Breastmilk or formula is a complete food for your baby until around 6 months of age. At that time, the iron supply that he was born with may begin to diminish. Many babies also start teething at this time, indicating that nature intended for them to begin chewing. This is usually the time to introduce solid foods. Let your baby be your guide. Some babies are eager to eat at this time and will reach for food. Others are still not ready and will refuse it. Proceed very slowly. If your baby does not want food, do not force him to eat. Continue to offer it occasionally, and when he is ready, he will take it. Do not concern yourself with how much he eats. He will just be learning to eat and will still need some time before he is ready for three “square meals” a day. Mashed banana is a good food to offer first. Breastmilk or formula, however, should remain his primary source of nutrition throughout the first year. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies receive only breastmilk for the first 6 months of life and then continue to receive breastmilk as the primary source of nutrition throughout the second half of the first year while starting to eat solid foods. Mothers are encouraged to continue breastfeeding for as long as is mutually desired. If you do not breastfeed for the entire first year, you should substitute formula.
Experts say that introducing solids before 6 months of age offers no advantages. The enzymes that are necessary to completely digest cereal and other foods are not present in full quantity until a baby is 3 to 6 months old. Also, before 3 to 4 months, a baby does not have the ability to move food from the front of his mouth to the back. Most of the food that you would feed your baby at this time would therefore be wasted. You would spend a lot of time catching the food his tongue thrust back out. Furthermore, because a baby’s gastrointestinal tract is not yet mature, the early introduction of solids can cause improper absorption and food allergies. It might also lead to obesity in later life, since many mothers encourage their babies to finish the jar or to clean the plate to prevent wasting food.
Solid foods also do not make a baby sleep through the night. Sleeping all night is a function of neurological maturity and is independent of feeding. Babies usually begin to sleep through the night at 2 to 3 months of age.
When you do begin giving solid foods to your baby, introduce one food at a time. Allow 1 week between new foods. If your baby has an adverse reaction such as a rash or stomach upset, you will know which food is responsible.
Certain foods are highly allergenic and should be delayed to prevent reactions. For example, do not give your baby cow’s milk until he is 1 year of age because approximately 20 percent of children are allergic to cow’s milk. Dairy products such as yogurt, cottage cheese, and natural cheeses can be started at 9 to 10 months. Orange juice, citrus fruits, and eggs should not be introduced until 1 year of age.
Some foods are dangerous for babies for other reasons. Once you give your child cow’s milk, give him whole milk until he is 2 or 3 years old. The high protein and salt contents of skim milk and 2-percent milk put too much stress on a young child’s kidneys. In addition, skim milk does not contain enough calories to meet a toddler’s energy and growth needs, and it is deficient in iron, vitamin C, and the essential fatty acids. Honey is another food that should not be given to babies, because of the risk of infant botulism, which can be fatal. Wait until your child is 12 months old before giving him honey.
You can avoid using expensive, overprocessed commercial baby foods by taking the nutritious (and nonsalted) foods from your table, and mashing or blending them for your baby. You can even freeze portions of these mashed foods to give to your baby when the rest of your family is enjoying a “combination” dish, such as a casserole, that includes foods not yet introduced into the baby’s diet. Freeze these leftover single foods in ice cube trays. When they are frozen, pack the individual cubes in plastic bags and store them in your freezer. To use them, simply defrost to room temperature and serve. Even baby cereals are unnecessary if you regularly serve your family cooked cereals that are low in salt and sugar, such as oatmeal and Cream of Wheat. Make the cereal with water instead of milk, and serve it to the baby with no added sweetener.
Many women find that running the baby’s foods through the blender is unnecessary. You can avoid the expense and trouble of pureeing foods by waiting until your baby is truly ready for finger foods. At about 8 to 10 months of age, your baby will be able to handle the foods from your table and will enjoy the independence of feeding himself. Offer him small pieces of softened vegetable, such as baked white or sweet potato, or tiny pieces of chicken, fish, or beef. Foods that you can easily mash between your fingers are good choices. Finger-size pieces of dried or toasted whole wheat bread are convenient and easy for the baby to chew. Also, packaged cereals that are low in salt and sugar, such as Cheerios, make good finger foods. In this way, you will eliminate the headache of spoon feeding, and mealtimes will be more pleasurable.
Some foods should not be offered until your child is 3 years old because of the possibility of choking. These include nuts, grapes, popcorn, spoonfuls of peanut butter, and carrot and celery sticks.
Commercial baby food manufacturers have been tremendously successful at marketing their products by convincing mothers that pureed food is a necessary step before table food. They have even invented different levels of prepared foods from “smooth” to “chunky” to prolong the length of time that parents “need” to purchase these foods. Advertising experts have influenced our culture so strongly that mothers feel negligent if they do not use these expensive products. The baby food manufacturers even promote the purchase of small jars of special “baby” fruit juices when the same juices are available much more economically in larger bottles.
What other mammal purees food for its young? Most mammals breastfeed their infants until they are able to feed themselves adult-type food. By breastfeeding and delaying the introduction of solids until the baby is ready, human infants can also avoid commercial or even homemade pureed foods. To know when your child is ready, watch for him to grab for your glass or reach for your food.
If you do decide to purchase prepared baby foods, look for varieties that have no added salt, sugar, starches, or other fillers. Many brands now offer products that contain only the pureed food and no additives. These provide more nutrition, so read the labels carefully. Do not feed your baby right from the jar, since his saliva contains enzymes and bacteria that will start to break down the food and thus prevent you from saving the leftover for later use. In addition, be aware of products containing chicken. High levels of fluoride have been found in some commercial baby food containing chicken. Fluoride is stored in bone, and it may be released during the deboning process. Too much fluoride can result in fluorosis, which causes light spots on the permanent teeth. If you use commercial baby food, offer chicken products sparingly. Better yet, grind your own chicken or wait until your child can handle small pieces of chicken.
With so many quality foods available, it should be easy to avoid giving your child packaged cookies and soft drinks as snacks. When mothers simply do not purchase junk foods, children readily accept and come to prefer the more nutritious foods. Offer your child cheese, whole wheat crackers, fresh fruit and vegetables, raisins and other dried fruit, and popcorn. However, do not offer nuts, seeds, or popcorn if your child is under 3.
You can turn your favorite cookie recipes into health cookies by substituting whole wheat flour for a portion of the white flour and adding wheat germ, brew- er’s yeast, and powdered milk. If your child is over 12 months old, you can also substitute honey for the refined sugar. The cookies should turn out fine as long as your total dry ingredients equal the total dry ingredients in the recipe. If the batter is too thick, just add an extra egg. Many cookie recipes call for raisins, nuts, peanut butter, or oatmeal, which make them doubly nutritious.
Soft drinks are devoid of any food element except sugar. They are full of acids, preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers, artificial flavorings, and dyes. While researchers have tested these additives individually for safety, little is known about their combined effect on the human body. Soft drinks cause tooth decay and take away the appetite for more nutritious foods. They act as stimulants by causing the blood sugar to soar temporarily. However, this boost is rapidly followed by a drop in blood sugar and energy. Give your child milk, water, or unsweetened fruit juice when he is thirsty.
Packaged gelatin desserts are about 85-percent sugar. Instead, use unflavored gelatin and prepare it with fresh fruit juice.