Now that you know when to start feeding your baby, it's time to get into the what of first foods. Pureed baby food or regular family food? Is there a specific food to start with? Continue reading to find out!
As always with the Feeding Babies series, please keep in mind that while I am a health professional, this post is intended to be informative only. This is not a specific recommendation for anyone. As I do not know your specific situation, I cannot make recommendations for any type of food that your baby should start with. Please use your best judgement and consult with your care team as necessary.
The Most Important Thing
First and foremost, let's touch on the most important thing. That your baby get's fed. That's it. We can talk all day about the specific foods, textures, timing, etc. But the most important thing hands down is that your baby has food. You have every right to do what feels right for you and your baby. Do not let anyone else make you feel badly about your choice. We all make different choices for different reasons. As long as you feed your baby, you're doing your job.
The "Norm" for First Foods
Traditionally, parents have fed babies pureed foods. These foods are what we generally consider "baby food", and tend to be present in baby meals for months on end. The general consensus is that this developed when the recommendation was to feed your baby quite early in their life, when they didn't have the ability to chew their food. You can even see this lack of chewing ability in babies fed early at 4-5 months old; they just aren't ready for anything but pureed foods. When you wait to feed your baby until they show the proper developmental markers, they will be much more ready to handle other textures. At that point, there is no reason to confine them to purees.
What are my Options?
One of the more popular methods of feeding babies today is called Baby Led Weaning, also known as Baby Led Feeding or Baby Self-feeding. This is when baby self-feeds table foods of an appropriate texture. Think starting with an avocado instead of pureed foods. Methods along this line have been shown to allow baby to better regulate their internal hunger and satiety cues. They also lead to a natural progression of chewing and swallowing ability, and allow them to properly develop their gag reflex. These are all very good things in the world of baby development! It also means that you don't have to purchase or make baby food. With a few adjustments to ensure the texture is appropriate for baby, it means you can feed them what you are eating. It's really a win-win, both short and long term, for baby and families.
Doesn't that get messy?
There's no sugar coating this part. Yep! When babies feed themselves from the beginning, there is a learning curve. They have to practice the skill of eating and getting food into their mouths. A decent amount of food will end up on the floor. In return, though, your baby will be an adventurous eater who is exposed to lots of textures and flavors. Generally these babies grow up to have more adventurous palettes. It doesn't mean your baby won't have picky stages as they grow. Overall, though, these babies have been shown to end up less picky than their traditionally fed counterparts.
What if I want to stick with purees?
Some parents don't feel comfortable starting their babies on anything but pureed foods, and that's ok. Like I said above, it is your choice. If you decide to start on pureed foods, I encourage you to keep in mind that they are just starter foods. By the time your baby reaches 7-8 months old they should have no problem advancing their textures to lumpy purees and soft table foods. There is a good chance they will want to feed themselves, too. We will cover specific things to look for before advancing textures in a future post.
Rice cereal as a first food or not?
If you decide to start with pureed foods, there is no real need to start with a fortified cereal. Rice cereal was the general recommendation when babies were starting solids very early. The thought was that you should avoid allergens until later in life. Rice cereal is one of those bland foods that doesn't have a lot of flavor, is allergen free, and fortified with iron. The iron in it is not anywhere near as well absorbed as that in breast milk, and the actual amount of iron babies can absorb from it is up for debate. Pick any fruit or vegetable to start. Oatmeal is also a viable option, as is meat to help with iron intake. Most babies will not have a problem switching between foods, just continue to vary what foods you offer.
What about allergies?
The recommendation from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease is to introduce your baby to allergenic foods early and often. This means that once baby is developmentally ready for foods, incorporating things like peanuts, eggs, wheat, and soy into their diet is a great idea. There is no evidence that waiting several days between introductions of foods helps to prevent or identify allergies. This is no longer the generally accepted advice. Allergic reactions can happen at first introduction of foods, or after several exposures and months down the line. Knowing what's in your food and ensuring that you are offering a variety of foods frequently is your best bet at helping to prevent food allergies down the line.
No matter which method you choose, the best way to help your child develop a healthy relationship to food is to practice responsive feeding. What's that, you ask? It's letting your baby lead the way in deciding how much they want to eat. Pay attention to your baby's cues, like turning their head away. Respect those cues by not pushing more food after they are done. Don't encourage your baby to have "one more spoonful", or force the spoon into their mouth. With self-feeding methods, the same general guidelines apply. Don't force your baby to have more than they want at any meal. Don't decide for them which types of foods on their tray should be consumed first or completely. Babies have an innate ability to know when they are hungry or full. It is incredibly hard as a parent to tune in to their cues ahead of what we think they should eat. But listening to them first and foremost, and trusting that they know what their body needs is one of the best things you can do for your child.
I want to try this self-feeding method, what do I start with?
The beauty of self-feeding is that your baby can generally have what you are having, with potentially some slight texture modifications. Assuming your diet is an overall healthy and balanced one, that is. Things like avocado, meats, greek yogurt, and soft fruits and veggies are all great options. I like to have a chart up on my fridge to remind myself and my husband of great food options as we're cooking or meal planning, as well as portion sizes and texture recommendations.
No matter which method you choose to use, know that they don't have to be exclusive. If you spend any time on social media you will come across people who have become very dogmatic in their choice of feeding method. Know that this does not have to be the case. Trust your baby and your intuition. Follow safe practices to avoid the major choking risks, and have a fun time introducing your baby to solid foods. Offer multiple foods frequently from the start. Doing this will help your baby to develop a long term liking of different tastes that will help them throughout their life.