The day I presented my son Hank, then 6 months old, with his first spoonful of rice cereal, he sniffed it, wrinkled his nose, and frowned. Undeterred, I gamely held it in front of his mouth. After a few seconds he opened up, just enough for me to slip the food between his lips. He quickly swallowed, and I was all set to proclaim victory when he banged his fist onto the high-chair tray and burst into tears.
The next day was hardly better. Hank ate two bites of cereal but spit out almost as much as he took in before clamping his mouth shut for good. By the third day, though, he managed to swallow a few spoonfuls, and by the fourth, he eagerly downed six.
Two and a half months later, Hank is an eating machine. He enjoys not only cereal but also green beans, chicken, turkey, applesauce, and bananas. He adores sweet potatoes and squash. All proof that while getting your infant started on solids can seem a bit daunting, most babies adapt pretty quickly. All it takes is some patience and a little know-how.
Timing It RightYour baby will be ready for her first taste of solids at about 6 months. By then, she’ll have lost her tongue-thrust reflex, which makes her push anything that isn’t liquid out of her mouth, and her stomach will have developed enough to handle solid foods better.
Although some pediatricians suggest starting as early as 4 months, a baby’s less likely to develop an allergy if you give her digestive system more time to mature. And there’s a lower chance of interfering with nursing (some babies might prefer pureed peas to Mom’s milk). In the beginning, solids aren’t meant to replace the breast or bottle; except for a little iron (found in rice cereal), infants get all the nutrients they need from formula or breast milk, and table foods are more of an extra. Over time, your baby will drink less often and less enthusiastically from the breast or bottle, which is fine.
Experts say that parents shouldn’t wait any longer than 6 months to start solids, either. This is the time when babies are interested — you may see your infant curiously eyeing your dinner or opening her mouth as if she’d like a little bite. It’s a window of willingness that won’t last forever, says Tom Jaksic, M.D., a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’s committee on nutrition. “As babies grow,” he says, “they become more set in their ways and less open to new experiences.”
Getting StartedTime your little one’s first meal so that he’s hungry but not ravenous, or he’ll be too fussy to try something new. One tactic: Let him nurse or have a bottle for a few minutes to take the edge off his appetite, and then serve the solids, says Paula Elbirt, M.D., author of Dr. Paula’s House Calls to Your Newborn: Birth Through Six Months. “Afterward, he can top off the meal with the rest of the bottle or the breast,” she says.
You’ll also want to have a calm setting so that, say, a loud television or an older sibling isn’t competing for attention. Once he’s used to eating, he can begin to join you for family meals.
If he knows how to sit up, feed him in a high chair, which will help him stay upright and reduce the risk of choking. If he’s not yet sitting, place him in a bouncy chair, car seat, or your lap.
The First FeastRice cereal is an ideal starter food. It’s easy to digest and rarely triggers an allergic reaction. Prepare it very thin — one teaspoon of cereal to four or five teaspoons of breast milk, formula, or water. The runnier it is, the easier it’ll be to eat. There’s no need to heat solids; it’s just extra work for you, and your baby will never know the difference.
Scoop about a quarter of a teaspoon onto a baby spoon, place it between your infant’s lips, and hope for the best. If the cereal comes sliding back out, don’t worry. She needs to figure out how to swallow something that isn’t liquid, says Dr. Elbirt: “Within a week or so, she’ll probably be eating two or more tablespoons at a time.”
If your baby refuses to open her mouth or begins to cry, try again the next day. If she still balks, just put away the cereal for a week or two. It’s not that she finds it distasteful; she’s just not interested quite yet.
Moving Up The Food ChainKeep offering your baby rice cereal two or three times a day, making it progressively thicker as he gets the hang of swallowing it. Once he’s mastered the mushy stuff, you can add barley or oatmeal cereal and pureed fruits and vegetables, such as applesauce, sweet potatoes, and peas. The trick is to give only one new taste treat at a time and wait two to three days before introducing the next one. This way, if he develops an allergic reaction (a rash, diarrhea, or vomiting), you’ll know which food was the culprit. Shelve it for one to three months before bringing it out again. If it provokes another reaction, keep it off the menu entirely until he’s a year old. By then, he’ll probably be able to tolerate it.
Eventually, your baby will start to eat what resembles real meals, taking in around four ounces at each sitting. Within a month or two of his first nibbles, a typical daily menu might consist of rice cereal and applesauce for breakfast, peas and squash for lunch, and sweet potatoes and green beans for dinner, plus breast milk or formula.
If your baby’s a picky eater — scorning everything but sweet potatoes, for instance — continue to offer a variety. “Babies’ tastes change very quickly — one week they’ll eat something they rejected the week before,” says BabyTalk contributing editor Heidi Murkoff, coauthor of What to Expect the First Year.
By 7 or 8 months, you can add slightly harder-to-digest pureed meat and poultry to his diet, as well as items that aren’t pureed as finely — often labeled “second stage” — and mixed foods, such as a pureed chicken-and-rice combo. He can also have some finger foods that are soft and easy to swallow and that can be chopped into very small pieces (one-sixteenth to one-eighth of an inch to start with), such as cooked carrots and broccoli, spaghetti, diced turkey, sliced cheese, and cooked egg yolks.
Reading The CuesHow much food should your baby eat? Follow her lead: If she closes her mouth, turns away, slaps the spoon down, or, as Hank does, jams her fist in her mouth so there’s no room for a spoon, she’s full. “Babies are born with the ability to self-regulate how much food they need and will eat only that amount,” says Murkoff. “If you try to force food into her, meals will become a power struggle, which may lay a foundation for future eating problems.”
Don’t be surprised if you notice your baby’s appetite varying from day to day. “Sometimes she may be too busy crawling around and exploring her environment to want to sit still and eat. Other days, if she’s going through a growth spurt, for instance, she may eat so much that you think she’s going to burst,” says Dr. Elbirt.
Whether your baby eats a lot or a little at a meal, one thing’s for sure: She’s going to make a mess. No matter how fastidious you try to be, she’ll find creative ways to smear herself silly. Hank treats any food that drops on his tray like finger paint, then wipes his gooey hands on his cheeks. He also thinks it’s fun to try to grab the spoon out of my hand and shake it, flinging green gobs of peas and yellow clumps of squash all over himself, the high chair, and me.
And while I could do without the cleanup that follows, I don’t really mind it that much — the bigger the mess Hank makes, the more he seems to enjoy his meals. Which makes them more enjoyable for me, too.
Alison Bell is a freelance writer and mother of three in South Pasadena, California.