By Theresa Albert www.myfriendinfood.com
The messages that my mother sent about breastfeeding were scary, she had difficulty and no support during a time when formula was a “better alternative”. I absolutely took to nursing my daughter like nothing I had done before or since so enjoyed the ride for a full thirteen months. It is the biggest thing that I miss about having an infant. I loved it! And it was a good thing too; my daughter was 9 months old before she really wanted anything but “baba.”
The real test came when it was time to make decisions about when to start solids and what to start with first. There are as many ways to proceed as there are children in the world and this is one path that attempts to avoid as many pitfalls as possible. This path starts with the more you know about WHEN to start solid foods, the less you will worry.
Babies do give us the signals that they are ready to eat solid food (best to learn now what is in their control and what belongs to you!) There are three things that parents attempt to control that are really each child’s domain: sleep, potty and eat. We are a team on these subjects and need to learn to take cues from the infant so we can guide the path. There are loads of methods and boatloads of books that can help us wrap our brains around the topics but in the end, no child will sleep, poop or eat on command. And we really do want them to know how and when to do each appropriately for themselves…eventually.
You will know that your baby is ready for solids when he or she:
- Can sit up well
- Can control lead and neck well
- Controls tongue well (mastication and movement of food is the first skill)
- Tracks spoon with eyes
- Grabs for your food when on your lap
- Opens mouth when being fed
Once these skills are mastered, and only then, will you look at the chronological age of between 6 and 9 months (use adjusted age if you have a preemie).
Here is the story of Marie*, she did not enjoy breastfeeding but knew that the first three months were crucial. Marie performed the requisite minutes of this first step toward good health and then set to the relieved effort of spoon feeding solids. Since her baby, Cara was not able to sit up well yet, and needed to be propped with pillows this could have been a first clue but Marie persisted because she badly needed to have her body back and the breastfeeding done with. Plus, she thought, this would help Cara feel less hungry and sleep through the night. Baby Cara was also not in full control of her head and neck and had no way to signal that she was full so Marie fed Cara until Cara could respond in the only way she physically could. She gagged. When she gagged, Marie would stop.
Humans have a built in sense of satiety that is complex, is the subject of much research and still not perfectly understood. Who among us has not overeaten until they felt like throwing up? Visions of the Canadian National Exhibition food building come to my mind. It is during these times that most of us learn early in life what our limit is, and learn not to over ride it or risk feeling unwell. Those who do over ride that feeling become accustomed to feeling unwell and don’t feel full unless they feel unwell.
Imagine how, in her own desperation and unaware behavior, Marie set Cara up. Cara’s first food experience was one in which she had to have a gag reflex in order to feel full. Three times a day, she had to gag in order for her mother to stop filling her. You can bet that Cara’s satiety signals were over ridden by the time she was even four months old. Cara, as a teenager, struggles with her weight in a heartbreaking way. I know that Marie would have done anything differently to prevent this pain if she could go back or if she knew better then. Every effort she makes now to help her daughter cope, restrain, retrain and learn is confused by the fact that Cara’s body no longer listens to its own signals. She will need to find other, external and less effective ways to cope with her hunger and satiety signals.
Here is where the message and the method converge. It is the crucial, critical first step:
- I, the parent, watch and learn and read the cues that you, the child, wordlessly convey. I will respond with as much knowledge and respect as I possibly can, choosing timing, amounts and foods that are based on your cues. You, the child, will be fed when you are hungry and will be able to stop when you are full. It is my job to choose what to feed you, and to some degree when (‘cause, let’s face it, you haven’t got a clue how to tell time and I have other things to do). It is your job to learn how to eat, learn that real food tastes good in its natural state and how to listen to your body. This is the first step in our food journey together. This journey will be long and it will be fun. This journey will culminate at your graduation or your wedding or some other event that will serve food in your honor. That food will not be bland mush but something delicious and beautiful and of your choosing. You will be a person who knows how and when and how much to feed yourself to feel full and happy and healthy. This journey starts here, with this spoon. This spoon that is thoughtfully placed inside your mouth is like the first step on a path that invites the outside world inside of you.
But, like, no pressure or anything.
In the choosing of when to start solid food there are two big myths that need to be busted!!!
- It will help my child sleep longer if they are full
This is absolutely incorrect. In fact, often at 4 months, baby does not even have the enzymes needed to break down the solid food. The absence of these stomach enzymes and the presence of food can gas and discomfort, keeping the little darling (and you) awake.
2. There are no risks to starting too early.
Here are just a few…
- Choking is a real risk when they haven’t developed the above list of physical skills.
- Future allergies can be avoided by letting the gut flora develop naturally but, introduce a potential allergen too early and we may be asking for trouble.
- Taking in incomplete sources of food only reduces the amount of truly beneficial breast milk (or fully supplemented formula) baby gets.
Waiting too long has a few, much smaller risks:
- After 9 months, baby has developed a preference and learned how easy it is to drink until full, you may end up with a child who will refuse textures.
- After 9-12 months, baby may need external iron source as the stores provided before birth do get used up.
Only you and your baby will know when the right time is. The points here are that there are clues, that you can read them and that over riding them will not serve you or your baby in the end. There is a season, turn, turn, turn.
So now I have scanned the path, but what do I put on the plate?
You made it! The point which every mother longs for, when she can have her body back and her infant can finally feed her sweet self. It starts slowly and it’s messy but it is the road to independence. And, when the baby is ready to eat, look out! It is a quick gallop through the food forest. So, where to start?
Many will suggest that you start with a “baby cereal” and suggest rice is the “least allergenic” but that method doesn’t factor in all sorts of other issues. If you can forecast to school aged food concerns and ask yourself “what do I think I will have the most trouble getting my kid to eat?” and start there I think you will be further ahead. I have never experienced a parent saying “I just can’t get him to eat more processed white cereal grains!” It is usually…”she won’t touch a vegetable!” So laying the foundation for the tasty and nourishing veggies first can be a better bet.
Remembering that what we are really doing at this point is setting the stage for a healthy relationship with food. Over the next six months we will introduce a host of tastes and textures and lay the foundation of a budding palate. It really isn’t about how much nourishment they get from the foods at this stage. A child needs time to learn how to chew, swallow, explore, taste and smear your walls and clothes with sticky gunk.
What not to serve:
For the purpose of preventing/avoiding allergies…
- Cow’s milk
- Tree nuts
For safety sake:
- Raw carrots
- Egg whites
- Cherry tomatoes
- Gum and Popcorn
Suggested first foods in order:
- Sweet potato
- Avocado (raw)
- Pureed spinach
- Melons (raw and pureed)
- Green Beans
- Always peel, cook (in general it is best to steam at this stage), cool and mash. (You can, of course prepare a week’s worth in advance and store in the freezer in ice cube trays to reduce the work, just remember that each time you change the temperature of a food you are damaging some nutrients and increasing the risk of bacterial contamination.)
- Mix cooked food with breast milk or formula at a 1:4 Ratio (so, like, really thin, at first)
- Start with one food and serve the same one for 3-5 days to be sure there is no reaction. Reactions range from the things you would expect to see with seasonal allergies: sneezing, itchy watery eyes, runny nose to redness around the mouth and diaper rash. Once a food has been accepted consider it part of your roster! Add the second food and repeat the schedule.
- Remember that baby is still getting most of his or her nutrients from the breast or bottle and this is a learning to eat stage, not a stuff ‘em till they are full stage.
We will get to those cereals which will add thickness, iron and bulk but much later in the process. From 6-8 months, the skills to acquire are use of the tongue, gaining repertoire and exposing allergies. That’s it! Baby steps, I know, but by age 1, we hope to have a child who will be eating modified and mashed foods from the family table who has identifiable (or hopefully no) reactions to good foods. Assuming, of course, that what’s on that family table is as healthy as possible.
By 7 months your toddler has likely learned to use the tongue, began getting nourishment from the food that wasn’t stuck to the wall, floor and table and has gained a repertoire of mostly fruits and vegetables while ruling out any allergies. I recently heard about a wicked bum rash resulting from spinach, it took 3 tries before the parents were able to identify that response since the child has already accumulated quite the palate. Keep up the vigilance!
At 7 months the new to food are beginning to actually get nourishment from food. We can begin to thicken textures and mix one or two complimentary foods together. Now we will increase choices and add protein. Here is a list (in order) of next things to try…
- Peaches, nectarines, plums (in season)
- Steamed, pureed Kale and collard greens or spinach
- Egg yolks (if no family allergies)
- Lentils, well cooked and mashed.
- Grass fed beef (avoid hamburger meat) or bison
- Tofu (once a week)
- Brown rice (or packaged organic, powdered baby versions)
- Oatmeal (or packaged organic, powdered baby versions)
- Barley (or packaged organic, powdered baby versions)
- Potatoes (watch carefully for allergies, you’d be surprised!)
Once each of these foods is cleared for allergies as you did during months 6-7, you can create your own baby food mixtures and freeze them. Think about your ultimate goal of the perfect plate ratio: ½ vegetable, ¼ protein, ¼ starch. Of course, you will want to think about flavor combinations like grandma’s stew…Peas with chicken and rice, spinach with lentils and rice…
At the end of this stage, we will be making the sprint toward the 1st year goal of not having to make something special for the child. Presumably, the whole foods are coming from your plate, why not? We give up everything else in the service of boss baby.
About the Author:
Theresa Albert is a nutritionist and food communications consultant. Her Food Network show,Just One Bite! aired for 5 years on both Food Network and BBC Kids. She is currently a trusted on-camera correspondent for CTV Newschannel as well as CBC and regular health expert on the daily lifestyle show, Steven and Chris which airs internationally.
Named one of Canada’s Top 25 Tweeters by Today’s Parent Magazine and one of Savvymom.ca’s 35 Favorite Bloggers, she is called for comment from every major magazine, newspaper and television outlet in Canada. She has a weekly column in the Metro Newspaper and regularly writes features for Today’s Parent, Canadian Family Magazine and blogs at Huffington Post.