Loving Spoonfuls

by Christina Frank

Loving Spoonfuls

When my older daughter, Olivia, got the all-clear to start solids, we treated it like a big event (because, let’s face it, it doesn’t take much to thrill new parents). At 4 months old, she was still too wobbly for a high chair, so I held her on my lap, snapped on her crisp new bib, and ceremoniously presented a spoonful of rice cereal while my husband hovered nearby with the camera. Olivia clearly didn’t share our excitement over this significant moment. Instead of swallowing, she let the cereal dribble out of her mouth and into that netherworld of infant neck folds.

Giving your baby “real” food is a parenting rite of passage. When to start, what to serve, and how often — it seems so complicated after months of no-brainer breast milk or formula. But it doesn’t have to be.

Christina Frank, a mom of two, writes on health and psychology for many magazines.

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.

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.

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.

Grown-Up Food

BLUE_TEXT_BOLD(13 to 18 months)

By this age, your baby should, if possible, be eating the same things as the rest of the family (cut up to manageable size) so he learns that mealtime is a sociable event and that certain rules apply — though don’t expect anything resembling table manners just yet.

* Balancing solids and liquids. Solids are now the key source of your baby’s nutrition, especially since he’s probably drinking cow’s milk, which contains a combination of nutrients different from breast milk or formula. Still, he should consume no more than 12 to 16 ounces of milk per day (or 2 cups’ worth) so that he actually has an appetite for his meals. And because juice will also fill up a baby and provides almost no nutrition, serve him no more than 4 ounces a day.

* When to snack. While some experts feel that it doesn’t matter whether a child grazes all day or just eats three square meals, Dr. Wilkoff warns against “oversnacking,” where kids are allowed to munch endlessly and then have no real appetite at mealtimes.

“Snacks should be given at two predictable times during the day — say, after naptime and before a favorite video,” he says. Aim for what’s nutritious: fruit, string cheese, small cups of yogurt, or crackers.

* Adding on utensils. Your toddler will no doubt want to try to feed himself. Choose a small, soft-edged spoon or a blunt fork, but if he’s more interested in using it as a toy, weapon, or launching device than as a feeding tool, take it away and try again in a few weeks. Otherwise, he may be so distracted that he won’t eat much.

* Why tots turn choosy. As children become increasingly familiar with various foods and their growth rate slows down, picky eating can begin to rear its ugly head. Witness the parent of a finicky toddler and you may see someone teetering on the brink of insanity.

My cousin David would painstakingly insert vegetables into his daughter Diana’s penne pasta, only to watch her immediately poke them out. My friend Kristin spoon-fed her older son, Cole, until he was 4. And my husband and I have been literally moved to tears when Olivia has grudgingly agreed to eat a cherry tomato.

The upshot? Don’t go there, or you may never come back. Your job is to provide well-balanced, regular meals; your child’s job is to eat them, or not. Forget tactics like bribery, and, whatever else you do, don’t fall into the habit of preparing separate meals for your toddler.

The best way to keep your sanity is to remember that kids eat in spurts and slowdowns. They won’t starve themselves — even though there’ll be days when you swear your child is eating nothing but air.