Photo: Carmen Cheung
Starting your baby on solids is a messy business. Yes, it can be joyful and hilarious—getting that classic spaghetti-face shot (or the yogurt-hair mohawk) is definitely a triumphant parenting milestone to record in the baby book. But there’s more to it than mastering the art of persuasive and effective airplane noises as you spoon-feed your chubby-cheeked little one. How do you time your baby’s meals and snacks around nursing sessions or their usual bottles? Which foods should you start with? How many times should you try a new flavour before giving up? Do you need to buy a special gadget for steaming and blending baby food? Are you a bad parent if you forgo the all-homemade, all-organic purée route and buy baby food in jars or pouches? And what even is baby-led weaning, anyway? Why are some parents so militant about the different approaches?
Moving from one phase of babyhood (the all-boobs-and-bottles stage) and into a new one is exciting, emotional and overwhelming at the same time. And we’ll warn you now: You might feel nostalgic for the comparatively “simple” and convenient days of exclusive breastfeeding on the go, because now you’ll be toting around spoons and little containers of food, while still nursing your baby a jillion times a day (most likely).
There is no one perfect age to start solids for all babies, and the guidelines have changed many times. (Does Grandma say she put “pablum cereal in your bottles” at four months old? The changing guidelines might be why.) The current recommendation from both the Canadian Paediatric Society and Health Canada is to start solids around six months (this change was made in 2015).
Look for signs that your baby: • can grasp and bring objects to their mouth • is interested in food (watches you eat, chews excitedly while you’re eating, makes happy noises directed at food) • has solid head and neck strength (they can turn their head to decline food) • can sit up properly with the support of their high chair or booster seat and does not slump in their seat, as this could increase risk of choking. • has lost their tongue thrust (this means your baby no longer sticks their tongue out repeatedly—that reflex has usually moved further back in the mouth by three to five months)
There is no one perfect food to start solids with—parents around the world begin with lots of different options. You definitely don’t need an iron-rich food to be literally the first food that touches your baby’s lips, but it’s essential that iron-rich foods are not delayed and should be given frequently. Iron is an incredibly important nutrient for babies between the ages of six and 12 months. During this time, a baby’s iron reserves have decreased, and they’re going through a stage of rapid growth and development.
Some parents are shocked at the idea of feeding meat to a young baby, but we know that the iron found in meat-based sources is typically better absorbed by our bodies than that in most other iron-rich foods. Ground beef, eggs, tofu and leafy greens are great sources of iron, in addition to the traditional iron-fortified cereals (oat, barley and multi-grain) you’ll see on shelves in the baby aisle.
Your baby’s iron needs are 11 mg per day, and that’s actually a hard total to achieve, especially if they’re not that into infant cereals. To get the most bang for your buck, pair iron-rich foods with vitamin C to help increase absorption, and avoid pairing it with calcium-rich foods, as calcium can decrease absorption. (This doesn’t mean you need to worry about the interaction between iron and the calcium in your breastmilk. A serving of breastmilk only has about 32 mg of calcium, whereas the same size serving of Greek yogurt, for example, has 100 mg. If you’re formula-feeding, check the nutritional information on your particular brand for the calcium and iron totals.)
Basically, iron-rich foods should be the main focus, but also introduce a variety of fruits, veggies, protein and healthy fats.
Whenever possible, give your baby a new food early in the day, so you have time to observe them and they have time to digest. You don’t want any reactions, intolerances or tummy troubles showing up right at bedtime.
There is no hard and fast rule about the exact order of food introduction, and nope—you do not have to serve one single food for several meals or days in a row. While doctors used to recommend delaying foods like peanut butter, eggs and even strawberries, there’s no need to wait—the exposure may actually help prevent allergies. It is wise, however, to space the introduction of a new, “high-allergen” food a few days apart from another high-allergen food. This means that nut butters, sesame, dairy, wheat, eggs and soy should not be grouped together in one meal when you’re first starting out. Wait about three days before introducing a new high-allergen food instead; if you notice a reaction, it’ll be easier to figure out what’s causing it.
As a fan of self-feeding, I don’t use pouches much—even though they’re incredibly popular. I get concerned about the super smooth texture and the sweet flavours. For busy life on the go, I think they can be a healthy part of a baby or toddler’s diet, but they shouldn’t be an everyday food. Becky Blair, a dietitian who helped write the current guidelines on infant feeding, agrees. “Young children need to experience the taste and texture of real fruit and veggies,” she says. “These fruit pouches are OK occasionally, but children need to learn and accept the taste and texture of real fruit, like mashed banana or cooked apple.” There are also environmental concerns about the garbage these packages create.
For a younger baby, it’s best to squirt the purée into a bowl or right onto a spoon, rather than letting them suck it straight out of the package, so they learn to deal with lumps and practise the skills they’ll need to become self-feeding toddlers.
When shopping for a packaged purée, I like to pick a blend that contains a healthy protein (like quinoa) and/or greens (like kale, spinach, peas or broccoli), since these foods can be harder to get into our kids at other meals.
Don’t panic—gagging is a totally normal developmental response in a baby. The gag reflex is a protective mechanism to help prevent choking, and in young babies, it’s very far forward in the mouth. Parents often report that their little one “chokes at every meal,” and I always remind them that gagging and coughing are not the same as choking. In fact, gagging and coughing are the ways we bring food forward in our mouths and away from our airways. If your baby is unable to cough or gag the object out, and goes silent, immediately help them with the appropriate choking manoeuvre. (Take an infant CPR or choking course, or watch this video on what to do if your baby's choking.) It’s essential that everyone who feeds your child and cares for them is aware of the difference between gagging and choking and how to help your child in an emergency. A certification card isn’t enough, in my opinion. This may sound extreme, but I ask our babysitters to demonstrate instead. If they can’t show you the skills, they’re not ready to stay alone with your little one.
Unfortunately, it’s not just for fun. I do understand the idea behind this saying: that we need to allow our babies to enjoy and explore food, and not get so hung up on the exact amount of food right away. I agree with this—to a point. The issue is that infants do need to start eating solid foods for a variety of reasons, including key nutritional needs and motor, brain and social development.
But there is no need to freak out if your baby isn’t as eager to eat as your friend’s baby. Some little ones will want everything that is offered to them and will gobble it up at every opportunity, while others are slower to warm to foods and might take longer to transition to more of a solid food diet. Keep trying. As long as your baby is still drinking breastmilk or formula, is frequently being offered healthy, nutrient-dense and iron-rich foods in a safe way and is developing normally, and there are no concerns from their doctor, you can continue on.
It’s important to note that for some babies, parent-led spoon-feeding will work better, while for others, baby-led feeding will be more successful. Give it time—some babies suddenly become much more interested in food around eight to 10 months. If, at any time, you or your healthcare provider is concerned, or if you’re just feeling like you could use some extra support, seek the assistance of a registered dietitian. Some babies will need help working through more complex sensory-processing issues and learning proper oral coordination.