How to Introduce Solid Food
When to Start
There is no solid consensus on when is the right age to start solids. There have been many different suggestions over the years as scientists and doctors have studied the gut, oral development, teeth, and fine motor skills. Ask a different specialist (pediatrician, pediatric nutritionist, pediatric gastroenterologist, allergist, lactation consultant, developmental scientist, feeding therapist, dentist) and you will get a different answer, although common and current recommendations tend to have the start somewhere between 4-7months of age.
I prefer to look for the a few developmental cues to determine the “right” time:
Does your child show interest? This might be watching you eat, smacking their lips when you take a bite, or attempting to take your food.
Has your child lost their tongue-thrust reflex? When something is placed in their mouth do they use their tongue to immediately push it back out? Then they are not ready.
Is your child capable of grabbing an item and bringing it to their mouth?
Can your child sit unassisted? The ability to hold themselves upright is important in the prevention of choking.
Has your child’s medical providers cleared them?
If one of these steps has not been met yet, do not start solid foods. The only exception is for children with differing abilities, in which case you work alongside their therapists and medical providers to make a plan. Typically the children I work with start solid foods around 6-7 months of age.
People have been feeding their infants for centuries without modern conveniences, but the variety of options sure does make it easier. Here is some of the equipment you may want to consider purchasing before starting this journey:
High Chair: Although you could use your lap or a low chair and table, I prefer to have baby join the family up at the table in a comfortable and supportive chair. Look for a chair that adjusts as your child grows. It should fit them just as well at 6 months as it does at a year old. The chair should be easy to clean without any velcro, crevices, or hard to clean padding that could trap food. Your child should be able to sit up straight with their knees bending comfortably over the edge and their feet well supported on an adjustable footrest. Bonus if the chair has some longevity and converts to support a toddler and preschooler. I prefer chairs by Evomove, Stokke, Keekaroo, and other similar chairs.
Utensils: Because babies and toddlers are still developing their hand eye coordination, they need silverware that is blunted. It also needs to be small enough to fit comfortably in their mouths. And blunt doesn’t have to mean unusable. When introducing a fork, if it is impossible to stab anything with it, is it really worth using? Infants start with their hands and work towards the use of utensils
Plates/Bowls: In the early stages, it is easiest to skip a plate and use the child’s high chair tray or a silicone placemat. Plates provide too much temptation to throw overboard. I do like when there is a silicone suction cup to keep the dishes steady, but I’m just as happy to go from tray to glass plate. You want dishwasher safe items. It is obnoxious to hand wash baby things all day, you have enough to do. It’s nice if the dishes have lids to store leftovers easily. I like the Bumkins dishes.
Bibs: Cloth bibs with a leak proof backing are classic with soupy, puree-fed babies, but if you start with solids or once you get to that point, nothing is better than soft, flexible silicone. The pocket catches spills, the flexibility allows it to move with baby, and ones with multiple notches make it difficult for baby to yank off. If you are going with a cloth bib to start, look for the European style, large sizes that cover baby well.
On the Go: it's convenient and fun to eat picnics, stroller meals, and at restaurants with your baby. However, it definitely helps to be prepared. If your stroller has an option for a snack tray, buy it. You can get disposable and silicone bins and placemats to take along. Also travel utensils in a case. Travel High chairs (peg perego, fisher price, inglesina) are especially useful when you frequent places without an appropriate seating area.
Foods to Avoid:
Honey - although it is a minimal risk, infants under age 1 are at a much higher risk of infantile botulism because their guts are not fully developed. Avoid cooked and raw honey until you have a toddler.
Dairy - processed dairy like yogurt and cheese are excellent for babies, but most infants struggle to process straight cow's milk and ice cream. Stick with breastmilk or formula over other forms of dairy
Round food - grapes and sausages need to be quartered (not just halved), this is a choking risk, and children aren't the only ones to have died in choking incidents with these foods.
Sticky food - peanut butter off a spoon, and other foods that are difficult to masticate to small amounts/move around in the mouth are also a choking risk
Soft food - although most soft foods are preferred, take care with chunks of white bread and other foods that have a sticky, hard to chew consistency once wet in the mouth
Excessive salt isn't healthy for anyone. Many processed foods available are heavily salted. Use lots of seasoning, but avoid overdoing it on salt.
Caffeinated drinks and alcohol should of course be avoided. Remember that children should only be given decaf teas.
What to Offer/How to Offer
Pureed food: probably the most recognizable method, pureed foods are foods that are mixed with liquid (usually water or breastmilk/formula) and blended until smooth or nearly so. These can be fed warm, cold, or room temperature depending on the food and wishes of the parent/child. Purees are spooned into a child's mouth by their adult caregiver. Purees became very popular when jarred and canned foods started to be sold widely. More recently, food pouches have become popular as it's an easy way to feed babies and toddlers on the go!
Mashed food: picture mashed potatoes or rice and smashed veg. Historically, this has been a common method of feeding infants as long as humans have been around. Hand cranked food mills were a kitchen staple for parents once upon a time. Once the family meal was ready to be served, a parent could take out a small portion and mash it with a small mill or food processor. The child ate the same foods as everyone else, but with a different consistency.
Table food: often referred to as baby led weaning, this method introduces solids simply by giving baby chunks of regular food to gnaw on. These can be foods that are hard (whole cucumber) or tough (strips of steak) for baby to suck on. They may also be soft and cut into a finger length so baby can fist them and mash with their gums (bananas, soft steamed broccoli, soft steamed apples). As baby's grip, aim, and chewing ability evolve, their food evolves into small pieces (Cheerios, peas, minced meat/fruit/veg). Baby eats the exact same foods as everyone else, although sometimes overcooked to a softer texture.
Flavor! Don't be afraid of herbs and spices. Baby food doesn't need to be bland! Introduce your baby early and often to flavors (it can take trying a food 10x or more to learn to enjoy it). Avoid excess salt, but most spices are perfectly safe for infant consumption. Babies in India and Brazil don't eat only bland foods! Teach your baby to enjoy what you enjoy!
Water: young infants do not need any extra water. Breastmilk naturally adjusts water content, and formula is also mostly water. However, when your baby starts solids, they start losing out on water. Introduce small amounts of water in a cup at meal times. Never put water in a bottle or add water to formula/breastmilk!
Make mealtime family time! Humans experience eating as a social activity, and this is a great time to put away electronics and focus on conversation, practicing manners, and modeling healthy eating. Offer your baby the same foods you are eating. Aside from satisfying their curiosity about the food on your plate, this will also encourage them to try and experience a wider variety of food. Trust me, you don't want to end up making two separate meals every night, get them used to the (healthy!) foods you enjoy.
Don't worry about baby being hungry. Hunger naturally changes depending on activity, health, and growth patterns. Trust your child to know when they need to eat.
Don't panic if your baby doesn't eat any vegetables at lunch or dinner. Offer a veggie-heavy meal for the next meal, and stick to what is being offered. It's ok to choose to be hungry, eventually, they will eat.
Ellen Satter's Division of Responsibility
Meals with children are notoriously difficult. From tantrums over foods touching, to refusing to eat anything but Mac and cheese, to battles over finishing vegetables. Everyone wants this to be an easy and relaxed process, but it can be hard to maintain that calm. It's important to understand that young kids have very little agency, and one of the things they can ultimately control is what goes in their mouths. This is not the time to enter into a losing battle with a one-year-old. Instead remember what Ellen Satter teaches: you decide what they are served and where/when they eat, they decide what and how much of that goes in their bodies. You can't eat crackers and candy if they aren't offered. She also suggests avoiding labeling foods as good or bad, yucky or yummy. Serve ice cream the same way you serve broccoli.
Read more about Ellen Satter: https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/the-division-of-responsibility-in-feeding/
The current recommendation for introducing allergens is "early and often." If your baby is at higher risk for allergies, speak to your pediatrician first.
Introduce different foods as often and as early as possible. Especially, peanut butter, strawberries, soy, eggs, and other high-risk allergens
100 Foods by 1 Challenge
Although entirely unnecessary, some parents find it fun to track which foods their baby has tried and work to expand their palate by checking off 100 different foods but 1 year old.
It's important to understand and accept that meal times are messy for babies. There are ways to mitigate the mess (bibs, washable mats under the high chair, frequent face wiping), but in the end, the mess is an important part of learning. Meals are the biggest time of practice for fine motor skills and sensory experiences. The more opportunities you give your child to practice these skills, the stronger their brains!
Learning table manners and restaurant manners
It's never too early to practice social behaviors!
Give your toddler a napkin for their lap (even if they have a bib)
encourage your baby to sign or use their words to indicate what they want
practice polite behavior to waitstaff
practice consequences for acting out in public (get up and leave if your child screams - go home hungry or calm and return to the table as many times as needed. Causal lunch spots are wonderful places to practice manners).
The more gentle and reinforced practice you have, the easier it is to take out your child as they get older. A tip: patience is hard to learn, set yourself up for success by ordering your child's meal immediately upon arrival to be delivered before the rest of the food. Having a granola bar or other healthy snack available to tide them over helps too. Also pack quiet toys like coloring, small cars, stickers, or finger puppets to provide distraction and entertainment while the grown-ups speak or during long wait times.
ASL for eating, teaching your baby to communicate preverbally:
ASL is a great way to communicate with your infant before they are old enough to speak. Babies understand more than you think they do, and it's so amazing to watch a 10mo sign "more milk please" rather than hear them scream while you scramble to guess what they want. Meal time is a great way to practice and reinforce signs such as:
If you are feeling adventurous, and baby and caregivers know the basics, branch out to signs for specific food favorites so you know when your baby wants a banana or cereal.