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Introducing Solids

Baby eating from spoon
When to start solid food

Many new parents wonder when is the right time to start their baby on solid food. They may receive advice from other parents to start early to help the baby sleep through the night. Grandparents may tell them to start as early as the first month, because that’s what they did in the past. However, while very early introduction to solids is not generally considered to be harmful, medical research has shown that your baby’s body is not ready to take in solids until about six months. According to the World Health Organization, “exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months is the optimal way of feeding infants. Thereafter, infants should receive complementary foods with continued breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond.”

Before six months, your baby’s digestive system is not mature enough to handle solids. Your baby’s tongue will push out any foreign substances like food; this is called the tongue reflex, and it protects young babies from choking on foreign bodies. The intestines lack important enzymes necessary for digestion. Certain foods are difficult for the digestive system to cope with; giving solids before six months of age leads to a higher risk of food allergies and intolerance. Also, starting your baby on solid food before age six months can lead to less frequent breastfeeding and a decreased milk supply.

If you give your baby solids before he is ready, he will reject the food, and this can set the stage for future mealtime struggles. Also, if there is a strong history of food allergies in your family, it is often a good idea to wait until your baby is about six months of age before beginning solids.

Don’t wait too long to start solids, though. Babies over six months are more set in their ways and less malleable. Therefore, they are less willing to accept the new flavours and textures of solids. They may resist learning to chew and swallow solids at this age.  There is no good evidence at present that delaying solids for longer than six months will protect your baby from food allergies, asthma, or eczema.

Here are a few signs that your baby will show when he is ready to start eating solid food:

  • He can hold his head up well when propped to sit. Strained foods can be given at this time. Do not offer strained solids to a baby who cannot hold up his head properly. Also, if your baby cannot sit up at all in the high chair, even when propped up by pillows and blankets, you may want to postpone beginning strained foods until later. When the baby is able to sit up by himself, usually around seven months, you can start offering more chunky foods.
  • The tongue thrust reflex has disappeared. Try placing a small bit of rice cereal mixed with formula or breast milk in your baby’s mouth. If your baby’s tongue thrusts the food out, even after several tries, it means that the tongue reflex is still in place, and you should wait a bit longer before introducing solids.
  • Your baby is able to move food from the front to the back of his mouth using his tongue. This may take a bit of practice at first.
  • Your baby can draw in his lower lip and use this action to take food from a spoon.
  • Your baby shows interest in food. He may grab your fork, take your bread, point at your food, or watch intently whenever you take a bite.

Introducing solid food

Baby’s first meal is a momentous occasion! But there is more to it than rolling out the high chair and getting the video camera ready. If you want to ensure that the occasion is happy and enjoyable, you will need to consider the timing and setting of that first meal.

Timing is everything

First of all, keep in mind that the first few months of solid feedings are really just a time to get your baby used to the taste and texture of food. The actual amount of food your baby eats is not all that important, as long as he continues to take breast or bottle feedings. In fact, the first few feedings will only be a teaspoon or two at most.

Choose a time when your baby is alert and happy, and not cranky or overtired. Feeding is time-consuming, so make sure you don’t schedule it for a time when you are busy with other chores. If there is one time during the day when your baby is usually hungry, you may want to give his feeding then.

Starting out

Start by giving him a bit of formula or breast milk to whet his appetite, so that he is not too hungry to endure the new experience. Don’t give him too much formula or breast milk, though, as that will curb his appetite.

Offer your baby a quarter of a teaspoon of food. Slip the spoon between his lips and see how he reacts. Your baby may open his mouth for more, in which case you can place the next bite a bit farther back for easier swallowing. On the other hand, the food might slide right back out. If this happens continually for the first few meals, consider that your baby might not yet be ready for solids. Try again in a week or so. If your baby is ready for solids, he will start to take in more than he spits out.

Introduce solids once per day for the first few days. Once your baby has mastered this, try introducing another meal and, in another few days, a third daily meal.

When to stop the feeding

If your baby starts to become fussy, turns his head away, clamps his mouth shut, spits out food, or throws food around, he is giving you signs that he is no longer hungry. Stop feeding him at this point, and don’t force him to continue eating.

Foods to start with

Around six months of age, try adding the following to your baby’s dietary repertoire, one food at a time:

  • iron-fortified baby cereal, which comes in rice, barley, or oatmeal varieties. The cereal will come as little flakes and you can mix it with breast milk or formula. Try just a teaspoon of the cereal.
  • puréed meat and chicken
  • mashed, hard boiled egg yolk
  • well-cooked beans, lentils, and chickpeas
  • puréed vegetables such as peas, squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, or green beans. It’s wise to introduce vegetables before your baby has a chance to get used to the sweeter taste of fruit. Babies tend to like yellow veggies such as squash and sweet potato more than the green ones like broccoli or green beans. Vegetables do not need to be fresh; they can be mashed up frozen or canned varieties too. When preparing veggies for your baby, resist the temptation to add salt or butter.
  • fruits, after your baby has accepted vegetables into his diet. Finely mashed or strained banana is a good choice, as is applesauce. Around this time, you can also start to introduce baby cereal mixed with fruit.

Introduce new foods one by one. Wait a few days before introducing a new food and look out for adverse reactions such as diarrhea, vomiting, or rash. If your baby does have a problem, this will help you figure out which food might be responsible.

Continuing breast or bottle feeding

When you start feeding your baby solids, make sure to keep breast or bottle feeding as usual. Continue breastfeeding according to the same schedule that your baby was already on. Over time, as your baby starts eating more solid food, your breast milk supply will gradually decrease. This is nature’s way of weaning your baby. If you are bottle feeding, make sure your baby receives at least 480 mL (16 oz) of formula per day until he reaches one year of age.

Joan Brennan-Donnan BASc, RD
Laura Croxson, RD

Andrew James, MBChB, MBI, FRACP, FRCPC