Starting an infant on solid foods is something all parents look forward to. And why not? It's a milestone: a sign that Baby isn't a newborn anymore and assurance that he'll grow bigger and stronger. Besides, it's fun to watch Baby's mouth open like a baby bird's, to play "here comes the airplane" games, and see Baby's expression when he first tries strained peas.
So, as you stock up on bibs, spoons and bowls, here are some things to keep in mind:
Hold off. Doctors always said that babies should start solids between 4 and 6 months of age. The new recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is to wait until 6 months of age. Ideally your baby should be breastfed exclusively before then. Breast milk is the perfect food for babies, and many studies have shown the health benefits to baby and mom from exclusive breastfeeding. But even formula-fed babies simply don't need solid foods before 6 months.
Keep it simple. For those first foods, use single-ingredient baby foods designed for early feeding. Or make your own. Just be sure to mash well and strain out any lumps (and don't add any salt or seasonings.) Rice cereal mixed with formula or breast milk is typically recommended as the first solid food. But some researchers, such as Carine Lenders, M.D. of the Division of Pediatric Nutrition at Boston Medical Center, suggest that starting with fruits and vegetables is a better idea. That way Baby gets an early introduction to their flavors and eats fewer unnecessary carbohydrates. When giving cereal, Dr. Lenders recommends mixing it with water.
Use a spoon. Don't give food from the bottle. If your baby pushes the spoon out with his tongue or otherwise has difficulty eating, he may not be ready. Wait a week or two. If the problems persist, talk to your doctor.
Less is more. In the beginning, 2 jars a day of baby food is more than enough. Keep the amount of cereal to 1 to 4 tablespoons, twice a day. If your baby decides he's had enough (turns his head away, fusses, keeps his mouth closed, spits food out) don't push him to eat. Letting him listen to his hunger cues will help him control his weight later in life.
Introduce new foods slowly. Babies need time to get used to new things in their bodies, so allow 2 or 3 days before trying another new food. Be on the lookout for rashes, diarrhea, vomiting, blood in the stool, or constipation, which could be signs of allergy or other reactions to the new food. Talk to your doctor if they occur. You should definitely talk to your doctor if there is a family history of food allergy, to see if you should delay giving certain foods (or not give them at all).
But keep introducing them! Even if Baby does make a really awful face when you give him strained peas, keep trying. It can take many tries before a food is accepted. And since food preferences are largely established by age 2, getting Baby used to vegetables early can make all the difference in establishing good lifelong eating habits.
Watch out for choking. Once they start eating, babies have a way of eyeing everyone's food enviously. However, resist the urge to pass them a potato chip or chicken leg. You can start finger foods between eight and ten months, giving things like banana pieces, shredded lean meat, or overcooked pasta. Keep the pieces small! Never give sliced carrots or sliced hot dogs, nuts, popcorn, raw vegetables, hard candies, or whole grapes to babies; they can easily lodge in baby's airway.
Babies don't need juice. It's far better for them to eat fruit than drink juice. Experts agree that lots of juice is bad for emerging teeth and increases obesity risk. If you don't start the juice habit, you'll never have to break it.
Follow these guidelines to give your baby a head start at learning good eating habits, staying healthy, and getting bigger in the right way.
Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.