What Infants Need As They Transition To Solid Food
Learning what to feed an infant can be a confusing process filled with different information from multiple sources. But parents just want to find the right information to safely provide their babies with a nutritious diet.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding as the sole source of nutrition for about the first six months of life — if babies are not breastfed, they should be given infant formula. Around six months, parents can start to feed their babies solid foods in addition to breast milk or formula. As infants get older, breast milk no longer has enough nutrients to support their growing bodies. Introducing solid foods helps provide children with the additional nutrients that they need and teaches them about chewing and the concept of a meal time.
Iron and zinc are two nutrients that babies need in greater amounts than breast milk alone can provide. For that reason, fortified infant cereal or pureed baby meats are good first solid foods because they contain these important minerals. Many parents turn next to jarred baby foods like fruits and vegetables because they are easy and convenient.
Families are not limited to foods that come from a jar, however. Babies can eat many of the same foods as the rest of the family with a little extra preparation. By feeding babies from the family meal, they will learn about foods their family enjoys together. Over time as babies grow to toddlers, they will see that families choose real food at stores and farmers' markets, prepare them at home and eat meals as a family.
However, parents can't just hand their babies chicken legs and send them on their way! To make family foods safe for babies, parents need to take a couple of extra steps. Babies do not always have teeth or good chewing skills. Therefore, parents need to make the food easier to chew and swallow by cooking it until it is extra soft and cutting portions into pieces less than one-half inch in diameter. There is no need to add salt, sugar, or fat to baby foods. If they don't like a food, offer a different one and try again later. A parent may need to offer a food 10 to 15 times before the baby will accept it.
Some parents worry that their babies are not getting enough to eat when they start solid foods; however, babies are born knowing how much is enough. They will keep eating if they are hungry and will stop eating when full.
While solid foods are a necessary addition, babies should still be getting nutrition from breast milk or formula. Babies should continue to drink breast milk or formula until they are 1 year old, and may breastfeed up to two years old or even longer. Cow's milk should not be fed to children until they are at least 1 year old.
Allergies are another common concern for parents when introducing solid foods to their babies. The most recent advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics is not to restrict commonly allergenic foods if there is no family history of food allergies. In other words, parents can offer a variety of fruits, vegetables, meats and cereals as first foods. This variety makes it very easy to provide a baby with the same foods that the rest of the family is eating. Parents should only introduce one new food at a time and wait three to four days before introducing another, watching for signs of an allergic reaction. For safety reasons babies should not to be given honey and unpasteurized juices — which can cause food poisoning — until they are 1 year old.
Parents should always remember that food and mealtimes are something to be enjoyed. It is a time for parent and child alike to get to know each other, socialize and learn about food. As soon as a baby is able to pick up foods or use a spoon, parents can serve meals right on the high chair tray and let the baby feed her- or himself. Babies may use toddler spoons or their fingers and they may get messy, but it is all part of the learning process for them.
By around one year of age, most babies can feed themselves. However, just because the baby is taking the lead doesn't mean that mom or dad can leave them alone. Parents should turn off the television, sit with their little one and pay attention to them. Babies can be included in the family meal by pulling the highchair up to the table. Family mealtime sets the stage for positive eating behaviors for a lifetime.
For more guidance about how to best feed a baby, parents can call their local UW-Extension office to find classes about selecting healthy foods. Parents can find more useful information from the American Academy of Pediatrics and WIC Works.
Beth Olson, Ph.D., is a nutrition specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension and an associate professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at UW-Madison. Robert Davis is an associate outreach specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension and a dietetic intern at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts.