When my daughter was seven months old, I decided it was time to bring on the meat. I bought a chicken breast, poached it until it was soft, ground it up to make it easy to eat and thoughtfully arranged it on a colourful plate. I hoped she’d like it as much as the fruits, veggies and cereals she’d enthusiastically devoured a month earlier. Instead, she took one bite and threw up.
In hindsight, feeding her bland boiled chicken that, frankly, tasted terrible probably wasn’t the best way to encourage her to like meat. Over time, my daughter came around, and now, at age five, she eats almost anything I put in front of her. But knowing what to feed your baby—and when—can be confusing. Here are some simple dos and don’ts to help your little one get started with solids.
DON’T start too early
The recommended age to start solids is six months old, though it can vary a few weeks either way. “Look for signs of readiness,” says Becky Blair, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada who helped develop the latest Canadian guidelines on feeding babies. “Does your baby have good neck control? Can he sit up and lean forward to accept a spoon?” Michael Dickinson, a paediatrician in Miramichi, NB, suggests doing a test drive. “Some kids aren’t ready the first time and will spit it back out. Wait a week and then try again,” he says. Even if your baby is showing interest in food and is sitting up like a pro, don’t start before four months, and always talk to your doctor first. Introducing food before four months doesn’t offer health benefits, and babies this young are at a higher risk of choking because they cannot push food out of their mouths with their tongues.
DO look beyond rice cereal
For many parents, rice cereal is a go-to first food, but there’s no reason to limit baby to it. Just keep in mind that store-bought cereals are iron fortified (at six months, babies don’t get enough iron from breastmilk or formula), so if she’s not eating much cereal, it’s important to provide other iron-rich foods. “Meats, fish and scrambled eggs are good firsts, as well as plant sources, such as tofu, lentils or nut butters thinly applied to bread,” says Blair.
DO keep the lumps
Most parents start with only purées, but they are completely optional. At six months, babies can handle a variety of soft textures and finger foods—food can be minced, mashed or shredded. In fact, if your kid is getting mostly purées past nine months, he might have trouble transitioning to eating regular food, says Blair. However, if you are introducing solids before your baby hits six months, make sure they are puréed.
DON’T force it
“Babies are pretty good at letting you know if they want to eat,” says Dickinson—and it can be frustrating when they don’t, especially if you’ve gone to the trouble of preparing meals from scratch. But pushing kids to eat is usually futile and could make your baby dislike certain foods or, even worse, mealtime in general. Instead of forcing or coaxing your baby to eat, Blair suggests always including something you know is a favourite as part of the meal and letting your little one self-feed with finger foods or a baby spoon. If you’ve offered a variety of flavours and textures, and your baby still isn’t eating, call it quits on that meal and try again later. Putting the decision of how much and what to eat in your kid’s hands now and throughout her childhood will set her up with healthy eating habits for life.
DON’T delay introducing allergenic foods
Introducing potential allergens—like peanuts, eggs, seafood, sesame, soy, tree nuts or wheat—early and serving them often is now recommended, says registered dietitian Becky Blair. “This applies to all babies, no matter what their risk of developing a food allergy might be.” (Although, if your kid is at high risk because of a parent with food allergies, chat with your doctor first.) Be sure to introduce new foods one at a time and watch for an allergic reaction, such as hives.