When my first baby was born, it was common practice to start solid foods in the first weeks of life-a time when nature intended for toothless babies to be fed solely breast milk. The false belief that human milk needed to be complemented with other foods before a month of age served to undermine a mother's confidence and to sabotage successful breastfeeding. By giving solids too early, parents like myself unknowingly started replacing nature's perfect food-breast milk-with inferior nutrition. We wasted unnecessary time and money buying baby food and dutifully shoveling it into our infant's mouth, only to watch it be reflexively expelled by the thrusting action of the baby's tongue, an innate reflex designed to keep foreign substances out of the mouth. Undaunted, we meticu-lously scraped the messy contents from the baby's chin and diligently refed it. Part of my own persistence in this endeavor was based on the mistaken assumption that eating solids was an important developmental milestone and a sign of infant intelligence. Upon hearing that a neighbor's month-old baby was eating peas, I determined that Peter, my firstborn, would master this feat at three weeks. But it's not a competition! If this misguided commitment of time and effort had been properly channeled into breastfeeding on demand, I am convinced that far more women would have been able to breastfeed successfully in earlier eras.
Today, infant feeding experts agree that exclusive breast milk is the preferred diet for approximately the first six months of life. Premature introduction of solids can expose a baby too early to potentially allergenic foods, displace breast milk in the baby's diet, and interfere with the immune benefits of human milk. If the quantity of breast milk is insufficient to support proper infant growth and if the supply cannot be increased, then supplementing with formula is preferable to starting solids prematurely.
Infant Signs of Readiness for Solid Foods
A baby will display certain cues to let her parents know when she is ready for solid foods. Most babies start showing signs of readiness between five and six months of age. Some will be ready for solids as early as four months, while a few won't need, or be interested in, solid food until seven months or so. Solids are meant to complement, or be added to, the breast milk diet, not to replace breast milk. A baby around five or six months who consistently acts hungry after nursing from both breasts and who is showing great interest in the food you eat is probably ready to begin solids. At this stage, she will watch you bring food from your plate to your mouth and may even try to grab it. She will demonstrate the ability to bring objects to her mouth and lose the tongue-thrust reflex that causes her to push food out of her mouth when it is introduced too early.
How to Offer Solid Foods
Solid foods provide a baby with additional calories, protein, minerals, and other nutrients, as well as new tastes and textures. Starting solids begins the gradual transition to an eventual adult diet of table food. Iron-fortified, single-grain infant cereal, such as rice cereal, makes an excellent first food because it is easily digested and is relatively hypoallergenic. Breastfed babies need additional sources of iron in their diet after about six months, and iron-fortified infant cereals will meet this requirement. Infant cereal can be mixed with your own expressed milk or infant formula. Many parents think of rice cereal as a breakfast food, and so they offer it in the morning. I often hear parents say they give the solids before nursing because the baby won't take them afterward. But remember, solids are meant to add to-not replace-breast milk. Most women have plentiful milk in the mornings and produce less later in the day. It makes sense to begin giving solid foods in the late afternoon or evening when the baby is more likely to still be hungry after nursing. Begin mixing the cereal very thin so it is easy for your baby to handle. Then gradually thicken the texture as your baby gets used to solids.
Most experts recommend starting a single new food at a time and giving it for several days to be sure your baby tolerates it. If a baby's parents or siblings have food allergies, however, a rotating diet (in which the same food isn't given two days in a row) helps reduce the risk of allergies. Parents usually start strained fruits or vegetables after infant cereals. Infant cereals can be mixed with strained fruit, such as applesauce, bananas, pears, or peaches. Popular choices for first vegetables are carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, and peas. Strained meats are the most nutrient-dense foods and are high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Chicken and turkey make good first meat choices. You also can prepare for your baby some simple and natural foods you eat yourself, like a mashed overripe banana. When you use baby foods, select a predominance of nutritious single-item foods, such as plain fruits, vegetables, and meats, instead of combination dinners and desserts.