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Loving Spoonfuls

Time For Texture (9 to 12 months)

Many baby-food manufacturers market a special line of meals with lumpier textures for the "advanced" eater. You can also mash your own foods -- just make sure nothing is bigger than a pea and that the food is able to dissolve in your baby's mouth within seconds. Some good choices: mashed potatoes, overcooked pieces of pasta, bits of banana, grated fruit or cheese, and, of course, Cheerios.

Now's also the time to introduce meats -- chicken, turkey, pork, and beef -- either pureed or with a sloppy-Joe-like texture. (Continue to wait four days after introducing a new food before trying another one.) Certain types of fish, such as trout, are okay too; just be hypervigilant about tiny bones. Stay away from fish like swordfish and tilefish, which contain high levels of mercury.

* The appeal of finger-friendly foods.

Since they're beginning to master the art of picking up small things at this stage, many babies will want to feed themselves. Brace yourself for big messes, though. Playing with their food is the way infants learn about texture, smell, and taste. And because that's such an essential part of their development, try to keep your sense of humor whenever there's a spill.

Easier said than done, of course, when you're trying to chisel three-day-old Cream of Wheat off the toaster oven. Aside from feeding your child in the bathtub (don't laugh -- it's been done), Jeanne Donovan, a mom of three in Leawood, Kansas, suggests putting food directly on the high-chair tray and keeping bowls out of a baby's hands. "My kids seemed to think that a bowl of food was best for throwing on the floor or using as a hat," she says. "When you spread the food out on the tray, they can't get a critical mass going as easily."

Ellen De Money of Boulder, Colorado, recommends getting a dog. "Our Lab manages to clean under the high chair, table legs, even between seat cushions!"

[B {* The hazards of biscuits. While many parents like to give their infants things like teething biscuits, bagels, or breadsticks at this age, they're probably better for babies who have demonstrated good biting, chewing, and swallowing skills (which generally means those who are at least 12 months old). If you want to try a bagel or biscuit, make sure your child is sitting up while eating and that you or another adult is watching her -- these can be choking hazards, especially for babies who simply gnaw at them. (True for older babies too.) Saliva softens the bread, which can result in a piece breaking off.

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