Introducing solids to your baby can be nerve-wracking and a bit overwhelming, especially when you're overloaded with conflicting information about what, when, and how to do it. You might be wondering if you should introduce iron-fortified rice cereal before six months of age to help your baby sleep through the night, or you may have read that purees aren't best and that finger foods are the way to go.
I get it - it's confusing.
Luckily, in April 2014, Health Canada, The Canadian Pediatric Society, Dietitians of Canada and the Breastfeeding Committee of Canada, together released updated infant feeding guidelines. These new guidelines have taken into account the latest research on feeding infants and toddlers and provide parents and caregivers with easy-to-follow instructions on how to introduce their baby to solids in a safe and healthful way. But because new parents might not have the time to read through the entire set of guidelines, I've highlighted four fairly important points that everyone should be aware of before introducing solid foods.
Because older babies quickly develop up and down jaw movements enabling them to "munch" (even without teeth) right from six months of age, it's not necessary to start with thinly pureed foods first (think infant cereal thinned out with breastmilk), like previously thought. In fact, there may be many benefits to starting with lumpy textures right from the get-go. Offering soft finger foods will encourage self-feeding (reaching out, grabbing and munching on food), which helps with oral motor development, and it allows babies to be in full control of how much and at what pace they eat, which will help with self-regulation of food intake later on.
Solid finger foods such as finely minced, ground or mashed cooked meat, de-boned fish, poultry, cooked egg, beans, and lentils are great first foods, as they provide iron, an important nutrient that older babies require more of. Crackers, toast, low sugar/low salt breakfast cereals, soft, tender-cooked vegetables, soft/ripe fruit, and grated cheese are also great finger food options.
Because of the important window for oral-motor development within the first few months of solid food introduction, it's important to expose your baby to a wide variety of textures by nine months, otherwise it could lead to feeding difficulties and lower intake of nutritious foods later in childhood. Always avoid choking hazards such as hard and/or stringy vegetables and fruits, small round-shaped foods such as grapes that aren't sliced lengthwise, sticky foods such as peanut butter (on it's own), gum, popcorn, marshmallows, whole nuts and seeds, fish with bones, and unsliced hot dogs or sausages. Between eight to 12 months, babies learn to move food towards their teeth through lateral tongue movement, which allows for chewing chopped foods and a greater variety of finger food textures.
Some parents experience a lot of anxiety when they see their baby gag on solid food and may even mistake it for actual choking. Know that gagging is a normal part of learning how to maneuver food in the mouth and is no cause for concern. Gagging or coughing are protective mechanisms, which help to move food that is stuck at the back of the tongue or has fallen over the back before the swallow is triggered, to the front of the mouth again. As long as your baby is sitting upright and is attentive, the risk for choking is very minimal--about the same for adults.
Although you will begin to provide some structure around timing solid food feeds from six months onwards, your baby should guide whether, how much and at what pace she eats--this is why self feeding provides such an advantage. That being said, spoon-feeding can easily be baby-led as well. Being attentive to your baby's hunger and satiety cues will help with this. If you are spoon-feeding, make sure you're sitting facing your baby at eye level. Hold the spoon a few inches away from her mouth and always wait until she opens it before putting the spoon in her mouth. Go at her pace and stop when she's showing signs of fullness such as turning her head to the side, not opening her mouth, refusing to eat, playing with or throwing food. Although it might be hard relinquishing control over if and how much your baby eats, it's important that your baby is in charge. Try to feed her in a distraction-free environment (preferably in a high chair at the family table), encourage self-feeding as much as possible, maintain eye contact and positive verbal encouragement (not coercion such as using the "airplane" trick). Coercing or forcing your baby to eat solids will disrupt her natural hunger and fullness cues and interfere with self-regulation, which can lead to a negative relationship with food and poor eating habits long-term.
When your baby starts solid foods, you can also offer water in a cup. It can be confusing trying to figure out which type and brand of cup to use, with entire store aisles dedicated to sippy, straw and trainer cups. The best option: an open cup. If given the chance, babies learn how to drink water from an open cup easily and quickly. With help from mom or dad at first, babies learn to coordinate sucking action and keep their jaws stable as the open cup approaches. Eventually, babies will get the hang of it and be able to pace their sips which makes it easier for them to control breathing and swallowing. Using an open cup for older babies can also prevent prolonged bottle-feeding, something that is associated with over-consuming calories, potentially leading to unhealthy weight gain in childhood. Also, using sippy cups or bottles for water or other fluids requires "sucking", which doesn't support mature drinking skills and can interfere with oral-motor as well as speech development. When on-the-go, or when you're really trying to avoid a mess, using a straw cup provides a more developmentally-appropriate alternative to sippy cups.
Starting solids should be fun, not confusing and stressful. Familiarizing yourself with the updated infant feeding guidelines will arm you with the knowledge you need to know to safely and healthfully introduce your baby to one of life's great pleasures--food!
As a nutrition expert who consults with and writes for other Moms about how to best feed their families, I sometimes feel pressure to be the perfect feeding role model; to post pictures of my son and I chopping freshly-picked-out-of-our-backyard-garden tomatoes for homemade salsa or to write about why homemade hummus is just as easy (and much healthier) than the store-bought stuff.
Well, I have a confession to make. I'm a Mom and a Registered Dietitian who feeds her kids packaged foods sometimes. I'm not perfect. And it's time to get real.
Becoming a Mom of two has rocked my world in so many ways, including my views on nutrition. Although I strive to feed my kids mostly whole foods (and am lucky enough that they eat them most of the time), I also know that this isn't realistic 100% of the time. While I once thought flavoured yogurt wasn't healthy enough (it HAD to be plain), I now think of it as a healthy, kid-friendly snack. I also vowed that I would never feed my child boxed macaroni and cheese, but now that I've experienced it's life-saving capabilities on those rare occasions when I'm solo-parenting and have run out of groceries, I've slightly changed my tune.
It's true that most packaged, processed foods contain preservatives, additives, and artificial flavours - they are not perfect (and some processed foods are unhealthy enough that I won't offer them to my kids)--but in my mind, healthy eating isn't synonymous with "perfect eating." Instead, healthy eating allows for fun, convenience, and imperfection once in a while, and that's ok. I know my kids eat whole fresh foods in the majority of cases, so the odd processed and packaged food doesn't worry me; nor should it worry any parent who is trying to do their best.
These pouches have literally saved my sanity on more than one occasion. I admit, they are not equivalent to real fruit and vegetables by any stretch of the imagination - ideally, fruits and veggies should be eaten, not sucked out of a pouch - but they often come in handy when we're out and about, and they add some fun and variety to kids' snack rotation. This also goes for pureed unsweetened fruit cups. I look for varieties that contain less than 10 grams of sugar per pouch and limit them to no more than two or three times a week.
Whether it's wax-wrapped mini cheese rounds (Baby Bell), triangle spreadable cheese (Swiss Knight or Laughing Cow) or even cheese strings, these portable individually wrapped cheeses come in handy when on-the-go (or in lunch kits!). Although slicing brick cheese and wrapping it yourself might arguably be just as convenient, sometimes tossing an already-wrapped cheese in your purse or diaper bag is just easier (and just as healthy). Individually wrapped or not, cheese is also nutritious. It contains many essential nutrients including protein, calcium, and magnesium and can make a great addition to a snack or meal.
Sally Kuzemchak, Registered Dietitian and author of the blog "Real Mom Nutrition" wrote a great piece on why she serves Ranch dressing to her kids. Sally talks about how although store-bought Ranch dressing isn't perfect, it encourages her son to eat raw veggies and green salads--healthy foods that he may not happily munch on without his favourite dip. I couldn't agree more - if offering a bit of Ranch or Caesar dressing increases the likelihood of my son happily eating his vegetables, I have no problem with it. After all, I prefer dip with my veggies, so why would I expect that my son wouldn't?
Hummus makes for a nutritious protein and fibre-rich dip for veggies or crackers, or spread for sandwiches. I regularly buy hummus from the store, not because I refuse to make my own (which I do sometimes), but because I find that most store-bought varieties contain similar ingredients that I would use anyway and because, frankly, I find it easier at this stage of life with two young kids. Yes, it may contain more olive oil than I would add or a few preservatives, but sometimes convenience trumps perfection.
I confess that I've tried to make my own version of ketchup from scratch. It's not the same. Yes, Heinz Ketchup contains liquid sugar and salt, but it also contains tomato paste and it helps my son enjoy the homemade vegetable frittata that I often make him for dinner, as well as the homemade yam fries that I serve with with roast chicken. He even dips his carrot sticks in it sometimes which makes me both cringe and smile at the same time.
Whole grain crackers can serve as the perfect vehicle for healthier foods such as natural peanut butter and banana slices, hummus and cucumber or cheese and apple slices. I often make peanut butter or cheese "crackerwiches" for snack time, which my kids absolutely love. Try to find a variety with a short ingredients list featuring "whole grain (insert type of grain)" as the first ingredient. And if you DO have time to make homemade crackers, try this delicious recipe: Homemade Raincoast Crisps.
Although I'm fairly picky with the flavoured yogurt that I buy, I buy it nonetheless. Yes, plain Greek yogurt is the best choice, and yes, adding fruit for flavour is better than the sugary fruit-like substance that appears at the bottom of most small yogurt containers. But flavoured Greek yogurt tends to be more appealing to kids (sweet tastes are universally preferred over bitter or sour) and makes for a tasty, easy and nutritious snack in my mind. I like Greek yogurt because it contains double the amount of protein than regular, which can help to keep your kids fuller and satisfied for longer. When it comes to sugar content, try to choose a variety with less than 11 grams of sugar per 100 gram serving (4 of those grams are naturally occurring). If you can find a variety free of gelatin, artificial colours and flavours and preservatives, that's a great bonus.
I do prefer to make tomato sauce from scratch, where I can control each ingredient and their amounts within, but when time is short and I need to whip up a healthy meal in minutes, I turn to our favourite jarred tomato pasta sauces. Paired with lean ground meat and fresh chopped veggies, jarred tomato sauce can be a life-saver on busy nights. It's true that it likely contains more sodium than a home-made version would and perhaps some sugar and preservatives, but it still counts as a vegetable and fairs very well in the nutrition department compared to other sauces.
When time allows, I make salsa from scratch (it's one of my favourite foods), but because it's such a popular item in our house, I often feel like I can't keep up. Although often higher in sodium, salsa can make for a nutritious dip or sauce and can add a lot of flavour to certain dishes (like my Easy Cheesy Family-Friendly Burritos). Bonus: If it's tomato salsa we're talking about, it counts as a vegetable serving!
When I prepare meat or poultry, I make an effort to cook extra for sandwiches, wraps, homemade pizza and salads throughout the week. But when I've run out of fresh meat or simply need a quick and easy protein option, I will turn to canned light flaked tuna or canned salmon. Canned tuna or salmon can add variety to your meals, is inexpensive, and boasts plenty of Omega-3 fatty acid, Vitamin D, Iron, and protein among other important nutrients. Canned salmon has the added benefit of the soft salmon bones, which provide a great source of calcium. When choosing canned tuna, go for "light", "skipjack" or "tongol" which are lower in mercury, instead of "albacore" or "white", which tend to be higher.
If you found this helpful, you may also like this post outlining the five phrases that will end mealtime struggles for good as well as this one listing my top 15 Dietitian-appoved lunchbox staples.
Feel free to come over to my Facebook page where I regularly share nutrition tips and resources for parents.