There are babies who could take in a good amount of solids, there are also some who don’t. After meeting many mothers who have babies about the same age as Baby E, I realized the amount of solids that a baby eats can vary greatly. This blogpost is written to encourage mothers who are exclusively breastfeeding their babies, who may wonder if your baby is not taking enough solids, and are worried that your child is not getting enough nutrition from your breast milk alone.
Slow to Start for a Reason
A lot of babies are slow to take to solids. It’s not uncommon for some babies to take several months once solids have been introduced before they really take to them well. Babies who are slow to teethe and babies who have food sensitivities are often the ones who are slower to begin eating solids. This “slowness” may be their bodies’ way of protecting them until the digestive system is more ready to accept new foods.
Contrary to popular belief, it does not matter what kinds of food you feed your baby that determines how much she eats! Some parents feel against feeding their babies with table food (any food that adults eat at the same table where baby is present during family meal times), thinking that is why babies choose not to eat their baby food (e.g. baby rice cereal) when fed. Babies who are between 6 months to 12 months will basically attempt to eat anything you offer them. They are at a stage where they are learning to eat, exploring new tastes and textures from a range of foods, developing their teeth and jaws, and building other skills that they will need later for language development.
Check your Child’s Growth
Rest assured that as long as your baby is continuing to gain weight and grow as she should, your milk is meeting her needs well. A baby’s growth is the best indicator that she is getting enough food. Using a growth chart, plot your child’s height and weight. In Singapore, you can refer to the MOH health booklet. We still keep a copy of the WHO Growth Chart for Canada that was given to us during Baby E’s first visit to the Shaganappi Community Health Centre in Calgary, AB, Canada. On both charts, Baby E’s weight and height are in the 50th percentile. We thank God for watching over her because it is He who grants growth.
If your child is at the 50th percentile or higher in both height and weight, chances are she’s getting enough calories, or at least a balanced diet. Significant drops in the percentile ranking on the growth chart suggest there may be a problem with under-nutrition. It is important to make sure that your child is growing along her own curve on the growth chart. E.g. If your child has consistently been around the 50th percentile in weight and then there is a gradual fall to a lower percentile, say the 25th percentile, over several months, take this as a clue that your child may be undernourished. Under-nourishment shows up first in a slowing of weight gain. Tapering off in height reflects a more severe, prolonged nutritional deficiency.
Role of Solids during the 1st Year
Solids during the first year are only meant to complement breastmilk, not take precedence over it or replace any breastfeedings. It is more of a way to add textures to the baby’s diet, to allow the baby new experiences, and to help her develop hand/eye coordination through finger feeding. Your baby should still be allowed to nurse on demand, as your milk should be her primary source of nutrition until closer to the end of the first year. Continuing to allow on-demand feedings also better ensures your milk supply.
*Solids do not replace breastfeeding or infant formula. Your baby needs breastmilk and/or infant formula along with solids until at least 12 months. If solid food replaces breastmilk and/or infant formula too quickly, babies can miss out on important nutrition.
How to Introduce Solids
1. Signs that Your Baby is Ready for Solids
First and foremost, look out for the following signs that your baby is ready for solids! Your baby’s development and behaviour will be a guide for you to decide when you can start introducing solids.
- Has good head and neck control
- Sits upright when supported
- Shows interest in food e.g. looking at what is on your plate
- Reaches out for your food
- Opens her mouth when you offer her food on a spoon
- Loses tongue-thrust reflex and transitions from sucking reflex to swallowing
*These signs happen at different times for different babies, but most babies will show signs by around six months. Baby E had some of the above signs when she was only about 4 months old.
2. Timing for Food Offers
Secondly, timing is everything that matters – Your baby’s feeding schedule may not always coincide with your feeding schedule! When you’re first introducing solids, it is a good idea to offer solids when you and your baby are both happy and relaxed. Keep in mind that your baby may not be hungry during your regular mealtimes, so do continue to offer her food outside your regular mealtimes. *In fact, all you need to do is to continue to *offer* foods. Don’t worry if she’s not interested or takes very small amounts. Your only true responsibility is what you offer and when you offer it, not whether or not baby eats it. That has to be up to her. Trying to force, coax, cajole, etc. her into eating is never recommended. In fact, allow her to direct her own eating pace. In particular, don’t be tempted to ‘help’ her by putting things in her mouth for her. You will find that she may start gagging, or coughing out the food in a way to reject them. There are many reasons infants may be finicky about food. They may be teething, tired, not yet ready for solids, or just don’t need as much food as you’re feeding them.
Also, your baby is more likely to try solids after a feed of breastmilk or formula. This is because when babies are really hungry, they just want the breastmilk or formula that they know satisfies their hunger first. They will still have room to try new foods after they have had a breastmilk or formula feed. As time passes, you will learn when your baby is hungry or full, not interested or tired. Learn to trust and respect your baby’s signs of hunger and fullness, your baby knows how much to eat.
Signs of hunger include:
- Getting excited when she sees you getting her food ready
- Leaning towards you while she is sitting in the highchair
- Opening her mouth as you are about to feed her
- Reaching out for food
- Smacking or sucking her lips
Signs of fullness include:
- Turning her head away at sight of food
- Clamping her mouth shut when food is offered
- Putting her hand into her mouth
- Losing interest or getting distracted
- Pushing the spoon away
- Crying or fussing when you continue to offer her food
- Yawning or falling asleep while sitting on the high chair
*When you learn to understand and respond to the above signs, you will help your baby understand her own feelings too!
3. Follow Baby’s Cues
Babies refuse food for many reasons: They may be full, tired, distracted, sick, or as mentioned above, baby’s feeding schedule just isn’t your feeding schedule. Don’t worry, a baby will always eat if she is hungry, so if your little one is swatting at the spoon, turning away, or clamping her mouth shut, she is telling you that she has had enough for now. Try to trust that your baby knows how much food she needs, and never force feed your child. Once she has discovered that these “new toys” taste nice, she will begin to chew and, later, to swallow.
It is best to follow your baby’s cues to determine how much and how often she wants to eat solid foods. Meanwhile, know and trust that your milk is still the best nutritious food for your baby during her first year. Solid foods do not have enough healthy fats and calories for your baby’s growth compared to your milk. For babies from 7 months old to their 1st birthday, watch your baby’s cues. Increase solids gradually if baby is interested. Aim for baby getting no more than 25% of her calories from solids by the age of 12 months (some babies eat less than this at 12 months and that’s also normal). Most importantly, as long as your baby is growing steadily according to her own growth curve, there is not much cause to worry.
*It’s a myth that the benefits of breastmilk stop at a certain point. Instead, they continue and are more significant and longer-lasting for both you and your child the longer breastfeeding continues. In fact, the antibodies in human milk are more concentrated the lesser the frequency of breastfeeding is (say with a toddler or older child).
4. Types of Food and Different Textures
All new foods are exciting for your baby, there is no need to cook ‘special’ foods. The order in which foods are introduced is not important as long as you are providing her with a variety of nutritious food. Offer your baby iron-rich foods first, such as iron-fortified infant cereal, finely minced meat or fish, mashed cooked egg yolk, mashed beans, or tofu. As the variety in your baby’s diet increases, include foods rich in vitamin C e.g. oranges, berries, tomatoes, and spinach – along with iron-rich foods. Vitamin C helps your baby absorb iron.
*Do not add cereal to bottles. Instead, spoon-feed your baby cereal that is made with breast milk, formula, or water, gradually making the mixture thicker.
The following table is a general guideline that matches the appropriate food texture to your baby’s developmental stages and feeding cues. Do note that every baby is different. It is normal for your baby to be faster or slower than what is listed below. Eventually, all babies will grow to eat like an adult!
It is okay to mix first foods together unless you are worried about food allergies. If so, you can introduce one new food at a time and wait a few days before you add the next new food as this can help to identify allergic reactions.
First foods can be mashed, smoothed, pureed or offered in soft pieces. As your baby gradually learns to accept such textures, start to offer her something with more lumps. Increased texture helps your baby chew and this helps her develop the muscles she will use later for talking. Babies do not need teeth to be able to chew! By 8 months, begin to offer her finger foods e.g. pieces of cooked vegetables, pasta, toasts, etc. to encourage chewing and self-feeding. Chewing helps with your baby’s speech development.
*Keep breastfeeding on demand or using infant formula until at least 12 months, together with introducing solids. Breast milk will help meet your baby’s nutritional needs during the transition to solid foods.
5. Expect Messes
Learning to eat solid food is a full-body, tactile experience for your baby. Eating is a skill that babies have to learn, including how to get food into their mouths. I can attest that the vast majority of that lovingly homemade squash purée will end up plastered in your baby’s hair and wedged between all her 10 tiny fingers, not in her mouth. Babies explore by tasting as well as touching the texture of new foods. Hence it is good to encourage your baby to do this because it builds other areas of her development, like fine motor skills and thinking. During mealtimes, your baby might even learn about things like height and depth by dropping things from the high chair. This is what Baby E does!
Mealtimes are a shared family time. Try to be patient as your baby experiments and learns, and be tolerant of messes. It will help your baby enjoy mealtimes. Make cleaning up easier by placing a floor protector under the highchair and having a washcloth handy. Introducing solid food for babies is not really for calories, it is more for skill development and introducing them to a food repertoire.
6. Extra Tips
- You are a role model for healthy food choices for your baby.
- Allow plenty of time for feeding.
- Until your baby can handle a spoon better, you can give your baby a clean spoon to hold while you feed him or her with a different spoon.
- Talk with your baby about the food she is eating – what it is, its colour, its taste, where it grows, how you cooked it.
- Offer your baby tastes of what you’re eating to introduce the flavours of your home-cooked meals. This is also a good time for you to think about the foods you eat and make sure you offer healthy foods to your baby.
- Follow your baby’s interest and appetite levels. These differ from day to day and will grow over time. You might offer three meals a day plus snacks, but your baby might not always be interested or need so much.
*Introducing solids is about much more than just food! It is also a great time to talk and listen, as well as bond with each other.
Last but not least, stopping breastfeeding does not make mothering any easier or force your child to grow up any faster! A baby-led approach is always most beneficial to both baby and mommy. Babies who are allowed to wean at their own pace usually continue to nurse well past their first birthday (though this does not mean that you would be unable to wean later-on if that is what you wish). As your baby learns to eat other foods and to drink from a cup, breastfeeding becomes more important for comfort and reassurance than for nourishment. When allowed to do so, children wean gradually, at their own developmental rate and when they are truly ready. Be assured that ALL children will eventually wean.
Breastfeeding your baby for as long as mother and baby are able and willing is one of the best long-term investments you can make into the emotional, intellectual, and physical health of both mother and baby.