Starting solids

Starting your baby on solid food is an important milestone in their life. Giving them the best nutrition right from the beginning will help them reach their full potential. It’s also a window of opportunity where good eating habits can be established, and will continue throughout their lives.

When and why should solid food be introduced?

Whether your baby is being breastfed, bottle fed or a combination of both, first foods are introduced in the same way and time.  In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) recommend the introduction of solid foods at ‘around six months of age’ but not before 4 months based on the latest scientific findings. This is because at this age, the nutritional needs of specific nutrients required for growth and development will no longer be satisfied by breastmilk or infant formula alone.

Iron, iodine and zinc are minerals needed from food from about 6 months onwards, but this varies between babies. Because we don’t know which babies are most in need, we aim to give all babies solids containing these minerals from this age.

By this time, your child’s feeding behaviour will also have progressed, including the development from sucking to biting, their tongue-extrusion reflex will have disappeared, they will have the ability to sit without support allowing greater manipulation of food before swallowing, their digestive system will have matured and your child will have developed an interest in their environment, prompting a willingness to accept new textures and flavours.

However, some circumstances, will influence the age when solids are introduced, such as medical conditions, prematurity (i.e. less than 37 weeks old), illnesses and medical procedures or disabilities that may affect feeding. In these circumstances, it is always best to seek guidance from your baby’s doctor or healthcare professional to ensure that your little one is fed safely with a nutritionally adequate diet.

Signs that your baby is ready for solid foods

Babies are all unique. Some babies will be ready for solids earlier than others, so individual signs of readiness are a better guide. Generally speaking, babies start showing signs of readiness to eat solid foods at around six months of age.  Some of these signs include:

  • Interest in watching others eat and showing excitement when others are eating
  • Lost tongue-thrust reflux that pushes food back out of the mouth
  • Holds head up head
  • Able to sit upright supported
  • Opening mouth when something comes towards them
  • Chewing fingers and toys
  • Reaching out for food and cutlery

Even though you may see some of these signs earlier, for most babies breastmilk or infant formula will be enough until around six months.

Your baby may not be ready for solid food if they:

  • Thrust their tongue out
  • Close their mouth tightly and turn their head away
  • Push food or utensils away
  • Cry when offered food

If this happens when you first try to feed baby, just stop and wait a few days to try again. Remember that every baby is different and there is no need to rush to start before six months.

If your little one is not showing readiness signs at around six months and you are concerned about their appetite, growth and/or development, it’s a good idea to chat to your baby’s doctor or relevant healthcare professional.

Did you know? Early tasting of solid foods is intended more for educational purposes than for nutrition. Breast milk or infant formula will continue to be a baby’s main source of nutrition for the first 12 months.

What if solid foods are introduced earlier or later?

The major issue with introducing solids too early is that babies are simply not physiologically ready. At three months, only good head control is achieved by most babies. They won’t be able to sit up properly and they still have gag reflex that pushes food out of their mouth. Earlier introduction of solids can be messy, time consuming and demoralising, as babies simply aren’t equipped to be eating solids so soon.

Possible issues associated with introducing solid foods too soon (before 4 months):

  • Increased risk of infection and illness
  • Increased risk of choking
  • Unsettled behaviour
  • Reduction in breastmilk or formula infant
  • Fussy eating

If you feel your baby needs to commence solids before six months of age, it’s best to seek appropriate advice and support from your baby’s doctor or healthcare professional to ensure that your little one is fed safely and has a nutritionally adequate diet.

Possible issues with introducing solid foods too late (after 6 months):

  • Delayed growth and development
  • Potential nutrient deficiencies
  • Increased risk of developing allergies
  • Fussy eating

What food should be introduced?

The introduction of solid foods at around six months of age should start with iron, iodine and zinc containing foods, which important for brain development, immunity, strength and energy. The best foods for these minerals include meat (meat poultry and fish) and their alternatives (cooked tofu and legumes) and fish like canned or fresh salmon. Although a baby is unable to gnaw into a piece of meat, even just sucking the juices will provide valuable iron and zinc and very small fibres of salmon are a good introduction to iodine containing food. Iron-fortified cereals are often used in Australia but these do not contain zinc and iodine.

Other than recommending the use of iron-rich first foods, there are no other recommendations on the order in which foods should be introduced or the number of new foods that can be introduced at a time. So, parents can introduce a variety of suitable vegetables, fruit and other foods from the five food groups (see the Australian Dietary Guidelines for a description of the five food groups).

All this helps to make sure that introduced foods have a high nutrient density, which will help support your baby’s rapid growth and development. These foods also provide vital iron, zinc, fat, protein, vitamins and other essential minerals. By the way, slow introduction of solid food is not necessary.

Different cultures also introduce different foods at different times, which is of little consequence, provided appropriate foods and preparation methods are used and a baby’s nutrition needs are met. Introducing family foods to a baby is also a time to reflect on what you’d like them to grow up eating. Is it the type of food your family eats now, or is it time to think about making some changes toward healthier eating? Your example will have a powerful influence on what your baby ends up eating. You are their role model.

Breast or infant formula feeding is recommended alongside solids until a baby is 12 months old and for breastfeeding, for as long as the mother and baby want to keep going.

Tip Homemade food is often more nutritious, may better offer a variety colour, texture and the natural taste of food, and is cheaper than commercial baby foods. This is the case, even if labels say natural, low is sugar, high in iron or have extra iron. In most cases, your own cooking is best, because it is your family diet that you want your baby to learn to enjoy and you know exactly what your baby is eating.

Some ideas for food

The best food for your baby at any meal is what the rest of the family is eating, adapted as needed

  • Meat, fish or alternatives small amounts of meat on a safe bone. Examples include chicken leg bone, lamb chop, fingers of grilled or baked liver or kidney, rissoles or slices of homemade meat loaf, homemade fish fingers or fish cakes, flakes of cooked fish with all bones removed, firm tofu cooked in long, thin slices
  • Fruit grated apple or other fruit; small banana pieces or ripe avocado, pieces of melon or pawpaw (without seeds); an orange quarter, minus peel and seeds; stone fruits with stone removed, peeled and cored apple or pear
  • Vegetables cooked green stringless beans; cooked broccoli or cauliflower floret, fingers of cooked potato, carrot or other vegetables; grated raw carrot. If your baby has teeth, a piece of raw celery or other salad vegetables can be given
  • Bread white “high-fibre” or wholemeal; homemade rusks; toast, plain, buttered, or sometimes use a spread thinly, sandwiches
  • Pasta boiled, cooled, pasta shapes, with meat/vegetables from a casserole
  • Eggs small pieces of hard-boiled egg yolk or whole egg, strips of omelette
  • Milk products small, soft bits of cheese, grated cheese, full-fat low sugar yoghurt

Take care avoid hard foods that don’t break up easily to prevent chocking, such as nuts and small, hard pieces of vegetables and fruit. You can mix first foods together. There’s no need for one at a time.

Texture of foods

When your baby is ready for solids, their first foods might be smooth, mashed or in soft pieces, depending on what they like. Without doubt, you will notice your baby learn quickly how to manage foods of different textures. So, if you start with purées for your baby at around six months of age, these will only be needed for a very short period as your baby should be encouraged to chew soft foods from around seven months. Even babies without teeth can manage these foods – all they need is practice.

Did you know? Your baby needs a variety of food textures. This helps them learn how to chew, and chewing helps with your baby’s speech development. It also helps to encourage self-feeding and prevent feeding difficulties as your baby develops.

By eight months of age, most babies will be able to manage finger foods and then at 12 months of age they should be consuming a wide variety of healthy foods with the same texture similar to that of the family.

Always stay with you baby when they are eating, to make sure they are safe and do not choke.

Did you know? When giving food with lumps, your baby may spit it out or even gag the first few times. Gagging is a normal part of learning to eat and it usually frightens parents more than the baby! This does not mean they are not ready: they just need to keep practising.

Types and amounts of foods in the first 12 months

A child’s early years are super important for setting up healthy eating and lifestyle habits and we can help our children get a really good start. Families help build a good foundation by making sure a range of wholesome and nutritious foods are available from around six months of age.

As you may expect, from this age your little one will progressively increase the amount and variety of food they eat. It’s a good idea to feed them smaller amounts of food, more frequently as babies have small stomachs. It’s also normal for a baby’s appetite to change from day to day but this averages out over several days. Follow their lead and be patient.

Breastmilk or infant formula still remains the main source of nutrition for the first year of life, but as your baby eats more solid foods, fewer breast milk or formula feeds will be demanded by your baby. However, take care not to replace milk feeds too quickly with solid foods.

The table below provides a general guide on appropriate serve sizes of different food groups for children between the ages of 7-12 months. By 12 months, babies can be offered a variety of nutritious foods that are enjoyed by the rest of the family, except for choking hazards, such as whole nuts and grapes.

Table 1: Recommended food groups and serve size intakes for healthy babies between 7-12 months from the Australian Dietary Guidelines (www.eatforhealth.gov.au)

Food* Food types Serve size Serves a day Serves a week
Vegetables and legumes/beans 20 g 1 ½ -2 10-14
Fruit Apple, banana, orange, pear. Apricots, kiwi fruit, plus, canned fruit (no added sugar) 20 g ½ 3-4
Grain (cereal) foods, mostly whole gain and/or high fibre cereal varieties. Bread, bread roll, rice cakes, cooked pasta, noodles, cooked rice, porridge, wheat cereal flakes, muesli 40 g bread equivalent 1 ½ 10
Infant cereal (dried) 20 g 1 7
Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, legumes/beans Cooked red meat, lean mince, roast meat, cooked chicken, cooked fish, cooked lentils/beans, but pastes, cooked eggs 30 g 1 7
Breastmilk or formula 600 mL 1 7
Yoghurt/cheese or alternatives Cheese, natural yoghurt, firm tofu 20 mL yoghurt or 10 g cheese ½ 3-4
Fats, oils Unsaturated spread, oil, nuts or seeds (paste) 5 g 1 7

 

Drinks

Breastmilk or infant formula is the only drink that your baby needs for the first 12 months. For bottle fed babies, boiled then cooled tap water can be given in small amounts from six months and tap water should continue to be boiled first until 12 months but infant formula or breastmilk are still all they really need.

There are drinks unsuitable for babies due to their nutritional content or high sugar levels, see Unsuitable foods and drinks section the below.

Did you know? At six months, you baby can start drinking from a cup instead of a feeding bottle. At first they will need to use two hands and there may be some spills but they will get the hang of it soon.

Food refusing

Don’t worry if your baby refuses new foods, that’s normal. Some are keen to try new foods. Others need numerous exposures before a new food becomes familiar and ‘safe’ enough to try. Research shows it can take between 10-15 repeated tastings for children to accept unfamiliar but nutritious foods, like vegetables. Once they are familiar with a food, it may become a ‘favourite’ later on.

Oh, and try to avoid negative messages about food, such as food being ‘good’ or bad’. It’s also a good idea to avoid rewards, bribes and punishments around food.

The effort is worth it as the wider the range of food experiences, the more likely a child is to continue to eat a variety of foods from the five food groups and gain the essential nutrients and other food components for good health.

Tip You can also let your child touch, sniff or lick a new food to get used to the look, feel and smell of it. If this is too much, just let it sit on the plate. You might need to let them do this over several meals before they are willing to take a bite.

Unsuitable foods and drinks

Special care is needed with food choice especially during the first year, because they are still growing and their digestive systems are immature. Food and beverages not suitable for your baby or that should be used with care include:

  • Hard small foods such as whole nuts, seeds and uncooked vegetables like raw carrot, celery sticks and uncooked fruit like chunks of apple due to the risk of chocking
Tip Nut pastes and nut spreads do not pose this risk and can be offered to babies from around six months of age.
  • Raw eggs, honey, unpasteurised milk and milk products, fermented meat, raw or undercooked meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, deli food and leftover food due to bacteria risk and can may your baby very sick
  • Fruit juice, cordial, soft drinks, flavoured water, unpasteurised milks, plant-based milks e.g. soy milk, almond milk, rice and oat milks, caffeinated drinks, tea, coffee and herbal drinks are not recommended for babies due to their inappropriate nutritional content
  • Low-fat and reduced-fat products because children under two years are growing rapidly and have relatively high energy needs, so will benefit from the full fat varieties
  • Salt, sugar, sweeteners or other additives. Avoid adding these to your baby’s foods. Processed foods with fat, sugar and/or salt (e.g. cakes, biscuits, chips, fried foods) often provide limited nutritional benefit and can result in poor food choices later in life

Did you know? Children have heightened taste receptive responses compared with adults, due to increased taste bud receptor density on their tongues. So your child will differ from you with respect to their sensory perception, taste response and preferences.

Tip Food has lots of natural flavour and because children can taste more of this than adults, it’s not necessary to add too much extra flavour for kids. You could also try adding herbs and spices in small amounts to introduce new flavours.

Food allergies and introducing solids

Some babies will develop food allergies. For babies with symptoms of allergy before solids are introduced, it is advisable to seek guidance from your baby’s doctor.

Currently, there is no indication that allergenic solid foods such as peanut butter, cooked egg, dairy, fish and wheat products should be delayed or avoided and almost any foods can be introduced in the first year of their life. The latest evidence says this includes all babies, even those with siblings or parents who have food allergies or other allergic conditions. If the food is tolerated, continued to give this food regularly as part of a varied diet.

However, whilst there is no need for slow introduction, introducing one new food at a time and waiting two to three days before additional food is introduced does allow the identification of possible reactions to certain foods.

If there is any allergic reaction to any food, that food should be stopped and you should seek advice from a doctor with experience in food allergy.

If there is a family member with an allergy to a particular food, the risk that a baby will also develop the allergy is higher, so if unsure about how to introduce a common allergenic food (like peanuts) when there is food allergy in the family, its best to speak to your health professional.

Breastfeeding during the period when solids are introduced may help reduce the risk of your baby developing allergies.

Did you know?

A baby’s facial skin is very sensitivity and many foods (including citrus, tomatoes, berries, other fruit and vegemite) can irritate their skin and cause redness on contact – this may not food allergy, but it is always best to chat to your health professional, to clear up any concerns.

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