Choosing to introduce food to your little one is an exciting time in your child’s development. But how do you know when they are ready for solids? And what foods do you choose to start with?
Introduction of solid food should not take place before 6 months of age, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. For the first 6 months of life your infant should be exclusively breast or formula fed. There are numerous benefits in giving your infant breast milk and so, whenever possible, breastfeeding is preferred to formula.
In the past, pediatricians have recommended supplementing at 4-6 months. Why the change?
Firstly, breast milk is the perfect food for your infant. It not only has an ideal balance of macronutrients, carbohydrates, protein and fat, it also provides antibodies to keep your babe healthy as they are introduced to bacteria and viruses. Breast milk also feeds good gut bacteria, creating a micro biome that will help your child maintain a healthy gut and immune system even into their adult years.
This issue of a healthy gut and immune function are the main reasons why it is best to wait until at least 6 months to introduce solid food. An infant’s immune systems is immature and their gut is “leaky.” This allows for mama’s antibodies to get into the blood stream and do their work in keeping baby healthy. Leaky guts also let food particles, specifically proteins, into spaces they really don’t belong. With the majority of your immune system in your gut, these proteins get picked up as “non-self.” And that’s what they are. They aren’t you and your body knows it. Wait, isn’t that good? Well, it is and it isn’t.
Recognition of these proteins can lead the body to become sensitive to them and react every time they are eaten. This is the basis for food sensitivities and a place from which allergies can develop. The issues surrounding food allergy development are less likely to occur as baby ages and the immune system and gut become more mature.
Here are some common ways food sensitivities show up for infants:
• Gastrointestinal symptoms are the most common: diarrhea, vomiting, gas, etc.
• Rashes, especially around the anus
• Runny, itchy nose
• Irritable behavior
• Red, swollen eyes
• Ear infections
If your child experiences any of these symptoms, especially difficulty breathing, it is best to consult a health care professional.
If there is a risk of food sensitivities and allergies, why give infants food at all?
Breast milk is awesome. There is no doubt about that. But it doesn’t contain the iron and zinc these little growing bodies need. In fact, it contains lactoferrin, a protein that binds iron to protect the newborn’s intestines from E. coli. E. coli utilizes iron to flourish and leads to diarrhea.
Your infant needs a good source of iron and zinc, but it doesn’t take much. At 6 months of age an infant’s diet should primarily be made up of breast milk with a small amount of solid food being eaten. Do you feel like your baby is getting more on them than in them? Perfect! They are exploring food and developing a sense of taste and texture. They are also working on developing their motor skills.
Does that mean you should stop breastfeeding at 6 months?
Absolutely not. The World Health Organization also advocates exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months and then continued breastfeeding for two years and beyond. At 6 months, food is a supplement to breast milk. Breast milk should continue to be the main source of food for your baby as it continues to evolve to meet your baby’s needs.
How do I know if my baby is ready for solids?
Age is only one indicator that your baby may be ready for solid foods. There are several developmental milestones that your baby should meet before beginning solids.
• Have good head and neck control
• Begin chewing on toys and hands, rather than suckling alone.
• Shows interest in food–leans forward with mouth open towards food.
• Ability to sit without support.
• Push body up with straight elbows when lying on stomach.
• Does not thrust tongue immediately with the introduction of food.
How should I introduce solid food?
Single foods should be introduced one at a time with a few days between to evaluate if your child has a reaction. If your child has a mild reaction, the foods should be removed from the diet and reintroduced after several weeks to see if it continues to be a problem.
Moms find that keeping a journal is most helpful in identifying triggers.You may want to consider a rotation diet if there is a family history of asthma, allergies or eczema. To do this, give your baby one food on day one and then do not repeat that food again until day four or five. This also includes not giving foods in the same family, such as zucchini and yellow squash, until several days have passed. Again, if there is a reaction, avoid the offending food for several weeks. By spacing out the foods you avoid bombarding the intestines with the same food and reduce the risk of the immune system becoming sensitive to those foods.
What foods should I start with?
I recommend that parents start with vegetables first. Once baby is doing well with those and ready for more than one meal a day, fruits can be introduced next. You want your baby to develop a taste for vegetables before you introduce sweet fruits (avocado being an exception).
Here is a list of foods to begin introducing to your baby after 6 months of age.
• Sweet potatoes
• Green beans
• Chard and other soft greens
• Red beets
Introduction of grains should be last, if at all. While conventionally we are taught that grains should be in-troduced first, it is best to introduce them last because of their potential to cause an allergic reaction. And if your infant is being fed vegetables, fruit and protein, there is really very little need for grains. They are a high glycemic food with very little nutrients when compared to the other foods you could be feeding your baby.
There are differing opinions regarding the introduction of meats. While some experts feel it is best to introduce finely pureed meat as the first food due to its rich iron and protein content, others feel that it is best to wait un-til 8-9 months. An infant’s stomach is capable of breaking down the proteins in meat and utilizing them at 6 months of age. However, if you are more comfortable waiting until your child is older or if you are wishing to feed your baby a vegetarian diet, ensure they are getting the iron they need by giving them cooked greens and vegetables.
General Food Avoidance By Age:
• Avoid cow’s milk before age 1 because of its ability to decrease iron absorption and the extra work it places on the kidneys. To reduce allergy risk, avoid until after 2 years of age.
• Introduction of nuts, nut butters and seeds should take place after 2 years of age.
• Avoid citrus fruits and berries until after 1 year of age.
• Avoid candy, chocolate and soda in general, but at minimum, until after 2 years of age.
• Egg whites, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat should be avoided until at least one year of age, two years of age with a family history of allergies or eczema because of their high potential for causing an allergic reaction.