Midwife Cath explains when to start a baby on solid foods

Everyone will have an opinion on when your baby should start solids, but it's important to remember all infants are different.

The age for introduction of solid foods to an infant’s diet is different for each child.

You need to take into account the age, weight, and developmental progress of the baby. Some babies will be interested in food earlier than others.

Even in the same family, you may see each child start food at a different age. It’s always important to remember that breastmilk meets all nutritional requirements for infants until they are around 6 months old.

Introducing solids may cause anxiety in families. Often, members of the extended family are keen for parents to start feeding the baby solids.

There is no hurry. If your baby refuses food one day, stop and leave it for a few days, then start over again. Your baby will eat but you need the baby to be ready.
Your baby is born with the extrusion reflex. This is the primitive instinct to push away anything hard and dangerous from their mouth that they are not yet able to chew and swallow.

The extrusion reflex is normal. It does not mean the baby does not like food. When the extrusion reflex disappears in a healthy baby, it’s because the baby is able to move food to the back of their mouth and swallow safely. This is when your baby is ready for solids.

Physical characteristics that allow for the introduction of solid foods at around 6 months of age include:

  • Renal function, which allows the infant to handle an increased load associated with solids
  • Digestive enzymes, which mature at around six months
  • Immune factors, which is when the intestinal defence mechanism of the gut is fully-developed
  • The disappearance of the extrusion reflex, which ends at around four months, so the infant is able to move food to the back of the mouth and swallow safely
  • Improved head control, which enables an infant to swallow more easily when sitting

Which foods to introduce, and when

I suggest starting solid foods with pureed smooth fruit and vegetables and iron-enriched infant cereal. Meats, poultry and fish are then added gradually, one food at a time, and in small amounts. Increase the range and quantity of foods offered as the infant moves towards 12 months of age.

Iron-fortified rice cereal is an ideal food to start with. Mix a teaspoon of rice cereal with some breast milk or formula, rather than water. If the baby refuses the first time, try again the next day, remembering this is new to you both and might take some time. 

Simplicity is key. Once the baby has had a few days of rice cereal, introduce some stewed apples at lunchtime. Continue this for another few days. Then introduce some sweet potato at dinnertime.

So now you have a plan: rice cereal for breakfast, stewed apples for lunch and mashed sweet potato for dinner. As the days and weeks go by, you add new foods. Again, start with a teaspoon of food and gradually increase over the following days and weeks.

By the end of the first year an infant should be consuming a variety of foods, having progressed from purees and mashed food to foods that are chopped into small pieces.

Small amounts of cow’s milk in foods such as breakfast cereal along with yoghurt, cheese and custards as a part of a mixed, nutrient-dense diet are suitable from around seven to eight months.

By 12 months, your child can be on the everyday family foods unless there are allergies. Ensure your child has plenty of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and dairy along with cereals, rice, pasta, noodles and other grains.

It is not necessary to add any sugar or salt to suit your taste as an adult. Treats and foods high in sugar and fat are not necessary for the growing child. It is not advisable to give babies under one year old honey because of the potential risk of C. botulinum bacterium causing botulism.

It's also useful to remember: 

  • Around 6 months - introduce pureed minced meats and chicken mixed in with vegetables
  • From 9 months - introduce other cereals such as porridge, which don’t have a high sugar or salt content
  • Around 10 months - offer water in a sippy cup after meals.
  • Breastmilk (or infant formula) should be continued while introducing solids for the first 12 months and beyond.  Except water, other drinks such as fruit juice are not required.
  • Avoid small, hard and round foods such as nuts, carrots, apples and grapes due to risk of choking under 3 years.
  • Stay with your baby when he or she is eating. Sit your baby with the family to watch and learn feeding skills.
  • Expect to see a change in bowel habits (and smell) when your baby starts eating foods other than milk.

This article is intended as general advice. Always consult a health professional personally whenever you are in doubt about you or your baby’s health.

This article is brought to you by Heinz.

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