Food Stages for Babies & How to Advance Them

Last updated March 23, 2023
By Renae D'Andrea

Food Stages for Babies: What You Need to Know

When it comes to baby food, what to serve when can be very confusing! Then insert finger foods versus more traditional pureed food, all the different baby food stages involved in that, and it can just be overwhelming. So let's lay it out and talk about how to progress from one type of food to the next.

Pureed baby food and baby food stages

If you are giving your baby pureed foods, you have likely heard about the different stages of purees. You have stage 1, which is a thinner, watery single food puree that many recommend babies start with.

Then there is stage 2, which is a thicker consistency, often known as strained or mashed food, and has multiple ingredients in it.

Stage 3 baby food is smaller bites of food that need to be chewed. After stage 3, babies graduate to table foods, also known as finger foods.

When to advance to the next stages of baby food

Often times if you buy commercially prepared baby food products, you will notice a recommended age range to offer that food for your baby. Most of these age ranges are set by manufacturers, and are not usually an accurate range of when you should give them to your baby.

By focusing on those ages, it can actually slow down your baby's developmentally appropriate advancement with food.

baby using a spoon to eat out of a bowl

The number 1 rule to remember when it comes to baby food

We'll talk a bit more about baby food stages in a minute. But before we get there, there is one thing that I want you to take away from this.

If you remember nothing else, remember that your baby needs to be exposed to some form of texture in their food by the time they are 9 months old.

That means lumps, thicker mashed foods, soft finger foods. Something! Any type of (safe) texture counts. But one way or another, your baby needs to be consistently eating textures by around 9 months.

It can be really easy to get started with purees and just kind of stay there. You find the food that you and your baby like, whether it be store bought or homemade baby food, and just keep offering it. Great in theory, not so great in practice. Because then your baby misses out on an all important window to expose them to different textures.

Research has shown that there is an important window before 9 months to introduce textures. (Ref) Babies who aren't introduced to foods other than smooth purees by 9 months can be at higher risk of picky eating behaviors as they grow and decreased acceptance of foods and food groups.

So no matter what the labels on baby food say, focus on introducing foods to your baby that have some texture by 9 months!

How long should you stay on a stage of baby food

Now that you have a goal of introducing texture by 9 months, let's talk about the actual stages of baby food. The best way to look at advancing through baby food purees is to think in days, not months.

Offer your baby stage 1 food for something like 5 days or less. Just enough to establish that they can swallow something other than breast milk or formula. (You don't need it to be rice cereal to start, either!) Then move on.

You don't need to wait 3+ days in between food introductions!

Traditionally, the recommendation has been to keep offering your baby individual foods until you have established that they aren't allergic. The problem with this method is that it doesn't actually establish that your baby isn't allergic to a food. Food allergies can develop at any point.

We also know that introducing highly-allergenic foods early and often actually helps prevent food allergies from developing, and going slow in introducing your baby solid foods can interfere with that.

Not to mention the crucial texture window, and an equally as important window for introducing different flavors to your baby to help increase acceptance of foods later on.

Basically, we have research to show the need for introducing foods much quicker- for allergies, texture, and flavors.

There isn't actually research to show a need to go slow in introducing one food at a time and waiting several days for a reaction. It was originally recommended out of an abundance of caution. Not out of actual science. So prioritize introducing new textures and flavors as you start introducing solid foods to your baby.

baby eating from a bowl

Stage 2 baby food and beyond

Did you know that you don't actually need to even start at stage 1 baby food for your baby? That means you can skip right to stage 2 if you're offering your baby pureed foods.

This stage includes mashed or strained foods, and can be offered through store bought or homemade baby food. Any food your family is eating can be mashed up for your own baby food. You can always use a specific baby food maker, or a blender or food processor will work too.

But just like with stage 1, you don't need to stay on stage 2 forever. Mash up your baby's food for a month or so at the most if you go this route. But after that, move on to introducing finger foods of one kind or another. It doesn't mean they can never have stage 2 textured foods again. After all, something like guacamole can be considered stage 2! But it means you aren't intentionally restricting them to stage 2 or primarily giving them this style of baby food.

Incorporate some finger foods!

Soft finger foods, or table food, is completely fair game, and safe, here. You can also do small, softer pieces of foods that still don't require much chewing. Think something like lightly broken up black beans for your baby to work on picking up, or scrambled eggs. Or even grains like rice or quinoa. Start soft, and you will gradually start to make their food harder and more challenging for them so that they are constantly improving their skills.

The goal is to quickly move your baby up to safe table foods within a few months at the most. Starting with pureed baby food is intended to be just that, a start. By 9-10 months, no matter how you introduce solid food- whether purees or baby led weaning- your baby should be eating a similar style of food.

Baby Led Weaning and texture of baby foods

Baby led weaning takes a bit of an opposite approach to pureed foods. They recommend skipping pureed baby food all together when your baby is ready to start solids, and going straight to soft finger food.

This can be a great approach to starting solids, but is still one that you need to be aware of textures with.

Early stage baby led weaning food

When you first start baby led weaning, you really do want to focus on soft foods. The biggest recommendation is that your baby's food should be soft enough to squish between your thumb and forefinger. This approximates their tongue and the roof of their mouth.

Because your baby is experiencing textures here, there is not as urgent of a need to quickly advance away from very soft finger foods. They are learning a lot of new skills, how to manipulate food with their tongues, how to bring food to their mouth, and so much more.

But that doesn't mean that you stay there forever. The goal of feeding our baby and introducing solid foods to them is to help them progress with eating and challenge them to improve their skills safely.

More: For more help with baby led weaning and how to help your baby succeed with eating, be sure to check out this article with a comprehensive guide to baby led weaning and first baby foods!

How to advance your baby's food texture with baby led weaning

Once your baby is reliably eating their food, often a few weeks at least after starting but sometimes more like 1-2+ months, it is time to start making things more challenging. You can start by offering slightly harder textures. This doesn't mean that you should just go out and give them a hard stick of carrot to eat. Choking hazards and risky foods still apply!

But making a food more al dente by cooking it a little less is a great place to start challenging them a bit.

How do you know if it is too much? If you see an increase in gagging or what they would have eaten before is simply ignored, it is a sign that they aren't quite ready for that texture of food.

Finger sized foods or smaller bites with BLW?

Another place to advance your baby's food texture when it comes to baby led weaning? Try giving them smaller bits of things, or even introducing things you might not have at first because they are a smaller size.

I generally recommend letting babies use their palmar grasp and rake up food to get to their mouth right from the beginning of eating solids. But that might not be the approach you have been taking. If it's not, I encourage you to try now!

Try giving them some more mushy textured grains like quinoa. Or lightly mashed beans (so they aren't a solid bean with a skin around them, not to mash them as a texture) that they can work on picking up themselves.

As they get closer to 9 months, they will actively be working on developing their pincer grasp. Helping them along with smaller pieces of food is a great way to help them practice that skill.

The great debate between pureed baby food and baby led weaning

If you are reading this, there's a good chance that you have felt some pressure or instinct to choose one style of feeding over another. At the end of the day, the debate is a bit of a misnomer. You don't have to choose one style of eating! In fact, both styles rigidly followed would leave a bit to be desired from a feeding skills standpoint.

And really, we're talking about a difference of a few weeks at the beginning of their solid food journey. They won't be labeled as a "BLW baby" or have the equivalent of a brand they carry for life saying they were given pureed food!

The biggest goal is to start introducing them to different textures and flavors in a timely manner. If it is easier for you to do that by starting with purees and moving your way up, great. If you want to go straight to finger foods, also great.

What's REALLY important in feeding your baby?

No matter which way you choose, being familiar with common choking hazards, what to be aware of nutritionally for your baby, and HOW to actually do the feeding is the most important part. Because the specific way you prepare their food isn't really the point. But how you give it to them, how you set up their environment, and how they are having their meals? That IS something that can make a lot of difference in how your child grows up to experience food.

It's often something that is neglected, especially in the debate between baby led weaning and traditional feeding. We aren't taught how to actually do the feeding part of things. And that's the most important part. So for help with that part of things, and getting your baby set up on the right foot no matter how you choose to prepare their initial solid food, grab my online course Starting Solids: Setting the Foundation. Gain confidence in how to feed your baby. And learn how to set them up on a great and successful path with eating for life!

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