As I’ve said elsewhere, the greatest gift you can give your newborn baby is to breastfeed exclusively until the introduction of solids. This is not mumbo jumbo, touchy-feely, tree hugger advice. This is based on plenty of hard science about the long term health benefits of breastmilk. The World Health Organisation currently recommends exclusive breastfeeding to 6 months of age, based on studies done in the late 90’s, but in the past decade it’s been shown that from an allergy point of view one can start any time from 4 months, so this has become the general advice of paediatricians throughout the world. This piece looks at when, what and how to start solids in your baby.
New parents today are bombarded with massive information overload. This is particularly true when it comes to advice about when to wean your baby onto solid foods. In days gone by you’d just follow granny’s advice. Now everyone has a list of rules, and mother and baby magazines are full of do’s and don’t’s with solids, and hardly anyone agrees with anyone else.
So when you’re trying to make head or tail of a flood of conflicting information, my general advice is to take time out for a reality check. For thousands of years mothers all over the world have been doing what their mothers told them, and their children grew up fit and healthy (providing of course that food was available). If you bear in mind that what granny told them is quite different in every part of the world, then it makes sense that there can’t be a right way and a wrong way because they all work.
With this in mind, here are some thoughts about how to introduce solids into your baby’s diet…
It’s interesting that your newborn baby’s digestive system can probably break down and absorb ( i.e. digest) any food that hits the stomach. So why don’t we start them on steak, egg and chips from birth? Well, there are a few reasons…
Babies can’t chew.
The occasional baby is born with one or two teeth (‘witches teeth’), but most have none, so they can’t grind solid food into a paste that can be swallowed. In days gone by before we could puree food, this may have been the main reason for not starting solids until baby had teeth.
Babies can’t swallow.
Newborn babies have immature nervous systems which develop at a rapid pace after birth. So they can’t sit, stand, walk or talk. And they can’t swallow even pureed food. Being able to swallow mashed up food is a developmental milestone, just like sitting, and all milestones have a range of normality. So in the same way that normal babies start to sit anywhere between 5 months and 8 months, normal babies can swallow pureed food between 4 and 6 months.
In the last 10 years, research has shown that the time to start exposing babies to foreign proteins in the form of solids is between 4 and 6 months of age. If you start before 4 months (as was often the case 30 or 40 years ago), there’s a higher risk of baby developing food allergy. And more recently it’s been shown that if you delay solids well after 6 months, there’s also a higher risk of food allergy developing.
The bottom line?
Start solids between 4 and 6 months of age when baby shows signs of being ready…
- baby seems hungry most of the time, feeds more frequently and wakes more frequently at night to feed.
- baby isn’t gaining weight as well as before.
- baby shows obvious interest in your food, starts lunging at your food when you’re eating.
Once again, everywhere in the world does it differently, so there’s no right and wrong way. It’s been shown that the food you eat in your pregnancy flavours the amniotic fluid, which the baby swallows and tastes in the womb. So if you’ve been eating a good mixed healthy diet while you were pregnant, those are the foods that baby is likely to prefer. The local habit is to start with rice cereal, but a pureed fruit or vegetable would be fine. There’s nothing wrong with commercial baby foods like Purity, but home cooked and liquidized food may be better because of the probiotics it contains, which will help to build the baby’s immune system.
The basic rule is to start with foods which are low allergy risk like simple fruit, vegetables and cereals. Once baby is on a fairly wide range of these, you can get going with animal protein like chicken, meat, fish and egg containing foods. If baby reacts to any new food (rash, cramps and vomiting, stuffy nose or tight chest), make a note and leave this out for a later challenge after a year of age.
I should mention that the thinking about food allergy has changed quite a lot in the past few years. If you had a lot of allergic conditions in your family, doctors used to advise that you completely avoided all foods likely to cause allergy. The thinking these days is that it’s better to expose babies from these families to tiny amounts of the common allergy-causing foods in the first year of life so that they can develop tolerance to these foods. This makes it less likely that they have sever food reactions later in childhood.
Please remember that there are no hard rules. I get frantic calls from moms who can’t remember what the magazine said about the right age to start butternut. There is no right age – just because it appeared in print doesn’t make it one of the Ten Commandments!
Slowly and steadily. Start with one or two teaspoons to see if baby is ready to swallow mushy food. If it’s a disaster and baby spits it straight back at you, try again in a couple of weeks.
If it goes well, build up fairly quickly to the equivalent of a Purity 1 jar (about 80ml). If baby completes one full meal, start a second meal of something different. When baby completes the 2nd meal, move on to the 3rd. Your goal is 3 meals a day (breakfast, lunch and supper), with breastfeeds in between, and you should reach this goal 4-6 weeks after starting.
Never try anything new at night (this is a general rule for baby things). A vomiting baby always looks worse as the sun is setting! Try new things in the morning when help is at hand if there’s a problem.
Only introduce one new food every few days so that if baby reacts, you know what the likely culprit is.
What to watch out for.
- Weight gain – too fast or too slow. It’s difficult to calculate exactly what combination of breastfeeding and solids is ideal for a baby, so be guided by the weight chart, and adjust your plan as necessary.
- Constipation – if baby’s stools become firm or putty like, use a stool softener for a few days and concentrate on high fibre vegetables and fruit rather than cereals.
I hope you find this helpful. Obviously if you run into problems, contact your health care professional.