It can be confusing knowing whether or not your baby is ready to start solids. Dietician and lactation consultant Carey Haupt takes you through the basics.
Starting solids can be an exciting time. I remember when we started our son on solids. We had my brother and the grandparents over. He was propped up in a chair, and we all watched as my husband and I fed him some mashed butternut off a spoon.
The video is so cute, the words of praise for how clever he was is quite impressive, and his outfit was cuter than cute. However, now when I watch the video, I shudder. I shudder because I can now see all the non-verbal signals he was sending, saying he was not ready. We could have waited a week longer, just to give him time. If I had known better than I would have done better.
I followed the WHO guideline for the introduction of solids, however, my son was born prematurely. Although he was six months old, he was not six months corrected age, and was not physically ready to start solids.
I wanted to be a good mother and provide extra energy for him so that he would continue to grow well and started too early instead of just waiting. If I were to do it again, I would follow the tips below and watch his non-verbal signs to assess if he were physically ready or not for solids.
What to look for
The WHO recommends starting at six months and they have good reason to do so. Before a child is ready to “eat” solids, they need to be able to protect their airway while eating. This is important to prevent choking and aspiration (when food or liquid goes into the lungs).
So how can a parent tell if a baby can protect their airway? From about five months, start looking for signs that you baby is ready for solids.
- Look for head/neck strength.This means can your baby hold their head in a book reading position for extended periods of time. Picture yourself sitting upright and reading a book. Think of where your chin is in relation to your neck. Can your baby hold the same position?
- Can your baby sit unaided? This means alone and not in a chair that supports them or pillows that help to prop them up. The same muscles that are used for sitting up also help to stabilise a child for eating.
- Is your baby showing interest in food? Does your baby watch you eating or try to take food from your plate? What does your baby do with the food once they have it in their hand? Do they just play with it (that is okay, and in fact, it is great for sensory reasons) or does your baby mouth the food?
- Once you start feeding your baby, do they stick out their tongue? This is like an automatic movement where the tongue pushes the food out. If this happens, then your baby has not lost his tongue thrusting reflex. It is a good indication that you should wait a bit before starting solids.
- When you offer your baby food, what feeding cues are you seeing? Is your baby turning to the food and opening their mouth or turning away? Does your baby put their arm in the way of the food or start crying? If so, your baby is showing you that they are not ready and not enjoying this activity.
I am not a fan of the saying that “food under one is just for fun” – the introduction of solids is really important as it has a large impact on how your baby grows and your child’s relationship with food into adulthood.
At about six months your baby needs extra dietary iron to keep up with their growth. This additional iron is supplied from the solids that you start to feed your baby. It is therefore important to include food that has a high iron content.
Children also need to learn about different textures, flavours, colours, temperatures and shapes of food. The ideal time to expose your baby to this is before they are one year old. As children get older, they start to become picky about the food that they eat. This is called neophobia and is totally normal. It is thought to be a protective instinct, so that a child does not eat something that could potentially be harmful to them while they are out and about exploring the world.
By exposing a child to as many different foods, textures, colours, shapes and combinations as you can, you are broadening the child’s term of reference for which foods are safe. If a child has only had soft food similar to yoghurt until they are one year old, they are more likely to become a fussy eater as they have not learnt how to chew and move lumpy food around in their mouth.
Top tips for introducing solids successfully
- If you don’t eat the food, don’t expect your child to love it either. Your child watches your eating habits and copies you. Sorry, you are going to have to eat that spinach.
- Eat with your child: let them see what you eat and how to eat it. They will earn their table manners from you. Dinner time can be such a special family time where you are able to connect and find out how each other’s day went.
- When introducing a new food (unless it is sweets) children may take at least 15 positive exposures before they accept the food. (Yes, I often have to breathe and be patient with my own children.) A positive exposure can be: seeing the food, touching the food or smelling the food. They don’t necessarily have to put the food in their mouth. If you force a child to eat a food, they will experience it as a negative exposure.
- Try not to tell your child that the food is “so nice and tasty”, cause for them it might be awful, and they will not trust your judgement on food taste. Rather explain the food to the child: what colour it is, how it feels in your mouth, what shape it is, what sound it makes when you chew it. That way the child is focused on the food and learning about it. If I am introducing a food to my daughter that has a strong taste – such as capers, for example – I explain to her that they have a strong taste and I am not sure if she will like them. She generally will taste the food and eat it or tell me it is too strong for her, but she is happy to try it again later. This is okay, as I know that she will try it again at a later stage.
Try not to use food as a reward. Rather use a sticker chart or special time together. If food is linked to a reward it makes it so much easier to eat for comfort when your child is older.
One of the most important things to remember is that feeding is messy. Yes, the best time to feed is just before a bath. Let your child explore and learn about the food they are eating. It is okay if they cover their face with butternut: the photos are so cute anyway. Once they have eaten, you can wipe up and clean the feeding chair. This way your child is learning not only what the food tastes like, but also how to use their other senses when eating food.