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