Parenting Advice

Baby's First Foods

Getting your baby to learn how to eat his first foods can seem like a daunting milestone, but it's not astrophysics. When the time is right, he'll figure it out, with a little help from you. And even if you goof once or twice -- say, give him fruit before rice cereal -- nothing bad is likely to happen. Still, by sticking to the right timing and sequence of your baby's first "real" foods, you can improve his nutrition and health.

Before you start, remember that offering solids is a gradual process. Until now, your baby has only known breast milk or formula (and he'll continue to need them until he's 1). If he pushes food out of his mouth or presses his lips together when you eagerly try to spoon-feed him, don't force it. He may not be ready to eat solids yet. And even when he is, it can take as many as 20 times before he warms up to a particular food.

The first few times you offer him something he's never eaten before, one or two teaspoons is enough. Just getting the taste of it on his little lips is an accomplishment. The most important thing is to make his first experiences with new foods as positive as possible.

Why You Shouldn't Start Too Soon
It's best to introduce solid foods when your baby's between 4 and 6 months, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In some cases, it's okay to begin a little later (some babies may not be developmentally ready until 7 months), but starting sooner is definitely not a good idea. Here's why:
It'll backfire.
Babies are born with a reflex that makes them push their tongue forward when something touches it -- which means they can't use the tongue to move food from the front to the back of the mouth. If you try to push the food into your baby's mouth, he may start to gag, which certainly isn't going to make his first experience with solids a pleasant one. Between 4 and 6 months, this reflex disappears.

He may develop a food allergy.
"The gut is much more permeable before four months, so whole proteins can be absorbed easily, which increases the risk of developing an allergy," says William Dietz, M.D., director of the division of nutrition and physical activity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

He doesn't need it.
Up until about 6 months, breast milk or formula provides all the nutrition he requires. After that, he'll start to need certain nutrients from solid foods. He also should get additional calories -- how many varies from baby to baby. On average, by the time he's 1, he may take in about 400 extra calories from solids; 600 by age 2.

He could acquire long-term health problems.
In one study, infants fed cereal before 3 months old had a higher risk of developing celiac disease (a serious intolerance of wheat protein) than those who were fed cereal between 4 and 6 months. Studies also suggest that babies given cereal before 3 months (and, possibly, after 7 months for the first time) are at greater risk for diabetes.

The Best Foods, Age by Age
When your baby is ready -- he can sit up in his high chair and shows interest in your food -- you'll want to start certain kinds of foods first. Be careful not to inundate your little gourmet with too many different foods in a short span of time. Allow at least three days between new foods. That way, you won't overwhelm him, and you'll be able to spot any problems that may arise with a particular food.
Let your baby decide how much to eat. For some meals -- or days -- he may not eat much; on others, he may be ravenous. Go with the flow.

What you eat matters, too
When you were pregnant, the flavors of the foods you ate were transferred through amniotic fluid to your fetus; if you're nursing, what you eat flavors your milk. Research shows that when your baby is ready to eat solid food, chances are he'll remember those flavors. For instance, in one study, 3- to 10-month-old babies of moms who drank carrot juice in their last trimester or during breastfeeding seemed to relish the taste of cereal made with carrot juice instead of water. Those mothers who didn't drink carrot juice had babies who were tentative about eating carrot-juice-flavored cereal.

There's no guarantee that if you love broccoli your baby will as well. But the more varied and healthy your food choices, the better your chances are of raising a kid who likes his veggies, too.

A Safety Checklist
Until your baby is at least 7 months, don't puree your own beets, turnips, carrots, spinach, or collard greens because they may have large amounts of nitrates, which can cause anemia in young infants. (Commercial baby-food varieties are fine. They're tested to be nitrate-free.) And if you use well water, get it tested for nitrates.

Until your child is 1, avoid honey -- it can contain spores that may produce life-threatening infant botulism.

Until your child is 4, don't feed him these foods, which are choking hazards:
- nuts and seeds
- popcorn
- raw vegetables
- hard or sticky candy
- chewing gum
- whole grapes, cherries
- chunky peanut butter (instead, use the smooth kind, spread very thinly over crackers or bread)

After your child is 1, cut up firm, round foods (grapes, cooked carrots, hot dogs, chunks of cheese or meat) into very small pieces -- about a quarter inch -- before serving.

At any age, if your child experiences rashes, vomiting, bloating, gas, or diarrhea after a new food, stop giving it to him and talk to your doctor. He may have an allergy or food intolerance.

The Best Foods for 4 to 7 Months
New Foods
Begin iron-fortified rice cereal, mixed with breast milk or formula. Gradually -- one new food every few days -- introduce other kinds of cereal, such as wheat, bran, or oats, and finely strained, pureed, or mashed fruits and vegetables.

How Often?
Twice a day

Sample Daily Menu
These are suggestions to give you a sense of how much food your child may need over the course of a day. Your baby may eat more or less.
* 12 teaspoons of cooked warm rice cereal
* 2 ounces of jarred, mashed apples
* 2 ounces of jarred, pureed carrots

The Best Foods for 7 to 10 Months

New Foods
Strained or mashed fruits and vegetables with a slightly thicker consistency, like bananas, applesauce, squash, cooked egg, finely chopped meat, poultry, or fish

How Often?
Up to three times a day

Sample Daily Menu
* 12 teaspoons of barley cereal
* 4 ounces of mashed bananas
* 1 scrambled egg yolk
* 1 four-ounce jar of mashed sweet potatoes
* 1 four-ounce jar of chicken and rice

The Best Foods for 9 to 12 Months

New Foods
Phase in soft combination foods, such as macaroni and cheese, pasta with tomato sauce, and casseroles. Now that your child can sit up and bring food to his mouth with his hands, he can eat finger foods that dissolve in the mouth without chewing, like baby crackers and bite-size cooked frozen vegetables.

How Often?
Feed him three to four meals a day, along with two nutritious snacks, such as a small cup of yogurt, a little cheese, or some bean dip. That, by the way, is an ideal eating pattern for the rest of his childhood. The portions will get bigger as he grows, but the basic schedule will stay the same.

Sample Daily Menu
* 18 teaspoons of baby oatmeal
* 4 ounces of plain yogurt with 1 four-ounce jar of peaches
* ¼ cup of peas, placed on his tray
* 1 six-ounce bowl of pasta with cheese
* ½ slice of muenster cheese, cut into tiny pieces

The Best Foods for 12 Months and Up

New Foods
Add whole cow's milk to his diet. He'll need the extra calories and fat until he's 2; then you can switch to lower-fat or skim milk.

How Often?
Three or four meals, plus two snacks; the same pattern as above.

Sample Daily Menu
* 4 to 8 tablespoons -- that's 12 to 24 teaspoons of cooked vegetables or fruit, cut into small pieces or pureed
* 4 servings of grain food (a serving is ¼ slice of bread or 2 tablespoons of rice, potatoes, or pasta)
* 2 servings ½ ounce or 1 tablespoon each serving) of cooked meat, poultry, fish, or eggs

Is Your Child at Risk for Food Allergies?
The average infant has about a 5 percent chance of developing food allergies by age 3; there's no evidence that restricting certain solid foods will help prevent allergies for most babies. Likewise, it's fine to continue eating your normal diet when you're pregnant or breastfeeding.
But if you or your baby's dad has asthma, hay fever, eczema, or food allergies, the risk goes up to 20 to 30 percent. If you both do, the risk is 40 to 70 percent. There's still debate whether restricting your diet when you're pregnant or breastfeeding -- avoiding peanuts, for example -- will reduce your baby's chances of developing allergies, so it's best to talk over your particular situation with your doctor. But if there's a family history, once your baby is born, follow these recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Breastfeed exclusively for 6 months; if you use formula, buy a hypoallergenic one, such as Nutramigen or Alimentum. (Even after he's eating, he'll still need breast milk or formula until he's at least 1.)

After 6 months, introduce solids, but avoid the foods that cause most food allergies: peanuts, tree nuts, cow's milk, and shellfish. You may also want to skip wheat and soy.

After age 1, introduce whole cow's milk, wheat, and soy (if you've avoided them). Do so one food at a time, and wait a few days before introducing the next one so you can watch to see if there's any reaction.

Wait until your child's at least 2 before feeding him eggs, and at least 3 before giving him seafood or nut products.

Laura Flynn McCarthy, mom of Liam, 15, and Michael, 9, is a regular contributor of Parenting.