A Solid Foundation

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Follow the Food Cues

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

Feb. 4, 2002 -- When Kyra Hurlbut was 5 months old, she began trying to snatch food from her mother's spoon. Her mother, Lydia, knew that this was a cue that Kyra was ready for solid foods. With the first cereal serving, it was love at first bite. "She chowed the whole thing," Mom says.

Eating "real food" is an exciting milestone -- one of the first visible signs that your baby is growing beyond the infant stage. But don't be too eager for your little one to grow up. Eating solid foods is an important transition, and you'll want to take the time to do it right. Pushing your baby to eat solids too soon may be setting him up for bad eating habits later. And, contrary to popular belief, starting solids sooner won't hasten a longer night's sleep.

Babies are usually ready to eat solids at about 4 to 6 months when they've lost their tongue thrust reflex and are able to take food into their mouths and swallow it. By then, a baby's body is better able to digest solids and filter out harmful food allergens, as well. Rather than waiting for some magic age to switch to solid foods, parents are better off waiting for cues from their baby that they're ready for the new experience, says Daniel Kessler, MD, director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at The Children's Health Center of St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix.

"Feeding solid foods should be a participatory process," says Kessler. "Otherwise, you're force feeding them, more or less, and the danger with that is you're overriding their normal regulatory capacity to know when they're hungry and when they're satiated."

That's particularly important these days with obesity on the rise -- about 14% of children 6 to 11 and about 12% of adolescents are overweight. "We're looking at what are the early factors for the development of obesity, and some of it might have to do with these early feeding habits," says Kessler.

Here are some signs that baby is ready for solid foods:

  • She is able to indicate in some way that she's ready to be fed, such as opening her mouth when you touch a spoon to her lips.
  • He is able to eat sitting up and has the oral motor skills to move the food from the front of his mouth to the back and swallow.
  • She is able to signal when she's had enough, such as turning her head, showing displeasure, or using a hand to push the spoon away.
  • He shows a distinct interest in your food, grabbing at items on your plate or utensils.

If your little one doesn't seem ready, don't sweat it. Put the cereals back on the shelf, go back to breast- or bottle-feeding exclusively (which is all your baby needs nutritionally for the first six to nine months anyway), and try again in another week or two. It's more important that mealtimes are fun, rather than a battle.

Easy Does It

The most common starter food is rice cereal, mostly because it's easy to digest and because it's fortified with iron to supplement your baby's own dwindling supply. Begin with a quarter teaspoonful or less, mixed with breast milk or formula. For newbies, the thinner the mixture, the better.

In The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby -- From Birth To Two, William Sears, MD, suggests feeding your infant from your finger to start off, since it's soft, the right temperature, and familiar to your baby. When she becomes accustomed to the new food, graduate to a coated demitasse spoon with smooth, rounded edges.

Start offering solids at the time of day when baby seems hungriest so that he's eager to try something new. At first, expect a bewildered look (or even a flat-out rejection) and more food around the mouth than in it. "It's a new experience, so there will be some adjustment, even when they're ready," says Kessler.

Let your baby tell you when he's full; don't worry about over- or underfeeding. "Kids have a remarkable sense of what they need to eat at a very early age. Don't override those cues," says Kessler. Using a spoon (rather than putting formula-thinned cereal in a bottle, which pediatricians discourage) will also help reduce the risk of overeating and excessive weight gain.

The Spice Factor

Once your baby is used to cereal, slowly introduce other foods, such as strained vegetables (except corn, which is hard to digest before six months) and fruit. Hold off on meats, which are more difficult to digest, until about seven months.

Some doctors suggest offering vegetables before fruits since veggies aren't as sweet and are more apt to be rejected if the baby gets accustomed to fruits first. Hurlbut says she had better luck with the sweeter vegetables, like sweet potatoes. Also, mixing breast milk and rice cereal into green vegetables, like spinach, helped make them more palatable at first.

Try one food at a time, then wait about three days before introducing another. Introducing foods slowly will give your baby a chance to show an allergy to a particular food. Major culprits are cow's milk and egg whites (which aren't recommended for children under 1 year), peanuts, wheat, strawberries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, corn, and shellfish.

Offering an assortment of foods will help ensure a wider range of nutrients for your baby, as well as introducing him to a variety of tastes and textures. Avoid adding salt or sugar, though, or he might wind up developing an unhealthy taste for them.

Don't be alarmed if your infant's bowel movements change after starting solids. They typically become more solid, variable in color, have a stronger odor and may even contain bits of undigested food. If the stools are extremely loose, watery, or full of mucus, contact your doctor. These are signs that the digestive tract may be irritated.

Finger Food ... and Finger Play

When baby is old enough to start grasping objects between his fingers -- usually about 9 or 10 months -- that's a good time to introduce finger foods. Start with foods that dissolve easily, such as crackers or Cheerios, small pieces of ripe banana, or small bits of cheese.

Consider safety. Avoid slick, round foods like hot dogs, processed meats, hard candy, popcorn, peanuts, grapes, apple chunks, and anything that can get lodged in the throat. Babies face significant risks of choking when they begin eating table food.

Encourage self-feeding by giving him his own spoon and a covered cup. It may be a messy ordeal, but the activity will help him work on fine-motor coordination, like holding things between thumb and forefinger. You may still need to feed him at the same time, but playing with his own utensils will also keep him happy and occupied.

As she squishes those potatoes in her hands or pours milk on her tray, try to remember that she's not doing it to irk you but to learn about different textures, temperatures, colors and other characteristics of her world. A large plastic bib and plastic drop cloth should help, and, as Hurlbut discovered, dogs are better at sucking up spills than any vacuum or sponge.

The transition from liquids to solids takes time. "By 12 to 15 months, they're eating basically the same foods that their parents are eating," says Kessler. "Feeding is a social occasion. Kids should understand that it's part of being a big kid -- it's part of the social fabric of the family."

Above all, keep mealtimes an enjoyable, shared event that sets a standard for family meals to come.

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