Signs your baby is ready for solid foods

November 06, 2016

Signs your baby is ready for solid foods

In our conversations with new parents, the thing that seems to cause the most stress is not whether or not they have the right spoon to feed their baby, it's when and how and how much and what they should feed their baby. It's anxiety that stems from the very thought of giving food - especially the wrong food -  and starting their baby off on the wrong foot from day one. 

So, I'd like to talk about introducing solid foods to babies. This is often referred to as weaning, but giving your baby solid foods doesn't have to mean that you plant to stop them from breast or bottle feeding. Exposing your baby to solid foods is about more than just sustenance, especially when they are very young. They experience benefits beyond maintaining their nutritional status when they are allowed to explore food, which is what makes the idea of giving solid foods to exciting. When you can let go of the idea that it's less about getting them the "proper" nutrition and moe about giving them a chance to explore a food, you have a lot more freedom. And fun. 

(A caveat: many studies have identified vulnerable populations for whom recommendations about when to introduce solid foods and how long to breast feed do not apply, or for whom the recommendations are different. Here, I am speaking to parents who live in developed countries, where the risk of intestinal and respiratory illness associated with the early elimination of breast feeding are rare, and to parents who have healthy full-term babies. As always, if you have questions, consult your own child's medical professional.)

Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs

There are many indications typically used to determine if a child is ready to begin tasting solid foods, some physical and mechanical which tend to be a little easier to observe, while others are emotional in nature, and might be more difficult to identify. Let’s take a closer look at each one.

Age – Numerous agencies in the US and Europe including the World health Organization (WHO), the American Academy of Pediatrics, and governments in most countries of the European Union recommend nothing but breast milk (ideally, or formula for the non-breast fed baby) for the first 6 months of life. This recommendation, first made by the WHO in 2002, is based on a large body of evidence which examined optimal infant growth and development of illness and infection in babies with differing durations of breast feeding. These agencies concluded that breast milk was adequate to provide all the nutrients needed in the first 6 months of life, except in very particular circumstances, after which point solid foods may be necessary to ensure proper consumption of all nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.

Physical ability – it is no coincidence that 6 months is the age used as a suggestion for the introduction of solid foods, because it coincides, approximately, with the growth and neuromotor development that is considered necessary before infants can safely and adequately consume solid or semi-solid foods. There are several cues that can be used as signs that your baby is ready including:

Sitting up – I have done a lot of research trying to find a reason why being able to sit up unassisted is a sign of developmental readiness and all I am able to find is that it’s because it suggests that they are developmentally ready; which is circular logic. However, every website, blog, official and unofficial agency says that being able to sit unassisted is a key indicator of readiness. Most likely it has to do with safety, and an indication that other aspects of development are in place (like swallowing and the loss of the tongue thrust reflex), but I can’t find scientific evidence that this is the case. I’ve seen other, also unsupported, recommendations that a baby does not need to be able to sit unsupported, but he does need to be able to hold his head up and sit supported without slumping over. This most likely occurs for children well before 6 months of age, and, depending on the child, may occur before other signs of readiness appear.

 

Tongue thrust reflex – Tongue thrust is a normal occurrence in infants and describes the reflex – the involuntary movement - in very young babies that causes their tongue to come forward when something enters their mouth. This reflex helps produce the sucking action which is necessary for breast or bottle feeding, and is why your son is always pushing his tongue out of his mouths when anything goes into it. In time, this reflex begins to disappear and a spoon, for example, put into his mouth is not immediately pushed back out. This often coincides with the ability to actively use his tongue move food from the front to the back of the mouth and down the throat. (Believe it or not, this has to be learned. Practice makes perfect!) From what I can tell, there seems to be a lot of confusion about how to know if this reflex is gone. Here’s how: try touching a spoon to your little one’s lips. If his tongue comes out, pushing the spoon away, he still has a strong reflex. Wait a little while – a few days to a week – and try again. It will eventually go away!

 

Pincher grasp – When baby’s first learn to grab for things they use their whole hand, fully palming an object in order to pick it up. Eventually, your baby will develop the more nuanced and careful pincher grasp, picking things up with her thumb and finger(s). This pincher grasp generally develops between 7 and 12 months of age, but there seems to be a large (and normal) range of ages when this first appears and is mastered.

Digestive tract – Although not a sign of readiness that can be observed, I think it’s important to include a discussion of the growth and development of the digestive tract. At birth the infant’s digestive tract is not fully developed, meaning that the enzymes needed to digest and fully absorb nutrients, although it is mature, is not very efficient. So although young babies are able to handle various nutrients they are not able to fully absorb them. Even breast milk is not fully absorbed in the very young, for example only about 96% of triglycerides (a type of fat molecule) in human milk are absorbed at 1.5 months of age. Most cooked starches are digested and absorbed almost completely, but that which isn’t digested in the intestine continues to be digested further down the digestive tract by microbiota living in the colon. (Interestingly, the microbiota necessary for such digestion seems to increase as more demands are made on it, suggesting that the introduction of a variety of carbohydrates is necessary for full maturation and digestion.) Beginning around 4 months of age, infants begin to secrete the enzymes necessary to digest proteins, but their capacity to do so is limited, ranging from 38 to 76 mL in term neonates to about 20 mL/kg body weight in toddlers (which is the equivalent of 5.5 – 7.0 ounces (160-200 g) per meal for a 6-8 month old).

Interest and imitation – One of the surest signs that your baby is ready for solid foods is her “asking” for it. Your child may intently watch as you eat, following the fork as it moves from the table to your mouth. She might open her mouth when you do, especially when prompted to do so, or try to grab at the muffin you’re eating for breakfast. The more you allow your infant to be a part of meal time – sitting at the table with you while you eat – the more likely you are to observe this interest. With Alice, she eagerly grabs for our cups, silverware, serving dishes and plates… as well as the food on the plate! There is no doubt she is interested in doing what we are doing when it comes to meal time.

You are ready! – This may seem silly, but your readiness (and willingness) to begin the process of introducing solid foods to your baby is going to be one of the best predictors of success. The transition from breast or bottle feeding to eating solid foods can be an emotional time for parents as it signals the end of one period of infancy and the beginning of another. Moms who are breast feeding, especially, may have struggle with letting go of being the person that your baby relies on most for sustenance. Introducing foods also requires patience: it’s going to get messy (literally) and there will be times when your baby (and toddler!) is not going to want to eat the food you make for them. But, if you can remain calm, you are consistent with how you offer foods, and you continue to patiently introduce a variety of foods to your baby you will both find the process more enjoyable.

 

So is YOUR baby ready?

It’s all well and good to talk about the host of signs which may appear in any baby, but what about your baby? What if your son is reaching for your food, clearly watching and interested while the family eats dinner, but it’s yet able to fully support himself sitting and still grabs for objects with his whole fist? Does this mean that he can’t start experimenting with solid (or semi-solid) food?

Of course not! Children develop at different rates and physical milestones will be reached in different orders and at different times. I’ll use my own experience to highlight this. When my oldest started on solids she was very interested in the food that her dad and I were eating, but she was still learning how to sit unsupported and her early meals were on our lap. With my second child, he was not interested in food until he was a fair bit older, and by the time he started eating solid food he was sitting on his own, had a fully developed pincher grasp, and was in a chair at the table with us. As I mentioned, Alice is extremely interested in what the rest of us are eating and is fully able to support herself sitting up, but she does not have a finely developed pincher grasp.

Remember, at this point the act of introducing solid food is not about getting them to eat the food as much as it is about getting them to experience the food. Let them partake in family mealtimes by joining you at the table, having them sit on your lap if they can’t sit by themselves; give them (appropriate) spoons and cups to hold; let them play with pots on the kitchen floor while you cook. Infants are extremely attuned to emotional cues at this age as well, so if you are tense and anxious around food your baby is likely to be tense and anxious as well. Try to relax; you and your baby are likely to have a lot more fun that way!




Also in Blog

Kizingo EATS: cucumber quinoa salad
Kizingo EATS: cucumber quinoa salad

June 12, 2017

I don't know about you, but when it's hot outside the last thing I want to do is turn on my oven! So as the temperatures warm-up, I stay on the lookout for easy to prepare meals that can be eaten cold or at room temperature. We also love salads like this because they are a great way to encourage kids to try new foods. Deconstructable and flexible meals make taste-testing easier, and help kids learn to try new things without needing to eat a whole lot of something new.

Read More

Kizingo EATS: Pasta with Beets & Beet Greens
Kizingo EATS: Pasta with Beets & Beet Greens

April 28, 2017

Are you making your weekend grocery list? Looking for a super easy meal to wow your weekend guests, or just get from stove to table in no time. Look no further! 

The star of this recipe: beets.

Yes. Beets.

Before you groan and click "back", hear me out.  Beets are incredible. They may not be as accessible as the carrot, exotic as the artichoke, or beautifully curvy as the eggplant, but beets have fabulous flavor and pack a nutritional punch (they are an excellent source of folate, manganese, potassium and fiber).

Read More

Why I create a weekly meal plan
Why I create a weekly meal plan

April 14, 2017

My own weekly menus (as is true of my grocery lists) have evolved considerably since kids came on the scene and my planning is often done in the minutes between breaking up fights over who was using the brown lego tree trunks or getting someone (who was not myself) something to eat. Also, I found that my weekly meal plan – which lived a double-life as our grocery list – was messy and disorganized, which left me wandering through the store trying to remember what I came in for in the first place. Something had to give ...

Read More