This post about starting babies on solid food is part 2 of a 3-part series. In case you missed it, you can read part 1 here.
There is much debate about starting with purees versus “whole foods” (known as baby-led weaning, or BLW). There are risks and benefits to both methods. Baby-led weaning may present a higher choking risk and can take longer to introduce (trust me, some babies are very confused about what to do with this finger-sized piece of avocado sitting on their high chair), but may advance eaters to “adult food” more quickly and may lead to more “intuitive” eating, as babies can probably better intuit their own fullness and satiety this way.
Pros & Cons of BLW
They likely develop enhanced jaw strengthening with BLW, since it takes quite a lot of force to chew solid food, even without teeth. Although it’s prudent to remember that even babies fed with purees (you likely were!) rarely become kindergarteners who can’t chew. BLW is definitely messier. Spoon-feeding an infant tends to be cleaner and you can control the amount on the spoon. However, an infant may zone out and overeat/ignore fullness cues. Purees can be irksome to prepare if you’re making them at home (though you can use a baby food puree machine/blender). And store-bought puree packets tend to have more sugar and be more fruit-based than we like. (Though there are now a few brands producing protein and veggie blends with very little sugar.)
On the contrary, it’s much easier to “prepare” foods for BLW — you simply cut up into appropriate sizes pretty much the same foods the adults are eating. BLW may result in more acceptance of foods since babies can visualize exactly what they are eating. This may reduce future neophobia (fear of new foods) which is a common problem in toddlers (infants tend to not be as picky.) It’s also easier to prepare a “plate” that resembles an adult plate with BLW and have an infant become accustomed to different plate components, whereas purees lack a practical aesthetic.
Both BLW and purees require significant precautions against choking and honoring safety protocols.
Infants under one should not consume honey and should avoid anything coin-shaped/foods known to cause choking like bread (bread usually needs to be softened with liquid/water), hot dogs, dried fruits, corn, grapes, popcorn, raw nuts and seeds, fruits with nuts and seeds, skins, raw fruits and raw vegetables, hard candy, chewing gum, candy in general (why would you feed your infant candy at all, though?), pieces of meats that can’t be chewed easily (even adults choke on these!), stringy foods, etc. All foods, even “safe” ones, need to be appropriately mashed/cooked/watered down to match your infant’s abilities.
This is where I overshot things when I started my baby on solid food. I assumed my baby could just enjoy a finger-sized piece of avocado as his first food–he bit off a coin-sized piece and didn’t know how to chew it! He also wasn’t ready for oatmeal when I gave it. I had to use oat flour with water and not the raw oats cooked with water.
Never leave an infant unattended while eating. Always ensure they are sitting upright. Familiarize yourself with CPR and infant choking treatment techniques. Be aware that babies gag and recover when they eat. This is different from choking where they cannot move air at all. Babies should be coached to chew and swallow at all times as caretakers mimic these actions themselves.
Your Baby’s Abilities
This is where it’s crucial to know and respect YOUR baby’s abilities, rather than their age, as in, “Well, he’s 7 months so he should be able to eat steak,” vs. “I know my baby isn’t up to being able to chew the curds in cottage cheese yet, so I’m going to have to puree it.” Whatever you decide–and perhaps a fusion of both methods responding to your own infant’s cues/abilities is best–as long as your infant is receiving exposure to a variety of safe and appropriate nutrient-dense foods in addition to appropriate amounts of milk/formula, they should be growing and developing. 6 month-old infants should be taking in at least 24 oz of milk per day. This drops to 20 oz per day at 9 months and 16 oz per day at 1 year.
It’s also a good idea to offer water at meals to familiarize your infant with that, and teach them how to hold an open cup with both hands and tilt it appropriately. In the realm of food behavior, maintaining a happy and joyous but neutral attitude towards food is best. We no longer recommend “airplane” games, saying foods are “good” or “bad” for you or encouraging a baby to finish their plate. We recommend allowing the baby to hold their own spoon and guide it into their mouth. Refrain from applauding/clapping (this can actually startle them and lead to choking), and we do not celebrate every bite.
When the infant is done, he/she will likely start to squirm and cry, and that’s when you can say, “Alright! We’re done! We’ll try some more later!” which is also what you can say if the infant throws utensils/food. Never allow the infant to see you upset/mad. This will only create a power complex.
Feed your baby when they are alert and happy, not too hungry, and not too full. You can start with one “meal” a day (it may only be a teaspoon or 2!) and progress to eventually 3 meals per day by 9 to 11 months. Your baby will start to increase their portion sizes/demand for solids as time goes on, but be aware that sometimes it can even take weeks for a baby to figure out what to do in the highchair with food presented to him! Perhaps abstain from buying/cooking grass-fed steaks, avocados, and butternut squash for your baby, as I did, as it all ended up on the floor for the dog.
Iron & Other Nutrients
Nutritionally, the infant’s iron stores from pregnancy start to decrease around 6 months. Focusing on iron-rich foods is priority #1 with respect to the “nutrition” aspect of solids. Heme iron, which comes from animals, is better absorbed than non-heme iron. Sources of heme iron include beef, venison, bison, lamb, chicken, turkey, and eggs. Sources of non-heme iron include ground flax, chia, walnuts, fortified whole grains, hempseed, spinach, almonds, and tofu (ensure appropriate consistency versus choking!).
Both plants and animals should be introduced with solids. Always give iron-rich foods with a food rich in vitamin C (a vegetable/fruit) to enhance absorption, and try to avoid giving iron-rich foods with calcium (a dairy product), as they inhibit each other’s absorption. Omega3 fatty acids are also a major macronutrient important to infant development. Offer wild, small, fatty fish (lower in mercury) like sardines, anchovies (bones removed, skin removed), salmon, mackerel, and herring. Eggs, which are rich in choline, are also a wonderful thing to introduce to babies (boiled and cut into appropriate slices, or pureed with breastmilk/water). By the way, you can always puree foods with breastmilk/formula/water!
Stay tuned for Part 3 on what to feed!