Introducing Solid Foods: When, What, and How

During a four-or six-month checkup, you will probably like to ask your doctor, “when should I start solid food?” Perhaps one way to know when to begin giving your baby solid foods is when he starts “smooching.” Smooching is when he shows signs that he is interested, watches you eat. When his eyes follow your food as you move it from your plate to your mouth, when his hands reach out and grab my food and he is able to sit up in a high chair and join us at he table, then it’s time for the fun of solids to begin.

Experienced mothers have discovered a basic principle of introducing solids foods — feed babies according to their own developmental skills rather than a preset calendar or clock. Babie’s appetites and feeding skills are as individual as their temperaments. Let’s feed them that way.

Over the years infant-feeding practices have changed — for the better. No longer do we feed babies according to the calendar, stuffing cereal into the reluctant six-week-old and feeling we have failed if baby has not taken a full-course meal by six months. Today, infant feeding involves matching good Baby Meal with individual developmental and intestinal readiness, which varies widely from baby to baby. Reading the feeding cues of your baby, introducing solid foods gradually, and encouraging self-feeding all lead to that important principle of baby feeding: creating a healthy feeding attitude.

Baby’s tongue movements and swallowing skills are the first clues to delaying solid foods. In the early months, babies have a tongue-thrust reflex that causes the tongue to automatically protrude outward when any foreign substance is placed upon it. This may be a protective reflex against choking on solids too early. Between four and six months this tongue-thrust reflex diminishes. Also, prior to six months of age many infants do not have good coordination of tongue and swallowing movements for solid foods. An added sign that babies were not designed for early introduction to solid foods is that teeth seldom appear until six or seven months, further evidence that the young infant is primarily designed to suck, rather than to chew.

Not only is the upper end of baby’s digestive tract not designed for early solids, neither are baby’s insides. A baby’s immature intestines are not equipped to handle a variety of foods until around six months, when many digestive enzymes seem to click in. Pediatric allergists discourage early introduction of foods especially if there is a strong family history of food allergies. Research shows that starting solids before six months increases the risk of allergies. Maturing intestines secrete the protein immunoglobulin IgA, which acts like a protective paint, coating the intestines and preventing the passage of harmful allergens (cow’s milk, wheat, and soy are common examples of foods causing allergies when introduced early). This protective IgA is low in the early months and does not reach peak production until around seven months of age. As the intestines mature, they become more nutritionally selective, filtering out offending food allergens. Babies whose systems tend to be allergy-prone actually may show delayed willingness to accept solids — a built-in self-protective mechanism.

Breast milk or commercial formula with iron or a combination of the two contains all the essential nutrients your baby needs for the fist six to nine months. Consider solid foods as an addition to, not a substitute for, breast milk or formula. For a breastfeeding baby it’s best to start solid foods slowly so they don’t replace the more nutritious breast milk.

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