You wouldn’t think that something as seemingly routine as starting your baby on solid food would end up being so controversial. The World Health Organization says: “Exclusive breastfeeding for six months, and then gradually introduce solids.” The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends solids be introduced between four and six months. Your mother claims you were eating cereal at six weeks.
Even if you sort out that food fight, what if your baby decides on a different timetable? Some little ones salivate at the sight of cereal, but some hate solid foods.
Anton Perera was one of those. At six months, Anton clamped his little mouth shut, says his mother, Angela. She wasn’t too concerned, figuring she’d wait until he was ready.
She waited. And waited. “Around eight months, he started reaching for my food, so I thought he must finally be ready,” she recalls. “But almost always he would just take one bite and then he wouldn’t have any more.”
Hana Knight was even worse — she wouldn’t eat a single bite of solid food until long past the middle of her first year. “She was excited to play in the food, but when we tried to feed it to er she’d gag,” says her mother, Katherine.
Paediatrician Jay Gordon, author of Listening to Your Baby, says such babies are not unusual — in fact, they fit in with his own recommendations for nursing infants. In his practice in California, Gordon recommends formula-fed babies start solids by six months, but exclusively breastfed babies do not need to start until between nine and 15 months. He says research suggests that a longer period of exclusive breastfeeding might actually help babies be healthier.
Concerns about low iron levels in breastfed babies are largely based on inaccurate measures of iron in breastmilk, Gordon says. He cites a 1995 Italian study, which found that none of the breastfed babies who started solids after seven months became anemic, while more than 40 percent of those who started solids at five or six months developed iron deficiency. Few babies in Gordon’s practice become anemic, and then they can be supplemented if needed.
Beyond actual nutrition, some paediatrians worry that babies who delay starting solids may have bigger problems eating textured foods later. Gordon has not found this to be a problem. Babies who start solids later, though, usually prefer to feed themselves.
Registered dietitian Molly Roberts of Guelph, Ont., says parents should remember that “eating solids is a learned skill, not something babies are instantly good at.” Your baby isn’t ready, physically, if he automatically pushes the food back out with his tongue every time you spoon it in. But even if he is developmentally ready, it may take some time before he figures out what to do with that lump of banana sitting in his mouth.
If your baby refuses solid foods, and you and your doctor think it’s time to start, Roberts suggests these strategies:
• Have your baby sit with you at mealtimes to watch the rest of the family enjoying their meal. Sometimes it helps to get together with a friend and her baby so your baby can see another baby eating. • Try different textures. Some babies like purée, others like things lightly mashed with a fork, still others want small chunks of soft food they can pick up themselves. • Offer a variety of tastes. While infant cereals are often the first food given to babies, some dislike the bland taste. Mashed, ripe bananas are often popular with breastfed babies — the sweet taste is closer to that of breastmilk. • Offer the food in different ways. Some like to lick food off a parent’s fingers, or scoop it up with their own hands. Others won’t tolerate that kind of messiness, and want you to feed them. • Consider that your baby might be filling up on breastmilk or formula. Try offering solid foods first or cutting back on milk feedings to see if this helps. Be warned, though, that this approach doesn’t work with all babies and may make them more resistant to solids.
You should also talk to your child’s doctor about possible underlying causes. Allergic babies sometimes refuse solid foods; some babies with developmental or neurological problems find it difficult to coordinate their tongue movements and swallowing needed to eat.
Knight and Perera both report happy endings and toddlers who are now enthusiastic eaters. Hana stopped gagging on food at around 13 months and was soon chowing down everything she was offered. Anton waited just a little longer, but at 14 months he started to eat more. Perera’s advice to other parents: “Just keep offering without being pushy, and when they’re ready, they’ll eat.”