Beyond Rice Cereal

by Julie Tilsner

Beyond Rice Cereal

My Annie was a good eater, happily gobbling up all the jarred foods I offered her. So I was thrown for a loop when, at 7 months, she’d often clamp her mouth shut when I’d try to feed her. At other times, she’d grab the spoon from me and insist on feeding herself. I also noticed that she stared at me longingly when I ate my own meals. What on earth was going on?

Little did I know that my baby and I were entering the transition zone  — that period between 6 and 12 months when a spurt of development prompts changes in the daily eating routine. To help me get through it, I turned to parents and other experts with my questions. Here is their commonsense advice on what to do when your child has mastered the ABC’s of feeding and is ready for new textures and tastes…

Julie Tilsner is the author of Planet Parenthood and Attack of the Toddlers.

Knowing When Baby’s Ready

Q. How do I know when my baby’s ready to try "grown-up" food?

A. The quick answer: teeth. "Once a baby has a tooth or two, he can progress to finger foods," says Ronald Kleinman, M.D., author of What Should I Feed My Kids? Pick those foods with care, though: A baby with three teeth may be able to bite off a chunk of carrot, but unless it’s been steamed to a gummable texture, it’s literally more than he can chew, and poses a choking hazard. Now is the time for foods that dissolve quickly in the mouth.

Even many babies whose teeth are slow to come in are capable of mashing soft pieces of food with their jaws by the time they’re 7 to 9 months old (although they won’t be more adept chewers until their first set of molars comes in  — sometime between 13 and 19 months). Another sign your baby is ready: He can deliberately get food into his own mouth.

An unsalted rice cake just may be the perfect experimental snack. It’s fun for little hands to hold and dissolves quickly when gummed. My daughter also loved breadsticks, which she could hold and suck on during outings in the stroller.

But don’t forget about all those jars left in your pantry. Baby food is a good way to introduce new tastes, and the chunkier "step two" and "step three" varieties are specifically created to help your child switch from pureed to whole foods. Afterwards, packaged and jarred meals designated as toddler foods are very specifically made with shapes, textures, and sizes just right for your toddler’s development.

Q. How do I schedule solids to balance them with breast- or bottle-feeding?

A. Feed your baby solids first, followed by a bottle or breast milk. Even after your little one is eating solids twice a day  — for instance, breakfast and dinner  — breast milk or formula should still be supplying much of her nutrition. That’s why breast or bottle works well when she’s hungry in between meals.

"Before one year, solids are more about experimentation," explains Sanna James, a registered dietitian and editor of Tiny Tummies Nutrition News, a newsletter published in Napa, CA. Think of these early experiences as groundwork. Your baby will get to hone newfound skills while interacting with you during mealtimes  — which is the first step to learning that eating is a pleasurable, and social, activity.

The equation reverses after your child turns 1, when she can try to start drinking cow’s milk. (Talk to your pediatrician about this, and note that some children’s stomachs may not be ready for cow’s milk yet.) Just resist the urge to let her run around all day with a cup. "If toddlers are filling up on milk, they’re not going to want or need to sit down and eat something," says BabyTalk‘s contributing editor Heidi Murkoff, coauthor of the What to Expect books.

What If Baby Won’t Be Fed?

Q. How do you work up to three meals a day? And how important is it to stick to a schedule?

A. Your baby will let you know when she’s ready for more food, more frequently. If she’s showing hunger cues often during the day, you’ll want to start offering her an extra solid meal a day. But if she wants only a few tablespoons at the first sitting and doesn’t seem interested in eating much more at the next feeding, don’t force the issue. By the time your child starts to agitate for heartier fare, chances are you’ve already created a daily routine of some sort, one that has evolved through a combination of your baby’s natural appetite and your family’s needs. If your baby wakes at 7 a.m. and you need to be at work by 9 a.m., you’ve all probably gotten used to the idea of breakfast between 7:30 and 8 a.m.

What you’re doing is helping your little one make the transition from eating anytime, anyplace  — the way an infant does  — to something more akin to a toddler’s three-meals-plus-snacks routine.

Remember, however, that the key words are "helping" and "transition"  — a strict, nonnegotiable feeding schedule benefits nobody, least of all your baby. Better to feed a baby earlier, then sit her down with some crackers or a teething biscuit during your dinner. That way the idea that eating is a social occasion is reinforced  — in a positive way. Expecting the whole family to sit down to dinner at 6 p.m. when your child is beyond famished is expecting a little too much. "Babies’ tummies are tiny. They can’t wait like you can for food," says Murkoff. "There’s plenty of time for family dinners in later years."

Q. Why does my 8-month-old refuse to let me feed her?

A. Because it’s no fun at all, compared with the thrill of feeding herself. Between 7 and 12 months, babies discover that they can put that yummy stuff into their own mouths  — first by raking it in with their palms, then by picking it up with their thumb and forefinger. Suddenly, a high-chair tray of squash chunks becomes a challenge  — a game and a meal at the same time. Since this is all part of the great experiment that is eating, you might as well resign yourself to the mess. Most tots aren’t able to use utensils neatly until deep into their second year.

Besides the jarred and packaged foods your baby likes, try ripe bananas or other soft fruits cut into small cubes. Vegetables steamed till they can be mashed by little jaws are easily digested at this stage. Other sure bets include mashed potatoes and teeny chunks of pancakes topped with applesauce.

Choosing the Right Foods

Q. My 11-month-old loves simple baby foods. Is there a certain age when I should stop giving them to him?

A. If he can’t live without his pureed pears, that’s fine  — he’s still getting excellent nutrition. Just be sure to introduce finger foods along with them. After about 10 months, babies start having many more opinions about such matters, and after one year, a growing inclination to voice them, says Dr. Kleinman. Better to get your child used to more complex tastes when he’s still relative putty in your hands.

Q. How do you know a baby is getting enough variety  — especially when all she’s eating is some fruit and crackers?

A. "The message for parents is that, unless your child is sick, you can really trust her to eat what she needs," says James. "Just remember, you’re the gatekeeper. You have to offer her a variety of healthy foods."

Also, it’s worth taping this fact onto your refrigerator: A child’s interest in food plummets around the first birthday. "At around one year, children have bigger fish to fry than the kind we eat," says Murkoff. Expecting a toddler to eat a well-rounded meal three times a day is unrealistic, so she advises parents to relax: "Feeding problems start when parents step in and try to wrest control from the child. Try to provide balanced nutrition over the space of a day, or even a week, instead [of at every meal]." Indeed, the experts agree that if your little one is growing and thriving during this period of transition, she’s probably getting all the nutrition she needs  — even if it seems like she’s living on chunky sweet potatoes and Cheerios alone.