Feeding from six to 24 months is often referred to as “the honeymoon stage of feeding” because babies and toddlers tend to accept foods well, experimenting with and tasting anything parents put on their trays, or offer by spoon. This is why picky eating rarely occurs during this stage and surfaces in the older-toddler or preschool years instead. Of course, every baby isn't cut from the same cloth--some babies accept solids better than others, and different babies progress at different rates. Many parents have told me that they feel as though their baby hardly ingests any of the food that is served because after the meal, their baby and the highchair is covered with bits of food. In most cases, this normal, and your baby is likely eating what he or she needs, if you are paying close attention to her cues.
It’s important to keep in mind that breast milk and/or formula still provides the majority of baby’s nutrition up until about nine months (solids only provide about one fifth of baby's nutrition up to eight or nine months and then just under half of baby's nutrition from nine to 11 months), which means that although important to introduce a wide variety of foods early on, these first few months serve as a fun and experimental time. If your baby rejects or doesn’t swallow any of the food that is offered at first (even for the first couple of weeks), know that this is normal and to keep trying in a low-pressure way. If your baby continues to reject most foods into her seventh month (whether pureed and offered by spoon, or soft finger foods put on baby’s tray), however, it may be time to seek professional help from a Pediatric Dietitian or feeding expert to see whether there are oral-motor issues present.
If a baby experiences difficulty with solids, concerned parents may become forceful or domineering when feeding, spoon-feeding in a way that doesn’t support baby’s natural feeding cues (e.g. putting a spoonful of food into baby’s mouth when he isn’t ready or willing to take it). On the other hand, parents may take food away too quickly—before baby is finished—if they aren’t feeding in a “responsive” way (on baby's cue) or are rushing through to get to the next task, or if they are worried that their baby is eating too much. If either of these non-responsive feeding strategies are used regularly, problems can escalate quickly. Any form of pressured feeding in infancy can lead not only to mistrust and anxiety when it comes eating, it can also perpetuate picky eating and even cause growth and development issues such as failure to thrive.
It's important to make sure that you're introducing solids at the right time--not too early and not too late. There is a "sweet-spot" window of opportunity around the age of six months of age (adjusted for prematurity) that seems to be the best time to start solids (some babies are ready in their 5th month), but more importantly, you should pay attention to your baby's cues and introduce solids when he is ready: he can hold himself up on his own and is showing interest in solid foods, perhaps grasping at or reaching out for the food that you're eating.
When presented with a new food, some babies may make funny faces or, after bringing it to their mouth, spit it out right away. Some parents take this as “rejection” and assume that their baby isn’t a fan and likely won’t be for a long time. Not the case. “Neophobia” is a term that was coined by Leanne Birch, a Pennsylvania State Psychology professor: a fear of the new, and in this case, new food. In most cases, the reaction that babies give to a new and unfamiliar food is nowhere close to a phobia but a normal reaction to something foreign and unknown (think of when you, as an adult, are offered something foreign to eat). Although a baby may reject a new food after the first (or several) offers, with repeated (I'm talking 15-20 times) non-pressured exposure, she will eventually warm up to it and accept it. If you limit your baby’s menu to only what she loves now, she won’t have the opportunity to widen her palate.
1) Baby comes to the table full: Babies have small stomachs, so you want to make sure that you’re feeding frequently—every two hours or so, and then every two to three hours once baby reaches about 12 months. At six months, babies should still be either breast fed on demand or offered four to five bottle feeds per day. At first, you can offer solids once or twice a day, one to two teaspoons at a time (and more as baby cues for it) between breast or bottle feeds--whenever it’s most convenient for you and your baby. You can increase to three to five times (meals and then eventually snacks) per day as your baby gets older. There is no rule that you must breast or formula feed your baby prior to offering solid foods, but many parents feel more comfortable doing this. The issue with this strategy is that your baby may come to the table feeling full and therefore will not be as open to eating solid foods. When babies reject solids, parents often assume that they don’t like them or aren’t interested when really their baby is full from their breast or bottle feed. Make sure that you give your baby a bit of time before offering solids after a full breast or formula feed—an hour or so--to develop a bit of an appetite. On the other hand, you want to make sure that your baby isn’t too hungry when he or she comes to the table—fussiness may deter your baby from trying new foods. Your baby should be alert and slightly hungry when he comes to the table.
2) Baby is too tired and/or fussy: If you bring your baby to the table and offer solids right before a nap or bedtime, you may find that your baby is fussy and disinterested. Make sure that you’re offering solids when your baby is alert and happy.
3) Baby prefers a different texture: As mentioned above, some babies prefer purees over soft finger foods or vice versa. Before spending hours and hours pureeing three month’s worth of organic, local homemade foods for your baby, do a bit of experimenting when you first introduce solids to see what your baby prefers and which method works best for you and your family as well. You may be surprised to find that your baby self-feeds like a charm.
Some parents become concerned and even diagnose their baby with “picky eating” when they find that their baby all of a sudden starts rejecting the pureed veggies that she had previously devoured daily. Often, after a few unsuccessful attempts to feed the same food, well-meaning parents give up and stop offering it. Try to have an open mind and be creative with how you present foods to your baby—she may want to transition to a lumpier texture (or self-feed with finger foods) sooner than you thought!
4) Eating environment is too distracting: If your baby is distracted by toys, music, screens, or siblings (perhaps trying to play with the baby), she may become too distracted to focus on her food. Try to create a healthy and distraction-free environment (preferably at a family table) for your baby to test and enjoy solids foods.
5) Baby feels too much pressure: If you are uptight or anxious at mealtimes, worried about if and how much your baby is eating and perhaps hovering or focusing too much on what she is doing, she may start to feel pressured and anxious herself and eat less because of it. Mealtimes should be fun, calm and relaxed, and this starts with the parents' demeanor. Remember to smile, laugh and stay positive. Take the pressure off of yourself knowing that it is 100% up to baby whether she eats her food and how much she eats. Although you might be tempted to hover over her and analyze her every bite (or lack thereof), try to sit back and focus on your meal, every now and then turning to her with a smile as she experiments with the foods on her tray. Remember that playing, smushing, and smearing food is totally normal and part of becoming familiar with the food (even if the food doesn't actually reach her mouth--it's ok!). If you choose to spoon-feed, follow her cues as to when to bring the spoon to her mouth and when to stop (and it's ok to pause and eat some food yourself too!
6) Baby is uncomfortable: If your baby comes to the table with clothes that are too tight, a full diaper, is gassy or constipated, or in pain due to teething, you may have little luck with getting her to eat. Babies may take a solid food hiatus if they are teething, or may prefer softer textures during this time. My daughter--a finger food eater from day one—refused to eat solids when she was teething around eight or nine months. Instead of giving up, I offered her softer, cooler, more soothing foods such as yogurt, cottage cheese, apple sauce, and bananas, which she accepted much better.
If your baby is constipated, she may not feel like eating due to abdominal discomfort. It isn’t uncommon for babies to experience constipation at one time or another, especially when solids are first introduced. It’s important to make sure that your baby is still getting lots of fluids (breast milk or formula as well as water) as well as fibre-rich foods such as fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans and lentils. If you suspect that your baby is constipated, it’s important to talk to a doctor as soon as possible. Signs include: less than three bowel movements in a week (when hard, dry and painful to pass); hard, painful stools for more than two weeks; loose, watery stool accompanied by fever; decreased eating and drinking and less activity and play; fewer wet diapers and other signs of dehydration.
7) Baby can’t grasp foods: If you choose to feed your baby finger foods right from six months (or when you transition to finger foods), you may be tempted to cut your baby’s food into teeny tiny, eensy weensy pieces so that he doesn’t choke. Unfortunately, babies don’t have the fine motor skills to pick up tiny pieces of food and bring them to their mouths until they are around eight or nine months old (or older). This may be why a baby isn’t eating much at mealtime, when really, he wants to! This is why it’s so important that you make baby’s food pieces large enough that he can grasp them on his own. A homemade potato wedge (skin off) or half of a skinless, boneless chicken thigh cut length-wise, or a slice of pear (peeled) are examples of appropriate sized pieces of food. A piece of whole grain toast with some butter on it cut into thick strips would be appropriate too. I would often leave a bit of banana peel on a banana before offering it, so that my daughter could grip it without it slipping through her little hands. Your baby should be able to pick up his food, bring it to his mouth, and “gum” away at it. It is normal for baby to “miss” his mouth or drop his food, but as long as he can bring it to his mouth, it is likely appropriate in size. It is still very important to avoid foods that pose a risk of choking for the first two years of life (or even longer), such as hard fruits and vegetables (e.g. raw carrots), stringy foods (ie. celery), nuts and seeds, whole grapes, a gob of peanut butter (I thinly spread on toast strips), and wieners and popcorn.
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