Baby’s first food |18 August 2023
Many parents, especially first-time parents worry about how and when to start feeding their baby solid foods. We encourage only breastmilk for the first six months of your baby’s life. During that time, breastmilk provides all that the baby needs to support their growth and development. At around the age of six months your baby’s nutritional needs changes and their gut is also developmentally ready to receive solid foods.
It is not uncommon for parents to feel pressured or influenced to give their three or four-month-old baby food. Many believe that their baby is hungry and that milk alone is not enough. Others feel that their baby is showing signs that show that they are ready to eat. Despite all those beliefs and what you’ve read on the internet or the advice shared from a friend or relative, you should avoid giving a child below six months, solid food.
The outcome of early feeding most times is overfeeding which may lead to obesity at a very early age which often persists into childhood and beyond. Some children may also start showing signs of allergies or intolerances as their gut often can’t tolerate the protein in certain foods at such a young age.
The best thing, to avoid all these potential complications is to wait for your baby to turn six months. It’s the perfect time to include other foods alongside breastmilk especially at the very start when the baby is tasting different flavours rather than truly filling up on food. We will go through some strategies on how to go through the feeding journey with your baby.
An overview of complementary feeding
When we talk about babies’ first food, many of us are familiar with the word weaning. Complementary feeding is a term used nowadays to replace the term weaning as weaning means ‘cessation of breastfeeding’. Complementary feeding on the other hand implies that at six months the baby is introduced with solid food whilst continuing to breastfeed. Therefore, the food complements the breast milk but it does NOT replace it.
Six months is the appropriate age to introduce complementary foods, when breast milk is no longer sufficient to meet the nutritional requirements of infants, especially for energy and certain nutrients like iron, therefore other foods and liquids are needed.
During the period of complementary feeding, children are at high risk of malnutrition because of the types, quality, quantity and variety of food provided as well as the timing when food is offered. Some parents may offer the food at a very early age or may offer the food when the child is above six months, at a much older age. How often, throughout the day that you decide to give your baby food may also be problematic.
A lot of parents have unrealistic expectations of how the baby will feed when they get started. Remember that in the beginning it is more ‘tasting’ rather than feeding until the baby is full. Initially the baby will have 1 – 2 spoons per day. It is best to give the food during the day and after a milk feed but try to choose a time which is most suitable for you and baby based on your daily routine.
Start by offering one food at a time for one or two days so you can easily identify food intolerances or allergies and also know which food your baby likes (and dislikes). You should repeat this process with any new food you introduce but you can gradually combine the tolerated foods as you progress.
There’s no fast and strict rule on what the first food should be. Ideally however you want to try offering something which is not too sweet. Good options are certain vegetables like broccoli, spinach (including local ones) and fruits like avocado. That way the baby is exposed to a range of flavours and not just the sweeter options like pumpkin, sweet potatoes and carrots that many people usually start with.
There is no need to worry about keeping certain foods like eggs until the baby is nine months. You should offer a variety of foods from all food groups from 6 to 7 months. Work your way from the fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, local starches that are easier to chew to gradually incorporating well-cooked fish, meat, eggs, lentils, yoghurt and cheese. This will ensure that your child is getting a variety of nutrients to support their growth and also minimise the onset of allergies.
Offer the food in their natural state as much as possible. That means that you should not add any salt, sugar, honey, fats, sauces or other flavourings. A baby’s taste bud is different to yours. Up to this point (six months) they are only familiar with the taste of milk and they should be given the opportunity therefore to try out the food as is. In addition, too much salt is not good for babies’ kidneys and too much sugar can lead to tooth decay early on.
Appropriate texture and diversified foods
The texture of the first food is usually well mashed, pureed or blended so that the baby can easily chew and swallow. Although each child is different, it is advisable to change to a more semi-solid and mashed texture as soon as the baby shows signs that they are ready. This is usually observed through the munching movements they make as they eat.
Changing the texture allows your child to learn how to chew and swallow more solid foods. You should also encourage them to pick up their food themselves and to feed on their own. The earlier you start, the better! Please supervise your child during feeding times to ensure that they do not choke on what they are eating.
Although you may think that you’re saving time by continuing to give your child blended foods it can have an impact on their growth and development over time. You should therefore gradually change the food texture of food as the child ages, making it more solid until it eventually becomes similar to the meals eaten by other family members at home.
Babies have a very small stomach so don’t expect them to eat a big bowl of food. Their appetite also changes from day to day. When your child signals that they’ve had enough food usually by turning their head away or firmly closing their mouth, then you should stop feeding them because they are indicating that they have had enough.
The best drink for your baby at six months is still breastmilk but since they have started eating you should also include water. Water should ideally be given in an open or free-flow cup without a valve to help your baby learn to sip and it is also better for their teeth.
Sugar-sweetened drinks like juices, fizzy drinks, cordials like Ribena, Squash, Sunkiss, and malted drinks like Ovaltine and Milo, have a lot of sugar so avoid these to help prevent tooth decay. Don’t be fooled by advertised ‘baby and toddler drinks’ as they are usually just as sugary and therefore not appropriate.
Cow’s milk is not a suitable drink until your baby is 12 months old, but it can be used in cooking or mixed with food from 6 months of age. Whole (full cream) cow’s milk should be given from the age of 12 months; semi-skimmed (low-fat) from two years and skimmed (non-fat) milk from the age of five years.
Infants (children below 12 months) are vulnerable because they are just learning to eat. It is important therefore that you continue to take them to their health centre for regular check-ups, immunisations and to monitor their overall growth and development.
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Yours in health
The E4OH team