‘baby-led weaning’ and you can read more about this here: What is Baby-Led Weaning? – Solid Starts
Here is a comprehensive list of potential first foods for your baby: First Foods for Babies Starting Solids – Solid Starts
When starting on solids, how many times a day?
Start off by introducing one solid meal per day at a time when your baby is usually at their hungriest. At first your baby won’t eat much in each sitting and it will take time for them to get used to the new flavours that they are experiencing. If your baby refuses or spits out the food, never force them to continue eating as this can cause unhealthy eating habits and make mealtimes a cause of anxiety for both you and your child.
What else do I need to know when introducing solid foods?
Contrary to how many of us were raised, it is a good idea to allow your baby to play during meal times. Allow them to have a spoon of their own and don’t be afraid of getting a bit messy. This is how your baby learns. Playing with their food allows babies to explore and build confidence in themselves and the feeding process.
Give small amounts of food to your baby on a spoon at first, and take it slowly. Introduce one new food at a time and stay with the same food for three days before trying something new. This allows your baby time to get used to a flavour and also makes it easier to monitor for any potential allergies.
Some babies do well with pureed foods and some like mashed or soft finger foods. It will take some trial and error to figure out what your baby likes in these beginning stages but it should be a positive and enjoyable experience for you both.
You can always ask your family health nurse for some advice on how and when to introduce solid foods too.
The National Health and Medical Research Council have a publication called the Infant Feeding Guidelines which is a wonderful resource. You can view it here.
Which is better – bought food or homemade?
This is a question that can spark passionate debate. Whilst there are many parents who prefer to give their babies homemade, organic food that have no preservatives or additives, there are also many store-bought products that claim to be healthy choices. Like a great many things, it really comes down to personal preference.
Many busy parents like the convenience and variety of store-bought baby foods that are portable, easy to store and easy to serve. Although it can end up costing more to feed your baby this way and it does generate quite a bit of waste, store-bought baby foods aren’t all bad. Look for options that are low in salt and sugar and try to avoid additives and preservatives.
A big positive is that when you make your own baby food, you know exactly what is in it and this is usually a less expensive option. The downside to this is that it takes time and energy to prepare baby food and sometimes parents are just too busy. As with the breast and bottle debate – fed is best.
Here is a great article to help you choose the best store-bought baby foods for your baby: How to buy the best baby food | CHOICE
When can my baby have water to drink?
Before 6 months of age, your baby only needs to be drinking breastmilk or infant formula. Once your baby is over 6 months of age, you can begin to give them small amounts of water in addition to their regular breast or formula milk feeds. At this age, the water offered should be boiled first and then cooled and served in a sterilised bottle or age-appropriate sippy cup. Once your baby is over 12 months, it is no longer necessary to boil the water first.
Introducing sips of water works well when babies are just starting solid foods. Parents can offer a few sips after eating as this can help prevent constipation and is good for cleaning the teeth and gums after eating.
Can I give my baby ‘allergy’ foods?
Allergy foods are defined as foods that are more likely to cause an allergic reaction. Some foods that fall into this category are eggs, cow’s milk, peanuts, shellfish and wheat.
Experts recommend that allergy foods are introduced after 6 months of age but before 12 months of age. Research has shown that leaving these foods until later can increase the chance of an allergy developing.
My son Andy was 11 months old when I tried giving him some peanut butter on toast. Within 10 minutes he was developing hives and this spread over his entire body resulting in redness and swelling which required antihistamine. Andy had a severe peanut allergy which has now developed into Anaphylaxis and requires us to have an Epipen available for him at all times. You can read more about Children and Anaphylaxis in my article here.
I was mindful that peanut consumption could cause a reaction for him as there are some cases of food allergy on his father’s side of the family but just be careful when introducing these allergenic foods and make sure you are able to seek help from a doctor quite quickly if necessary. If it’s a severe reaction or an emergency, make sure you call 000.
Having some First Aid knowledge is always very important as a new parent, especially when introducing solids so that you are prepared in case of allergic reactions or potential choking instances. You can read my review of the Kids First Aid online course here. It’s only 2 hours, all online, and covers the 10 most common emergencies involving children.
Here is a great guide for how to safely introduce your baby to allergy foods: How to introduce allergy foods | Pregnancy Birth and Baby (pregnancybirthbaby.org.au)
What NOT to give your baby when starting on solids
There are certainly some foods that should be avoided when introducing solids to your baby. Foods such as popcorn, whole grapes, raw carrot, whole nuts, raw apple and other hard fruits and vegetables can all be choking hazards for a baby. It is also best to not give your baby any sugary foods or sugar-sweetened drinks such as cordial, soft drinks or lollies. You should also never give your baby things like coffee, raw eggs, tree nuts, energy drinks or alcohol.
The Raising Children Network also has a lot of information on baby-fed weaning and starting solid food which you can find here: Raising Children Network
Are there any Apps that can help the journey of Starting on Solids?
There are actually many Apps these days that can help when you are introducing solids. My top 3 Apps are:
- Solid Starts
- Baby weaning and recipes
- Baby Led weaning Guide recipes
Summary – Starting on Solids
Beginning solid foods is an important step in your baby’s life and development. Many parents often feel excited by this step and are anxious to get going before their baby might be ready. It is important to remember that no babies should be given solid foods before 4 months (unless it is recommended by a doctor). Watch for signs of readiness once your baby is 6 months old and then proceed as detailed above, with a variety of nutritious foods. With a little preparation, you will be able to navigate this important step with confidence and excitement instead of anxiety and worry.
Has your baby started to eat solid foods? Did you opt for homemade food or did you buy store-bought solid foods? What were your baby’s first foods? Let me know in the comments!