There are many signs to watch for that your baby is ready to start solids. But there are also several false signs of solid food readiness that can confuse some parents.
Many parents hear that if a baby has doubled his birth weight, or if he weighs more than 14 pounds (6.4 kg), it’s time to start solid foods.
Many babies double their birth weight at some point between 4 and 6 months, so this “guideline” may bring the baby into the recommended timetable for starting solids. But a smaller baby (such as a premature baby) might double his birth weight at a much earlier age, even though his system is likely to be ready for solids later than average.
The 14-pound guideline is similar. If a baby is born weighing 7 pounds (3.2 kg), which was the average weight for a newborn a generation ago, that baby will typically have doubled his weight to—surprise!—14 pounds by between 4 and 6 months. (Today’s average newborn weight is 7 pounds, 13 ounces (3.5 kg) in Canada and 7 pounds, 8 ounces (3.4 kg) in the U.S., so the weight guideline would need to shift anyway.) And of course, this guideline only applies to an average baby. A baby born weighing 11 pounds (5.0 kg) is likely to hit 14 pounds by 8 weeks, which is much too early for solid foods.
It’s not so much that achieving this particular weight gain indicates readiness for solid foods. It’s simply that it tends to happen (on average) around the middle of the first year, when babies are usually ready.
At every well-baby check, the doctor plots the baby’s weight on a chart to see if she is following the expected growth pattern. For breastfed babies, weight gain during the first two or three months tends to be a bit faster than it is for formula-fed babies. But at around 4 months, the rate of weight gain usually slows down. The breastfed babies are still gaining weight, but not as quickly as they were in those early months. The rate slows even more during the second half of the first year.
Formula-fed babies tend to gain weight at a more consistent rate throughout the year. There is some slowing, but not as much as for breastfed babies. Unfortunately, that more consistent pattern of weight gain is linked to childhood and adult obesity.
You’ve probably seen a growth chart: these charts have gently curved lines, and the baby’s weight is expected to (roughly) follow the curve he starts out on. If a baby’s recorded weight starts to fall below the curve, then a doctor may become concerned that the baby is not getting enough to eat.
Until recently, the growth charts used by most North American doctors were based primarily on formula-fed babies. This wasn’t because of any prejudice against breastfed babies; rather, it was because most babies were formula-fed when the charts were made. These charts, however, created some problems for parents of breastfed babies. When the pattern of weight gain for breastfed babies was compared with the curves that were based on formula-fed babies, the breastfed babies seemed to be faltering. Doctors would look at the charts and decide that the breastfed babies weren’t getting enough to eat; if they didn’t suggest formula supplementation (or if the parents resisted that idea), they’d often suggest starting solid foods.
The World Health Organization (WHO) came to the rescue by doing a large study with groups of babies from several countries around the world. Their study included only breastfed babies who started solid foods at the recommended 6 months. The new curves on the graph flattened out by around 4 months and had a lower average weight at 1 year. This growth pattern is linked to better overall health and lower rates of excess weight and obesity later in life.
So if your baby is breastfeeding and your doctor suggests that she might need solid foods to “get her back on the curve,” you can ask whether the WHO growth charts are being used. If not, ask your doctor to use them instead to get a better assessment.
Sometimes people tell parents that if their babies are getting teeth, it’s time to start “real food.” The behaviors common with teething—chewing on fingers and toys or fussing during feedings—can also be interpreted as the baby being ready for solid foods. The problem with using the arrival of teeth as a guideline is that some babies are born with teeth already in their mouths, and other babies don’t get them until they are more than 1 year old. This makes them a pretty unreliable gauge for starting solids.
If your baby doesn’t have teeth at 6 or 7 months, will he be able to manage eating the foods he can pick up himself? How can he chew or bite without teeth? Parents sometimes worry about this when deciding whether to use the baby-led approach. Fortunately, babies are very capable of gumming reasonably soft foods enough to swallow them. (If you have ever been bitten by a toothless baby, you know how strong their jaws are!)
This article was excerpted from Baby-Led Weaning: The (Not-So) Revolutionary Way to Start Solids and Make a Happy Eater (Firefly Books).