When it comes to nutrition and starting your baby off right with the best foods, it can be really daunting. When to start, what to start with, when to introduce new foods, how to identify an allergy, the list goes on. Well before I became a mom I was passionate about building the best nutrition from the start for mothers and babies. I dove into tons of research for 2 years about the optimal diet preconception, during pregnancy and for babies in the early stages. These are the three ways we plant the seeds for long-term health for our children. I saw a lot of conflicting approaches out there about First Foods and would hear pediatricians recommend approaches I really disagreed with. As with everything I do when it comes to health, I look at what people around the world do and have always done, optimal nutrients for babies, how the body works (what can a baby actually digest), and how to make it doable for everyone.
**Note: The early introduction cues and timing recommendations here are primarily based on exclusively breastfed babies as that is what most of my research is based on. Once baby is eating solid food, the recommendations can be applied to formula and breastfed babies.**
**Important: This article is made up of my recommendations and should not take the place of seeking medical advice. Always consult a health care practitioner for your specific situation.**
When to start:
On average most babies should start solids around 6 months. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which previously said 4 months, revised their recommendation to say 6 months as well. The World Health Organization has maintained this recommendation for some time. On average this is when a baby's digestive tract is ready and they are developmentally ready to take on food.
Why six months?
Specifically, this is the general time frame in which baby's intestines go through a process called closure, which is when the intestinal lining becomes more picky about what to let in. Our intestines absorb the nutrients in our food and we need our intestines to be the healthiest possible to absorb the right stuff and fight off the wrong stuff. Until a certain age, baby's have a leaky gut (intestinal permeability) and we need to wait until it has closed off properly before introducing foods. Once food molecules are in the blood, the immune system may produce antibodies to that food, creating a food allergy. By six to seven months of age the intestines are more mature and able to filter out more of the offending allergens. This is why it’s particularly important to delay introducing solid foods if there is a family history of food allergy, and especially to delay the introduction of foods to which other family members are allergic, which we will get to later on. Incidentally, as adults, many people have leaky gut syndrome today which means their intestines are not functioning properly and causing a whole host of digestive disruption.
Prior to 4-5 months, most babies don't have the muscle capacity to do a chewing motion. They will keep food in their mouths or it will hang out in their cheeks. They have the capacity for sucking, but not yet chewing movements.
As with everything, though, there is variability and bio-individuality. Your baby might be ready before 6 months. My son, for example, wasn't really ready until about 7 months and I've coached and spoken with many parents who say their 8 month olds are barely interested yet! If your baby is breastfed, nursing on demand/there are no issues with supply and your baby is meeting all milestones and thriving, there is no reason to rush this.
You may have heard the saying "Food before one is just for fun." I think food before one is primarily for fun, but serves several other benefits as well. Your baby will be exploring new flavors, textures, macro-nutrient combinations, micro-nutrients, the social aspect of eating, and so much more.
Is your baby ready?
- Is your able to sit on his/her own unassisted?. This is a must. It shows your baby is developmentally and physiologically ready to begin digesting more complex foods. It may take a while until your baby is 100% sturdy and never tips over- that is something different. What I am referring to here is your baby having the physical ability to sit up unassisted.
- Is your baby showing interest in your food in a different way than showing interest in anything else? Does your baby want the food on your plate more than the keys in your hand? Our son would dive for my plate and a few times, much to my disappointment, swiped my plate and all of the food I was so looking forward to was all over the floor.
- Is your baby puckering, lip-smacking and chewing when you are eating? Your baby will start salivating if he/she wants food and will start making mouth movements without even knowing!
- Has your baby's tongue thrust reflex reduced? The tongue thrust reflex is a beautifully protective reflex that prevents your baby from choking on something before he/she is ready for food. This is a great thing and rushing food earlier will simply result in wasted food because your baby isn't ready to pull that food to the back of his/her mouth and move through the digestive system. When that reflex goes away, your baby is showing he/she is developmentally ready.
Reasons NOT to start solids:
There are many myths about signs of readiness. Below are reasons parents start food earlier than 6 months, which are generally not sound reasons to do so.
- You are getting bored of nursing/bottle feeding and are excited for the next picture opportunity. Be sure to really ask yourself if this is a motivating factor. Be sure you are not rushing into this because you feel ready! Not to worry- your baby will eat and you will get the chance to take a picture or put it on video to share with your friends and family.
- Your baby is off the charts big. Some doctors will tell you that your exclusively breastfed baby is getting too much milk and it's time to start solids. Yes, I just said that. And yes, this is absurd. There is absolutely no evidence that a big baby will grow to be an overweight or unhealthy adult and this is not a reason to go to lower fat, lower calorie solids sooner. Check out Kellymom's article about this if you've encountered it.
- Your baby already reached X weight. There is no magic weight number that clearly correlates to a baby's digestive readiness for food.
- Your baby is small. The funny thing is you will hear people recommend starting solids sooner for big babies and for small babies and often quoting the exact opposite reason. As with all humans, some babies are bigger and some babies are smaller. When comparing breast milk and most foods babies start with, breast milk is more nutrient and calorie dense than most of the foods available. Again, if your baby is thriving, meeting milestones, and doing well, being small is not a concern. Often the best thing you can do is increase nursing!
- Friends baby is same age and loves eating. It's so easy to look at pictures on Facebook, hear stories in your mom groups, etc about other babies who are the same age as yours and what they are doing. Remember, your baby is unique! He/she came into this world as an individual; not as a data point on a chart. The ranges for developmental milestones are broad. My son and I get together every week with a friend and her daughter whom we met in our childbirth education class. The girl is one month younger than Zeke and has consistently been 2-3 months ahead of Zeke for everything she's done. We joke about it, but it's a fantastic way to see what the range is. They both recently had doctor's appointments and weight pretty much the same, give or take meal/poop and are the same height, but developmentally very different. This is a great opportunity for mindfulness and relaxing into WHAT IS for parenting. Celebrate your baby's uniqueness.
- Your baby (and of course you) are not sleeping well. If only some solid food made all babies sleep well! Kellymom has a great post debunking the ideas of formula or solids helping babies sleep better.
- You want to give your baby more iron. Yes, it is true that breast milk is not an incredible source of iron and your baby will need more iron soon, but the iron in breast milk is much more absorbable and available to your baby than in formula or other foods, so it is not a reason to skip ahead to iron rich solids. Most pediatricians do an iron check for your baby around 9 months. Down the road your baby will get plenty of iron (see food recommendations below). And again, a great post by Kellymom about iron supplementation for babies.
How do you know if there's an allergy?
Food allergies, intolerance and sensitivity has become extremely common today. Some people think it's all a fad, but I completely disagree. Our food is no longer of the pure and simple quality it once was, digestive and autoimmune conditions are rampant, and we are getting worse and worse at taking care of ourselves. Because of all of these factors, we need to take extra special care of our babies early on. Introduce foods one at a time at the early stages and look for reactions.
If there is a history of food allergies or food intolerance in the family, particularly in mom or dad, you want to be particularly careful about foods in that category and in general.
In our family, for example, I have a very clear gluten intolerance and do not handle grains well in general. While my husband loves eating gluten, he knows he has issues with it and needs to go light on it. I already knew we would avoid grains until age 1, but I will be very careful about going light on grains and only using properly prepared (more on that below), easier-to-digest grains for Zeke.
Any food can cause a reaction, but the most common tend to be cows milk dairy (although goat and sheep can do it too), eggs, nuts, avocado, peanuts, wheat, and shellfish.
After introducing a new food in the early days and weeks, give it a few days for a reaction to present itself. Reactions vary from child to child and in severity. What to look out for:
- Red blotches on face/around mouth.
- Increased fussiness (although this can be about 50 other things too!)
- Skin breakouts, eczema.
- Increased gas, constipation or loose stools (Of course your baby's poops will change with the introduction of solids, but note if undesirable digestive symptoms are happening).
- And other more serious reactions such as trouble breathing, swallowing, etc.
10 Principles of Food Introduction:
- Only use real food: Real food from the start is essential to keep your baby healthy, robust and asking for real food throughout childhood. This means real ingredients rather than any processed or packaged foods for your baby or child. When it comes to commercial baby food, you'll find that they are either very simple with 1-3 ingredients or terribly complex with too many ingredients, some with which you may not even be familiar. No need to spend money on a pouch of pureed sweet potato and the jars with chicken, rice and other foods often have preservatives and additives you don't want to give your baby.
- Your baby needs dietary fat and cholesterol. Again, if we look at breast milk as a guide, breast milk is higher in dietary fat than any other substitute at this early age. Research shows that babies fed a low-fat and low cholesterol diet fail to thrive. ALWAYS add fat to your baby's food so that he/she can get the fat-soluble vitamins from the food and it is more filling and tasty.
- Introduce foods one at a time: This is important early on. While looking at family history for allergies, intolerance, sensitivity is important, your baby can still show signs of not handling a food or food group with no family history.
- Gradually increase food texture, size and variety: The suitable consistency for an infant's food really depends on age and development. Most 6 month olds just starting out do best with pureed or mashed foods. By 8 months, most can eat finger foods and by 12 months, most are eating many of the same foods as the rest of the family. This all depends on your individual baby and your observations. My son for example, didn't get his first 2 teeth until nine and a half months, so he was gumming on things with his strong jaw until then and still only has those 2 tiny teeth, so we are more careful. Trust that your baby will give you cues as to what he/she can handle when.
- Always watch your children eat. Whether a very first food or a few months in, it's important to be right there when your child is eating for a number of reasons. Of course the chances of choking are real, but if you are very careful about size and consistency, the chance is quite small. I recommend being nearby and observing as well so that you can see your child's eating habits. What happens when your child eats something he/she doesn't like? Our son makes a face like he is going to throw up! Sometimes he does and sometimes he is just very adamantly saying, "No thank you!" A few weeks ago, when we were giving our son similar foods each day, he suddenly had no interest in the thing he enjoyed the day before and it was clear he got bored. He always wants to taste our food and I see how much he likes food with bigger flavors, so now we make sure all of his food is seasoned well and has a lot of flavor. Yesterday I gave him a small piece of apple to chew on. He got a piece of the peel, but couldn't do anything with that so just calmly spit it out and kept at the apple. It's really nice for me to know that he does this and to encourage and give him positive reinforcement around handling things he doesn't like. As you can see, observing and doing this with your child will give you so much information!
- As your baby grows, increase food frequency: This will also be driven by your baby's needs and communication. A breastfed infant between 6-8 months, for example, typically only needs 2-3 meals of food per day. As time goes on, this will increase and you'll be giving snacks as well.
- Source your food the best you can: Organic, local and free of pesticides, sprays, etc are the best choice. If you are budget-constrained or have trouble finding organic foods, consult the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen. This is your go-to resource for the most and least contaminated foods each year so that you know what is a higher priority to buy organic. Buying directly from a farmer's market is great because you know you're buying from a smaller operation and can often talk to the farmer directly.
- Always taste your baby's food. Is this something you'd want to eat? Does it taste good? Put yourself in your baby's shoes. Would you want to eat something that no one else wants to eat? As I wrote above, always make sure the food has good flavor!
- Begin to examine your eating habits and the food you have in the house. Are you eating different food than your baby is? Of course you are not eating pureed veggies, but are you eating those vegetables or do you eat less nutritious food? Are you putting your baby in a different category than you put yourself? Feeding your baby gives you the opportunity to examine your foods and eating habits. If you find you are putting your baby in a different category than yourself, question this!
- Eat with your baby. In these early days your baby is learning constantly. Everything you do is an opportunity for teaching. I highly recommend sitting down and eating something while your baby is eating as well. Even if you can't have an entire meal at that time, eating something small or having a spoonful of your baby's food shows that you are sharing in this experience and your baby is not eating alone. Your baby will start to learn good habits around eating, that eating and meal time is a family event, that conversation during meals is a lovely way to spend time and that your baby does not eat by him or herself in a chair alone. Eating around the world is a social event. It is a time we share food and conversation and from the earliest days your child is learning these lessons.
First Food Myth-Busting:
MYTH: Rice cereal is a perfect first food.
IN REALITY: It's best to wait at least one year before introducing grains to your baby. When I say grains, I am talking about whole and processed grains, although, you clearly want to keep processed grains (cereals, crackers, etc) to a minimum in general for you and your household. Whole grains include rice, wheat, barley, oats, millet, amaranth, etc. I recommend this because of how common grain sensitivities are today in our society. If you want to introduce grains sooner, I highly recommend properly preparing them the way people around the world prepare their grains: by soaking first. Grains include enzyme inhibitors that make it extra challenging for your body to break down the food. Your baby, at this early stage, lacks adequate amounts of the enzyme amylase, in addition to others, which is needed to break down starches. Much more on that here: "Be kind to your grains and they will be kind to you" by Mary Enig and Sally Fallon.
It is important to pay special attention to when you do introduce it. If either parent has a history of digestive issues and/or has a gluten intolerance, it's best to delay its introduction. You already know how common gluten intolerance is today. Beyond gluten, reactions to grains are becoming more common and manifesting as serious illness. A grain free ("paleo") diet is becoming more and more common to combat digestive, autoimmune, and chronic inflammatory conditions.
MYTH: Meat is too complex for babies.
IN REALITY: Meat and other well-cooked animal foods are fantastically nourishing for babies. We think that vegetarian diets are "healthier" and more simple for the digestive system, but this is just not the case. Well sourced meat that is cooked very well and very soft for a baby is much easier to break down than many fibrous vegetables or grains. As your baby grows and is more and more active, higher carbohydrate-rich foods will be good to add.
MYTH: Iron fortified foods are ideal.
IN REALITY: Yes, iron is extremely important for optimal development of children, which is why the FDA mandates including iron in infant formula and infant cereals. The problem is that this fortification is causing the very issues we're trying to prevent. When we give these fortified foods to our children, we are giving them a processed food and studies show that an abundance of these foods in the diet can lead to slower development. Additionally the iron used in the fortification process is not the same as the iron naturally found in foods. I highly recommend avoiding this synthetic form of isolated iron.
MYTH: You must introduce cow's milk
IN REALITY: Your baby has no need to consume dairy from another animal. Humans have no need for dairy from cows, sheep, goats, etc for healthy and strong bones. In fact, the countries that consume the most dairy tend to have the highest rates of bone fracture and osteoperosis! Dairy can be highly allergenic and mucous-producing as well. Why do we feed cows milk to our babies? Well this became big with the marketing and advertising by the dairy industry. A cup of milk was seen as the perfect beverage for a child's meal. There are many problems with this, however, and I urge you to urge your pediatricians to stop recommending milk once a baby is weaned. Most milk we drink today is highly pasteurized (heated at a very high temperature), which makes it nearly impossible for your body to get the macro and micronutrients you were after in the first place. I have no intention whatsoever to give our son milk.
Milk is incredibly complex. What is milk? It is the perfect first food for a baby cow, just as your breast milk is perfectly made for your baby. Now, imagine I feed you a diet that is not at all suitable for your health (the reality for most cows), keep you confined so that you can not move at all, then you get very sick and I give you antibiotics, then you express your breast milk, at which point I expose it to extremely high heat and kill off the baby's ability to absorb what's natural in there and bottle it up in a factory. An additional step often taken, which doctors recommend as well for many toddlers, is to, then, take this sub-par food and fractionate it by removing fat. What was once a whole food is no longer whole. This is what most milk is like for babies... and then often causes allergies and other bad reactions.
General Food Introduction Schedule:
I don't really like to do anything prescriptive because every baby is different, but below is a general step-by-step. You will notice I did not include months, but rather the order in which you should introduce foods for the first year. You and your baby will work together to see what the best schedule looks like.
- Bone broth: Good source of collagen and gelatin. Recipe below.
- Egg yolk: rich in choline and dietary cholesterol. Avoid egg white until one year because it is highly allergenic.
- Cod liver oil: good source of vitamins A&D and DHA and EPA. Green Pastures is my favorite
- Pureed meats- from animals on pasture.
- Low-insoluble fruits like banana, melon, papaya, avocado.
- High-pectin fruits (cooked) such as apples, pears, apricots, peaches.
- Low-insoluble fiber vegetables (cooked) including carrots, sweet potatoes, beets, parsnips, squash, etc. Always include a dash of salt and some fat (coconut oil is a great choice).
- Lacto-fermented vegetable like sauerkraut to aid in digestion and immunity.
- Solid fruits and vegetables in small piece
- Nut and seed butters
- Whole eggs
- Properly prepared grains and legumes
Healthy Digestion for Baby:
Reflux, constipation, gas... these are all common digestive issues babies have. Here are a few recommendations to keep your baby's digestion smooth and regular:
- Use coconut oil. Add it to most of the baby's foods. Early on this will be half a teaspoon and you can go up from there.
- Give your baby the juices from lacto-fermented foods like sauerkraut. Again, start with just a bit and increase to a teaspoon or 2 per day with meals. It's a great way to expose baby to a very sour taste as well, which is not common in most baby foods.
- Avoid all processed grains! Rice cereal and oatmeal early on are notorious for leading to constipation.
- Keep baby upright after feeding if any signs of reflux.
- Use essential oils: Just as ginger is amazing for digestion internally, you can rub ginger essential oil on your baby to reduce reflux, gas, bloating, constipation, etc. You want to use 1 (yes only one) drop of ginger essential oil with 1 Tablespoon of a carrier oil like coconut oil. Rub in a clockwise motion on baby's belly. You want to use only the highest therapeutic grade oils.
- Baby massage. Infant massage is an incredible way for you to bond with your baby and have skin to skin time. A great time of day for massage is after bathtime and before bed as a way to close the day and have have more bonding. If this timing doesn't work out for your baby, you can do it any time! Moving in the direction of the colon (clockwise as you are looking at your baby) on the abdomen is great for keeping things moving.
- Knees into the belly releases gas as well. Help your baby pedal out that gas!
- Add ginger and turmeric to broth, soups, stews, etc. I recommend keeping he ginger and turmeric roots in the freezer and grating with a microplane right into the food for baby. It keeps things moving and is very healthy!
I highly recommend using real food for your baby and altering foods you are already eating that are suitable for your baby's development. I, personally, do not have baby food recipes to share because we have kept it very simple in our house and do not have special food for Zeke. Please post in the comments to share your favorite recipes!
A source for recipes I really like: Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby & Child Care (Note: I do not agree, personally or professionally, with everything in this book, but find the food recommendations to be spot on).
Superfood for your baby:
Introducing bone broth, one of the oldest and simplest foods around, to your baby early on and giving it consistently will be one of the best things you can do for his/her immunity, digestion, taste buds, bones, and so much more. Bone broth is all the rage these days and you can buy it made in many health food stores as well, but it's quite costly that way. I recommend finding a good source for bones at a local farm, farmer's market, butcher, a Whole Foods or other natural food store. I get mine at a local natural food store now and used to load up at a farm where we bought our beef. You can use any bones (poultry, meat, fish) but I find large beef bones like femur bones are best.
So, as with everything here, you should be eating the bone broth too! And, moms, if you're looking for a great reason to get bone broth in your diet, the collagen and gelatin is incredible for skin elasticity and a youthful glow. Here's how we do it:
- Start with well-sourced bones.
- Put bones in large pot or crockpot, cover with water and add 2 tablespoons vinegar. I use raw apple cider vinegar.
- Let soak for one hour while vinegar helps begin the extraction process from the bones.
- Bring pot to boil and as the impurities float to the top, use a strainer to remove them.
- Cover and simmer beef bones for 48 hours (other bones less time).
- Turn off the pot and let cool for a few hours.
- Remove bones and anything else in the pot.
- Store in the fridge overnight in 2 quart mason jars.
- The fat will separate. Remove some (or all) of this fat if you like.
- Pour your broth (hopefully it is very gelatinous) into Scotch Rocks ice cube trays.
- Once frozen, remove from silicone molds/trays and store in large ziplock bag in the freezer so you have your broth on hand anytime in perfect portions.
We often give Zeke a cube of broth with a teaspoon of coconut oil, grated ginger and turmeric.
Salmon Avocado Mash: This is a favorite in our house. Our son started eating it around 10 months. I eat it sometimes with a wrap and a bunch of sprouts. Our son loves it. Salmon can be hard to source well and the canned Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon from VitalChoice is sourced incredibly well. We order a large case and have it on hand for many different recipes. Opening a can and mashing avocado into it is a 2 minute prep for baby and so healthy!
Pumpkin Ginger Soft Cookies: Yes, these are called cookies because I had no other name for them, but there is no added sweetener for your little one. I recently made these for Zeke and take 2 in a little baggy when we're out of the house now that he is wanting snacks between meals more and more. They are egg, grain and dairy-free.
- 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce (I always have the one from Trader Joe's on hand)
- 1/3 cup coconut flour
- 1/2 cup canned pumpkin (again, I go for TJ's brand)
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp powdered ginger
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 2 medjool dates pitted
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil or butter
- Preheat oven to 350.
- Combine all ingredients in food processor until a soft "dough" forms.
- Scoop golf ball size measurements onto lined cookie sheet.
- Flatten slightly with the palm of your hand.
- Bake for 20 minutes or until browned slightly on bottom.
- Let cool and store in the fridge or freezer.
What other questions do you have? Comment below to continue the conversation!
Please be so kind as to share this blog post with all the parents you know! You never know who might be struggling with this and I would love to spread the real food love to set all of these babies up for success!
Interested in another great way to support your family?