It’s one of the biggest transitions in your baby’s young life: starting on solid food. Joanna Benec, a clinical dietitian with the Hospital for Sick Children, is a big proponent of “cue-based feeding.” In other words, letting your baby decide if he’s going to eat and how much he’s going to eat. Here, she shares some of her tips on helping your baby make the move to solids.
At what age should I start my baby on solids?
The recommended age is six months, plus or minus a few weeks. We know six months is about when an infant starts to run low on iron stores. Also, six months is when they are developmentally ready for eating solids to be a safe and enjoyable experience.
How might my baby be showing me he’s ready for solids?
You want to see a few signs, for sure, because it’s more than simply showing interest in what you’re eating. That’s not necessarily a sign in itself. It’s important that your baby has head and neck control, so you know his airway is protected and there are no swallowing issues. He also has to be able to sit independently; you shouldn’t have to prop him up.
You also want to see an ability to pick up food. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you’re looking for whether he’s capable self-feeding. Your baby should also be able to communicate his desire for food by opening his mouth if he’s interested and closing it or turning away if he’s not. And you want to respect those signs.
What foods should I start with?
It really doesn’t matter as long as it’s an iron-rich food. We used to say to start with iron-fortified cereals, which is still an option, but now we know it can be any iron-rich food: lentils, cooked meat, cooked eggs, or mashed-up beans or legumes. Depending on what your family eats, you want to offer your child similar foods, adjusting portion size and textures to match your baby’s skill level. It doesn’t have to be a specialty baby food.
How do I know how much food to give my baby?
Right from the start, you want to be responsive to your baby’s cues. We call that responsive feeding, or cue-based feeding. As a sort of guide, a dietitian named Ellyn Satter has come up with an important principle called the ‘division of responsibility.’
In the transition to solids, according to Satter, parents are in charge of ‘what’ – deciding what foods are healthy options for the baby. Parents control ‘where’ – ideally sitting at a table together as a family. And parents are responsible for ‘when’ – what times of day food is offered to the child. The child is in charge of ‘how much’ they eat and ‘if’ they’re going to eat.
This can be a tough concept for parents to wrap their heads around because you need to trust your child has innate hunger cues, and you want to respect his appetite. Babies are just like you and me – some days they feel like eating all day long, other days they might want smaller meals or not be hungry at all. Their appetites ebb and flow, just as their growth ebbs and flows.
Also, parents need to remember that for babies, eating food is a new experience; they’ve never done it before. They don’t know what to expect. Sometimes it can take a child up to 20 times being exposed to a certain food before he accepts it. So just keep offering a variety of foods with no pressure.
Any foods I should avoid – allergens for example?
The recommendation used to be to withhold common allergens until later on, thinking that would help prevent allergies. But we saw the opposite happened. Delaying allergens actually caused more allergies.
In 2019, the Canadian Paediatric Society adapted a new statement that showed kids should be exposed to common allergens when they start solids at six months (and no earlier than four months). And we should do so even with children considered at high risk for allergies, meaning they either have eczema or other food allergies, or have an immediate family member with an allergy.
There is one food you should avoid, but not because it’s an allergen. Honey (pasteurized or cooked) contains botulism spores, which can cause devastating reactions in infants. So, no honey until your child is a year old. This is important to remember, as these days people are cooking and baking more at home. In trying to provide healthier options for their family, parents might substitute honey for sugar, and offer it to very young children without thinking.
What are some typical missteps parents make when introducing solid food?
People get looped into offering only baby food. A six-month-old can eat the same food as the rest of the family. Parents might be afraid of using spices for example, but if that’s the food your family eats, there’s nothing unsafe about offering food with spices to your baby.
Finally, some parents don’t like the mess of it. Learning to eat is messy. Babies are learning by using all their senses, so let them have that experience and figure things out for themselves.
Dietitian Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility
• What food is offered
• When food is offered
• Where food is offered
• How much they will eat
• If they will eat