Confused about when and how to begin feeding your little one baby food? Here's a complete guide to starting solids from a pediatrician. 

By Sara DuMond, MD
Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

Wouldn't it be nice if babies came with an instruction manual? One of the most helpful chapters would be the "What to Feed Me" chapter. First, there are the nagging questions, such as: Is he getting enough to eat? Is he getting too much? Plus, you have so many choices, and that brings the added stress of making the right decisions for your child's nutrition. Here's an easy-to-understand, user-friendly guide to help make feeding time fun for you and your baby.

Drink Up! (0 to 6 Months)

For the first 4 to 6 months of your baby's life, the only nutrition she needs is breast milk or formula. During the first month or so, a baby will need to eat "on demand." This means that instead of trying to force a set feeding schedule, it's better to feed her whenever she gets hungry. It may be an hour after the last feeding began, or three hours, but during these early days and weeks her tummy isn't on any set schedule. Look for hunger cues such as tongue thrusting, lip smacking, head turning and "rooting," and sucking on fingers or fists. Feedings go much more smoothly if you recognize the signs of hunger before the hunger cries begin.

Formula-fed babies will need an average of 16 to 28 ounces of formula per day during the first month. Breastfeeding is obviously more difficult to quantify, but in general, babies will nurse at least 15 to 20 minutes per feeding, receiving 6 to 8 ounces of breast milk. By the time your baby is celebrating her 4-month birthday, she'll be taking up to 24 to 40 ounces a day. No wonder babies grow faster during these months than at any other time in their life!

Open Wide (4 to 6 Months)

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics' section on breastfeeding supports exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, its committee on nutrition says that solids can be introduced between 4 and 6 months. Don't introduce solids before this age, however. Your doctor will help you determine exactly when your child is ready for food. He should be able to control his head and neck well, show signs when he's full (e.g., turning his head away from you or the bottle), and show interest in grown-up food. Every baby is different, so don't worry if your 4-month-old only wants breast milk or formula. Most babies are ready for solids between 5 and 6 months.

If you're following the traditional spoon-feeding approach (as opposed to baby-led weaning) start with a single ingredient fruit or vegetable puree or infant cereal. (We like Stage 1 Beech-Nut Natural’s jars that come in single fruit or veggie options, like green beans, carrots, or pears.)

Place your baby in an upright or feeding chair or high chair and feed him twice a day using a baby spoon. Although you may have heard about parents putting cereal in a bottle, we want babies to eat their food, not drink it. It's a developmental accomplishment for a baby to learn to control his oral motor muscles to eat off a spoon. Don't worry if it all runs down his chin the first 10 times. He'll get the hang of it eventually, and in the meantime, it makes for some great photo opportunities.

It's often helpful to feed baby solids between nursing sessions or bottle feedings, just so he can start and finish with something familiar. Breastfeed for a few minutes or give baby a few ounces from a bottle. This way he isn't starving but still has an appetite for solids. Then top off his meal by nursing or bottlefeeding again until he seems full. Once he gets used to spoonfeeding, he probably won't need to warm up with that familiar "appetizer." At this point, it's best to nurse or bottlefeed after solids or cereal.

Veggies, Fruit, Fish, and Meat

There's no specific order to introducing foods. Just wait two to three days in between new foods. This way, if your baby develops a rash or a little upset stomach, you'll be able to pinpoint the cause. These symptoms may indicate an allergy or temporary intolerance, which you'll need to discuss with his doctor before giving the food again.

Don't be surprised if your baby has definite preferences or dislikes initially. It's very normal, but to create a healthy eater, continue to offer even those foods that he seems to turn his nose up to at first. You'll find that you have to offer some foods 15 to 20 times before your baby will begin to like it or even try it. The take-home message? Be patient!

Even after they start solids, babies between 4 and 6 months will still need 24 to 40 ounces of formula (this amount includes what you're mixing with baby's cereal) or 5 to 6 servings of breast milk per day (this doesn't include the expressed breast milk that's added to cereal).

Moving On Up (6 to 9 Months)

Between 6 and 9 months, once your little one has mastered pureed baby foods, you can move on to lumpier and more textured baby foods, including pureed meats -- a great source of dietary protein and iron. Start with 2 to 4 tablespoonfuls of meats per serving and aim for 1 to 2 servings per day. The same rules apply as you advance to new foods. Introduce slowly and one at a time.

Around this time, your baby will also be ready to begin trying some finger foods if she hasn't already. Start with baby biscuits, toast sticks, or crackers. Soft, mushy fruits and vegetables like avocado and banana are fun too. You may have to show her how to put each in her mouth before she learns what to do with it, but over time she'll grow to love her newfound skill of self-feeding. Although most finger foods are designed to dissolve easily, always keep a close eye on your child when you give her finger foods to make sure pieces don't break off and put her at risk for choking. Teeth are not a requirement for finger foods. Babies generate force by "chewing" with their gums and jaws.

Still breastfeeding? If you are, that's great. You should nurse 3 to 5 times a day. If you're bottlefeeding, continue to give 24 to 36 ounces of formula per day. Want a tip for making life a little easier down the road? Let your baby try drinking from a sippy cup. Start with about 2 to 3 ounces of water. If you let her explore the use of a sippy cup now, she'll have six months to get the hang of it, because she should be off the bottle by 12 months.

Table for Three? (9 to 12 Months)

By the time your baby is 9 months, strained baby foods have become such a part of your life that you'd win first place in one of those blindfolded baby food taste-testing games that are so popular at baby showers. Your baby is approaching his first birthday, and with that comes the task of learning how to eat like a big kid. Between 9 and 12 months, table foods become an exciting addition to the feeding regimen. So if your mother-in-law has been dying to feed her grandchild her famous sweet potato casserole, she can have her moment.

Beginning at 9 months, as long as your baby has tolerated the thicker, chunkier baby foods and has learned to mash finger foods between his gums, you can go ahead and introduce finely chopped, diced, or mashed table foods. Try diced bananas, peaches, or chopped, cooked carrots, which are some favorite firsts. They're soft and easy for baby to gum. There are a few foods that shouldn't be introduced until later, but for the most part you can have fun now letting your child join in dinner right along with you. Just don't overseason food for babies. While it's true that added salt isn't good for any of us, heavy amounts of seasoning can overwhelm a baby's kidneys -- even if you've been eating spicy foods while nursing. Let your child decide if he likes plain carrots before you reach for the salt shaker.

You can still feed him jarred foods until he becomes better at feeding himself grown-up foods, but many babies begin to refuse strained foods once they realize they can eat the real thing. That's fine as long as you aim for this recommended daily intake: 2 servings of fruit (3 to 4 tablespoonfuls); 2 to 3 servings of vegetables (3 to 4 tablespoonfuls); 2 servings of meat or protein (3 to 4 tablespoonfuls); 2 to 3 servings of grains like cereal (3 to 4 tablespoonfuls), crackers, or toast; and 3 to 4 servings of 6 to 8 ounces of formula or breastmilk.

Happy Birthday (12 to 15 Months)

You've helped her blow out her candle, watched her shove cake in her face, and reminisced that the past year has gone by so quickly. Once babies reach a year, I tell parents to think of their child's eating the same way they would think of their own. Aim for a basic structure of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a midmorning snack and a midafternoon snack. By now, they should be eating, not drinking, their way through the day. Solid foods should be the bulk of what they're consuming, and drinks should be viewed the same way adults view them -- as a thirst-quencher with a meal, not as a meal itself.

At the 12-month mark, we recommend that parents switch babies from formula to whole milk. If you're still breastfeeding, that's great, too, but we still recommend introducing whole milk into their diets at this age. Your new toddler needs between 16 and 20 ounces of milk a day. In this instance, more isn't necessarily better. I've had many moms bring their kids in for their 18-month checkup, ready to pull their hair out because they can't get them to eat anything anymore. The first question I ask: how much whole milk is the child drinking per day? If she's getting more than the recommended daily amount, it's likely that she's filling up on milk and therefore isn't hungry for food. If she's thirsty but already had enough milk for the day, offer water. There's no need for juice in a toddler's diet; however, if you choose to give it to your child, make sure that you offer 100 percent juice that is watered down by half. Total daily juice intake shouldn't exceed 4 ounces per day.

Overall, offer balanced meals and healthy snacks and shoot for the following from the food groups: 2 to 3 servings of a 1/4 cup of fruit, 2 to 3 servings of a 1/4 cup of vegetables, 2 servings of 1 ounce or a 1/4 cup of cooked meat or other protein, and 4 to 6 servings of grains per day (1 serving equals 1/4 cup of cereal, 1/4 slice of bread, 1/4 cup of pasta, 2 to 3 crackers). Children younger than 2 years shouldn't be on a low-fat diet because they need the extra fat -- from healthy sources such as milk, cheese, and eggs -- for brain development.

Follow Your Baby's Lead

Do you feel better equipped to forge ahead with your baby's eating adventures? You now know how much to feed your young child, but remember that those numbers are loose guidelines. And don't concern yourself with feeding schedules; babies will ultimately decide on their own when they're done eating, and it's going to vary from feeding to feeding. On the flip side, if they're still hungry, they'll open their mouth wide. So don't get caught up in exact serving sizes and minimum and maximum recommendations. Your baby will give you clear signals for what to do.

As your baby matures into a toddler, it's important to set good examples for healthy eating. If you commonly snack on doughnuts and cookies, what do you think your child will want? Teaching the importance of a balanced diet is as important as showing children how to read or ride a bike. These lessons will stay with them forever, shaping their taste preferences and creating a lifelong appreciation for food.

To Keep in Mind ...

Choking Hazards

Kids younger than age 4 can choke on these foods. (Some 2-year-olds may be ready for them, but ask your pediatrician first.)

  • Raw veggies and hard fruits (unless cut)
  • Grapes (unless cut)
  • Hot dogs (unless cut into pieces with the skin removed)
  • Popcorn
  • Whole peanuts, tree nuts, and seeds
  • Spoonfuls of peanut butter

Decoding Infant Nutrition

No doubt you've heard about the two nutrients docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA). They are long chain omega-3 and -6 fatty acids that support brain and eye development. Once only available in human breast milk, most infant formulas on the market today now contain them. But will they make your child the next Einstein or give her x-ray vision? In comparing breast milk and formula, there is no question that breast milk is still superior, a fact that even the formula companies won't dispute. Aside from offering higher levels of DHA and ARA, which leads to cognitive and visual benefits, breastfeeding provides valuable immune protection, and no amount of formula can match that. When comparing formulas, some scientific studies show that there probably is some modest and short-term benefit -- including better visual acuity and slightly higher cognitive scores on IQ testing -- to feeding your baby DHA- and ARA-containing formulas compared with traditional formulas. So, if using formula, reach for the DHA- and ARA-containing versions.

Wondering About Food Allergies?

While the traditional recommendation has been to delay certain foods beyond a year of age (e.g., peanut butter, eggs, shellfish) due to their potential to cause food allergies, more current insight reveals that this approach is unfounded. Now, most experts believe that introducing allergens between 4 and 10 months may actually help ward off food allergies. Discuss this issue with your doctor. She can help you sort out the unique characteristics of your child, and together you can determine the best approach to introducing potentially allergenic foods.

It's still necessary to hold off on giving your child whole milk before 1 year. Before this age, most children don't digest it well, and this can lead to intestinal bleeding and severe anemia. (Yogurt and cheese are easily digestible, and baby can begin to eat them at 6 months. And using some milk in cooking or baking is fine.) Last, avoid giving your child honey before a year of age because it can cause infant botulism.

Sara DuMond, MD, is a pediatrician in Mooresville, North Carolina, and the mother of two.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.



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