It's a time when patterns like "fussy" or picky eating, or babies not eating enough to meet their requirements can sneak in, leading to malnutrition or failure to thrive. Delays in developmental milestones around feeding can and often do occur unless good feeding and eating practices are set up, ideally from the start.
And of course, there's always the fear of choking.
No wonder this time can be such a big cause of stress for parents.
But in spite of the clear importance of this transition period, I don't think that it needs to be stressful or scary. I actually think that starting your baby on solids can be an enjoyable, fun and even relaxing time for kids and parents.
And in fact, by taking a deep breath and chilling out you can actually help your child learn to feed themselves in a timely manner, get all the nutrition they need, and have fun doing it.
I have a 12 month old and a 3 year old and they have both been proficient, happy little eaters for as long as I can remember. Here's how I navigated starting my kids on solids when they were around 6 months old, and beyond, all whilst being responsibly lazy.
"Be laid-back about solids introduction. This early stage is mostly for fun and games."
- Ellyn Satter RD, child feeding expert
Baby led weaning or spoon feeding?
And my kids and I are all the more happy and relaxed for it.
I’ve also never spoon fed my kids. No “here comes the aeroplane!” and tricking the baby to eat by shoving a spoon of food into their surprised little mouth (I despise that shit, it seems so unpleasant for the kid). No trying to force my kids to eat if they don’t want to eat something (or eat at all).
Whether with spoons or hands, I’ve let them feed themselves, from the time they first began eating solids at around 6 months old.
This might all seem odd at first to some parents, especially given I’m a dietitian with a special interest in family nutrition.
I’ve done it this way not just because (like most parents without hired help) I am busy. And not just because I can’t be bothered to cook separate meals and spend hundreds of additional hours spoon feeding, cooking and cleaning extra dishes.
I am "responsibly lazy" by nature and want to do the bare minimum to get the job done.
It’s because I've found that making separate meals for, and spending ages spoon feeding babies and toddlers is totally unnecessary. At least it has been for us, and for the vast majority of parents with babies and toddlers I see in clinic.
I've learnt that babies can eat the same meal the rest of the family is eating, pretty much from the first bite.
And if my and my clients' babies didn't need all that extra fuss - and the stress it can generate - then maybe your infants don't either. In fact, given what I've seen in my years as a dietitian and a mum, for the majority of babies learning to eat solids, I strongly believe that parents can probably save themselves a whole lot of trouble and stress by taking a laid-back approach to child feeding.
By the way - for those of you who like labels, I guess we are more baby-led weaning (BLW, where you introduce baby to solids from the start) than traditional spoon feeding (where you progress in order through texture stages from puree to lumpy and so on). But I'm not adverse to offering my 12-month old the odd loaded spoon of roughly mashed potato, so we're not strictly BLW.
The 3 things that actually matter
These three things are: eating as a family, having fairly regular meal times, and trusting your child's innate ability to self-regulate their eating. These are the three most important tenets when it comes to feeding your kids at any age, something I learnt from Ellyn Satter.
1. Eat as a family.
We eat the same meal together as a family at the table, or occasionally on a bed sheet on the ground in the backyard. We eat with the kids - we don't make them a separate meal and have them eat first, then have an adult meal while the kids play.
It doesn't have to be the entire family sitting down together; just one adult will do. At least one of us (me or my husband) is there eating the same meal right alongside the kids.
What are the benefits?
From age 6 months and up, eating is a learned behaviour so the more your kids get to observe you eating, chewing, and enjoying food, the more proficient and confident they will become at it themselves. If your kid never or rarely sees you eating, how are they supposed to learn how to chew and feed themselves?
It is for this reason that if you have kid/s and you skip meals, have a restrictive or distorted relationship with food, or have a diagnosed eating disorder, now is the time to start healing your own relationship with food for the sake of your babes. In addition to family nutrition I am also passionate about working with people experiencing disordered eating and eating disorders, so if you're a parent experiencing food and body image issues and you need one-on-one help, please get in touch.
2. Have regular meal times.
We eat fairly regular meals - breakfast, lunch and dinner with some snacks depending on the age of the kid/s (see WHO info below). We generally don't go more than three hours or so without eating a meal or a snack.
The exception to this 3 meals and 2-3 snacks a day thing, is when your baby is just starting out on solids (around 6 months old) and may only eat 2-3 times a day as she or he is still getting most of their nutrition from breastmilk or milk replacement. As they grow older their feedings will become more frequent and eventually resemble the regular meal and snack times of the rest of the family.
"WHO recommends that infants start receiving complementary foods at 6 months of age in addition to breast milk, initially 2-3 times a day between 6-8 months, increasing to 3-4 times daily between 9-11 months and 12-24 months with additional nutritious snacks offered 1-2 times per day, as desired." - World Health Organisation
Having regular meals rather than grazing all day allows time for rest and optimal digestion between eating and seems to fit seamlessly into our natural circadian rhythms. It also takes a bit of pressure off the whole "when are we going to eat?" thing, and allows you to allocate brain power to aaallll the other things parents have to do!
3. Trust your child.
Whether they’re six months old or 6 years old, I recommend you let your children feed themselves at the table with the rest of the family.
Yes, you read that right - let them feed themselves! Don't fuss, don't interfere, don't play aeroplane, don't beg, cheerlead, persuade or bargain (e.g. "if you eat all your dinner, you'll get dessert!"). Just put the food on a plate in front of them and let them feed themselves.
What are the benefits?
Trusting that your baby knows how much to eat is intrinsic to setting up a good feeding relationship. By leaving them the hell alone, you’re encouraging autonomy and body trust. You're giving them the space to feel their hunger and fullness cues. You’re setting up the foundations for a good relationship with food and their bodies.
You're helping them grow up to become intuitive eaters, giving them the best possible chance to avoid developing disordered eating, eating disorders and body image issues.
You CAN trust your child. They know how much they need to eat at any given time. Some parents will really query me on this, and often that ties into the parent’s own issues of body trust around food. It’s very hard for a parent who doesn’t trust themselves, to trust their child.
But you can trust your child to eat. And if you have their best interests at heart (which of course you do), you must trust them.
In the Division of Responsibility, Ellyn Satter sets out that when we first begin introducing solids to babies, parents are in charge of the when, where and what of eating, while babies are in charge of the if and how much of eating (1). This division of responsibility shifts as the child ages, but for babies just starting out on solids, you are in charge of everything... except how much they eat, or whether or not they eat at all.
Whether you're doing baby-led weaning, traditional spoon/progressive texture feeding, or a mix of both, trusting your kid means responding to their directives and cues. It means stopping when they have had enough, rather than continuing to try to make baby eat just because you're worried he or she hasn't eaten enough.
In fact, research shows that forcing children to eat when they are not hungry or don't want to eat actually backfires and leads to the child eating less. This is when the risk of malnutrition and deficiencies becomes real. The same backlash happens when trying to restrict the food eaten by children (and adults), too - they will eat more to compensate for the restriction, and they may overeat.
Trust your child.
By including babies and toddlers in family meals, having regular meal and snack times, and letting them feed themselves, you’re helping them move through their developmental stages of feeding in a naturally timely and well paced manner.
And it’s a hell of a lot more easy, fun and relaxing than all that bloody fussing.
When to start solids?
The World Health organisation suggests starting solids around 6 months of age. Not 4, and not 8. Six months, give or take a few weeks.
A better guide is to start solids based on what your baby can do, not on how old he or she is. The signs that baby is developmentally ready to start eating solids are:
- when baby can sit up independently (with or without a chair)
- when baby can see food coming, and open up his or her mouth for it.
That is around six months for most babies.
Obviously you don't just swap to nipple feeding (breast or bottle) to solids in one day - it's a slow transition over 1-2 years. Many parents will still be breastfeeding or bottle feeding their babies whilst starting solids and beyond. The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding (i.e. no other fluids or solids) for six months and then continued breastfeeding combined with solid foods for 2 years or as long as mother and baby desire (2).
My eldest has always eaten pretty well. He was also breastfed until he was 2.5 years old and would have happily continued had I not weaned him after six months of tandem feeding (feeding him as well as feeding baby Kairi) before I finally decided I’d had a gutful.
In the early stages, breastfeed your baby before offering any solid food so that he or she is not desperately hungry whilst trying to learn how to eat solids. Eating should be relaxed, fun and experimental at this age rather than fuelled by ravenous hunger.
That applies to people of all ages really.
What to eat?
When I say that "baby eats the same meal as the rest of the family", I mean that you shouldn’t have to cook something separate for your baby (unless you’re dying for a spicy hot curry!)
What you may need to slightly alter is the texture, a job you can do by hand with a utensil in a couple of seconds. For example, in our house a meal we frequently enjoy is spaghetti bolognese. When our babies were just starting solids, we would simply cut the spaghetti up into smaller pieces so they could grip and eat it more easily.
Here are some first food ideas for when your baby is beginning to eat solids:
- Avocado: Sliced and peeled, avocado is nutritious as well as fun to handle. Make sure the avocado is very ripe but not overripe (brown) as rancid fats can cause tummy ache.
- Pumpkin and Sweet Potatoes: Roasted or steamed until it is soft but not mushy baby, so baby can hold it without it slipping out between those little fingers. Chip-sized sticks (5-10cm long) are easy to hold.
- Steak: Grilled, broiled or pan fried and cut into fingers. Babies don't need to eat and swallow the whole food to benefit from it; they gain eating skills and valuable zinc and iron just from sucking out the juices.
- Liver: Rich in iron and an excellent food for mum as well, especially if she's breastfeeding. Iron is especially important as the iron stores babies are born with (and rely upon for the first months after birth) start running low from 6 months onwards and breastmilk is not a great source of iron so they need to get it from food. Check out this liver pâté recipe if you think you can't love liver!
- Greek Yoghurt: Use full fat yoghurt. You can even stir some peanut or almond butter* into the yoghurt and serve on a loaded spoon or allow them to eat it with their hands - mess is good!
- Eggs*: Scrambled, frittata fingers, or hardboiled and slightly mashed up, eggs are loaded with nutrients like vitamin D that are important for babies.
- Banana: You can serve with the peel or rolled in almond meal for easy gripping. Make sure bananas are ripe as under ripe ones can cause constipation.
- Kiwifruit and mango: Make sure that it is very ripe and soft, and easy to mush up with baby's gums. Kiwifruit and mango are both high in vitamin C which infants really need at this stage.
* Adding in eggs and nut butters is a way to introduce high allergen foods early on, which you want to do. New research shows that early introduction of things like peanuts (a small amount, 2-3 times per week) significantly decreases the frequency of the development of peanut allergy among children at high risk for this allergy and modulates immune responses to peanuts (3).
Things to avoid feeding babies: Avoid whole grapes and hot dog rounds, as these are choking hazards. Crush or slice these up into smaller pieces before feeding these to infants.
Can you still spoon feed and purée?
Of course! If you and baby enjoy spoon feeding, then go for it. Just make sure you go by your child’s directives. For instance, wait until they open their mouth before placing the spoon into their mouth. Don't push the spoon too far in as it may cause a gag reflex. Stop when they show signs they are done (head turning away, closed mouth, trying to get out of their chair).
And remember, try to relax if your child doesn’t want to eat - TRUST that your child knows when to stop eating.
One thing to watch out for is getting caught up in this spoon feeding stage. Delays in developmental milestones around feeding can occur when parents insist on continuing to spoon feed for too long, say past 12 months, and not giving their baby enough free reign to feed themselves. Self spoon feeding is a skill kids should be getting a hold of around 6-12 months. A child who is still unable to spoon feed themselves at 18 months has probably missed the opportunity to practice feeding themselves enough times to learn this skill at a more appropriate age.
Personally I hate spoon feeding. That risk of gagging, the time it takes, the mashing and pureeing of a separate texture of food, and the risk of developmental stunting I just mentioned. I really can't imagine anything worse. Inappropriate feeding practices like over-vigorous, non-responsive spoon feeding by a carer are far more likely to lead to choking or gagging than just letting the kid feed themselves.
But I do let my babies spoon feed themselves. For Kairi (who is currently 12 months old) I might load up the spoon with some mashed potato that the rest of us are eating too, let her grab it and feed herself (and try to feed me!).
If you let your child spoon feed themselves with loaded spoons from when they develop a palmar grasp (around 5-6 months), by the time they’re 12 months old your baby will probably be eating independently. They will be spoon and hand feeding themselves beautifully with very little interference from you required.
What about mess?
Yes, there will be mess, especially at first - and that’s something you should probably get used to. The payoffs for tolerating mess and trusting your child are great.
Above all, RELAX and have fun with feeding your babies! The faces alone are worth it :)
I hope that helps those of you who are (or who one day will be) navigating feeding a baby solids for the first time! I'd love to hear your questions and comments, so feel free to pop something in the comments box below. Happy feeding and eating!