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Loving Spoonfuls

Mushy Meals

(4 to 8 months)

Before you even offer that first spoonful, you need to determine whether your baby is actually ready, a milestone that's usually reached between 4 and 6 months. Besides having good head control and being close to sitting on his own, there are three signs that a baby's ready for solid food: "He'll be easy to distract while nursing or taking a bottle. He'll consistently wake up hungry at night for a few weeks. And he'll become upset that he can't have what you're eating," says Will Wilkoff, M.D., a pediatrician in Brunswick, Maine, and author of Coping With a Picky Eater

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That's what happened with my friend Kristin's otherwise placid 6-month-old, Leo. "One day he lunged at my chocolate croissant and actually yanked off a piece," she says. "He also eyed everything I put in my mouth." Although rice cereal probably wasn't what he had in mind, Leo dutifully began with that.

* Getting started. Mix the cereal (choose one that's fortified with iron, a necessary nutrient at this age) to a very watery consistency with breast milk, formula, or water. Then put a little on the tip of a spoon and slip it into your baby's mouth. Eating from a spoon requires a different set of skills than sucking from a breast or bottle, so don't give up -- it may take several tries before he gets the hang of it.

Continue to offer about a tablespoon of cereal once a day for a few days, thickening the consistency as the days pass. Feed him in the morning or evening, whenever it seems to be the best time for you both.

Don't fret about how much he actually swallows; at this age, infants still get most of their calories from breast milk or formula. "The value of solids now is to teach your baby a new way to eat and expose him to new tastes and textures," says Connie Stuart, a clinical nutrition specialist at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, in Baltimore, and a mom of two.

* Bring on variety. When you introduce pureed fruits and vegetables depends on your baby's age: If you started giving cereal at 4 months, wait a month or so; if you started at 6 months, add them to your baby's diet after a couple of weeks. Start with one at a time for four straight days before offering a new one. (This way, if there's an allergic reaction, you'll be able to identify the culprit.)

While some experts believe that it's important to begin with green vegetables so that your baby's taste buds aren't "spoiled" by the sugary taste of fruits and squashes, others dismiss this as myth, believing that infants are born with a sweet tooth. Most likely, your little one will eat what he wants no matter how deliberate you are. Olivia refused to look at a vegetable (and, at 6, still won't unless we agree to play a complicated game of farmer and cow -- don't ask). After tossing several jars of pricey organic baby-food peas, we were thrilled to see her wolf down applesauce.

* Aim for a routine. Work toward serving three meals -- roughly breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- with three different food groups at each meal: cereal, vegetable, and fruit (while still nursing and/or bottle-feeding three to six times a day). But how much your baby eats should be up to him. He'll give you clear signs when he's had enough, like sticking out his tongue or turning his head away.

Just don't lose faith if your little one rejects a certain food the first few times. Offer it again a couple of days later. "It may take as many as twenty tries before a baby begins to like a certain food," says Dr. Wilkoff.

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