How soon can I give my baby solid food?

Our baby is almost five months old and up until now we’ve been sticking with nursing. I know that I’m supposed to wait until he’s six months old to give him anything else, but I’m starting to feel as though I’m chained to a chair because he wants to eat so often. Some days he nurses every two hours. He’ll take a bottle if I’m away, but it’s almost as much work to express milk as it is to feed him, so that doesn’t help. Some people have said to start feeding him solids but I was trying to wait until he reaches six months. What can I do? 

It sounds like your baby hasn’t read the same advice books as you have—or maybe he’s been hanging out with older kids who told him that in “their day” babies got to eat cereal and fruit when they were only four months old (just kidding—he’s probably to young to understand that and the older kids don’t remember anyway).

The current recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is to begin introducing solid foods to your baby when he’s between four to six months old.  A few years ago, the recommendation was to wait six months. The “wait until six month” advice was given because it used to be thought that delaying certain foods until six months helped prevent allergic reactions, but current research indicates that waiting that long isn’t necessary. Most foods are just as safe to feed a baby at five months as they are at seven or nine months.

(If you have a family history of allergies or eczema, or if your baby has had any skin reactions already, check with your baby’s health care provider for recommendations for your child.)

Some people think that introducing solids before a baby is six months old interferes with breast feeding.  The thought is that if there’s no choice, more moms will exclusively breast feed longer. However, that means that a mom must either be with her baby, be able to express milk, or offer formula for six months.  In my experience, many moms who are committed to long term nursing prefer to supplement their breast milk by offering natural solid foods rather than formula. It makes sense to treat each mom and baby as individuals rather than as statistics.

The right time to introduce solid foods is best gauged by where your baby is developmentally:

Does your baby seem hungry despite regular feedings? Some breastfed babies have trouble maintaining interest in nursing during the day—the world is too distracting. Nursing in a quiet, darkened room or with a blanket covering your baby’s head may help—but if not, and your baby seems to be nursing more often (or waking up hungry during the night), it may be time to add other food to his diet. (This is NOT a reason to add solids if your baby is under four months old.) If your baby is seeming hungry even after 32 ounces of formula per day, solids may also be helpful. If your baby is nursing well at both breasts at both breasts every two hours, he may be very happy with an extra meal of solid foods (if your baby is only nursing on one breast at each feeding, then he’s just become a snacker!)

Is your baby able to sit up well with just a little support? Babies who need to be cradled in your arms to eat aren’t ready to be able to swallow solid foods easily. Your baby needs good head control and ability to sit in an infant seat with his back almost straight.

Has your baby lost his “tongue thrust reflex”? A not-ready-to-eat baby will react to a bit of food or the touch of a spoon on his tongue by pushing out— the food goes all over his face instead of being swallowed. Messy for you, not much point for him.

Some parents also notice that their baby is tracking every bite of food they eat, watching as you chew and swallow, as if to say—“How about me?” That interest might be another sign of readiness, but it might just mean your baby is interested in watching everything you do.

So if you think it’s the right time, here are the first steps:

• Start slowly! Almost all babies do best with one simple, slightly sweet but fairly bland first food. Typical choices are pureed (in a blender) very ripe banana, applesauce, or instant rice cereal mixed with breast milk, formula, or water to a thin consistency. The first meal may be no more than a taste from a baby size spoon—some babies take a while to like the idea—or up to two tablespoons. After that, wait and offer again the next day. Why so slow? Because most babies need a bit of time to adapt their digestive systems. The next day, your baby will probably have a bowel movement that seems different—usually with a stronger odor—as his body adjusts. That’s not a problem, but going from an all liquid diet to solids gradually makes it less likely that your baby will have gas or become constipated. Allergic reactions are rare, but if your baby develops a rash, of course discontinue that food.

 • Don’t rush! It’s OK if your baby takes weeks to become more interested in food. Even if your baby loves his meals, you don’t have to go from zero to three solid feedings a day. Take your time, increase the amounts and frequency gradually. Let your baby decide when he’s done—he’ll tell you by shutting his lips or turning away. Sure, you can try pausing and then offering again in a minute. But after that, skip the feeding. The last thing you want in our overeating society is to have a child who eats when he’s not hungry!

• It’s great if your baby loves to eat, but don’t let him eat so much that he loses interest in nursing or his bottle.  The milk feeding has protein, fat, and all the nutrients a baby needs to grow.  Fruits, vegetables and cereals ore not complete foods and won’t satisfy him as long.  

• Variety isn’t important. Your baby’s nutritional needs are being met by breast milk or formula. The second half of the first year is the time to learn to eat, not to become a gourmet. Keep your life simple—one new taste every week or so is fine, but stick to what is easy to prepare. Jarred foods are fine, too, and have the advantage of efficiency and maybe even better hygiene—most of our home kitchens aren’t nearly as clean as commercial kitchens. For the first few months, cereals, fruits and vegetables are enough—there’s protein and fat in his milk.

• “Organic” or not? There’s lots of information on the advantages of choosing foods that are pesticide free, but the term organic does not guarantee freshness or cleanliness. Make sure that any produce you use that is not “wrapped naturally” in its own skin is washed well and cooked thoroughly before feeding to your baby. And don’t forget to wash your hands well before you prepare food or fed it too your baby.  Keep all the equipment you use scrupulously clean as well.

• Remember that what your baby eats is not going to go on your parent report card. You don’t get extra credit for steaming your home grown kohlrabi. The guide to a well fed baby should be your baby’s continued growth and enjoyment of mealtime, not your menu!