The introduction of foods offers more than just nutrition. It is a time of learning, skill development, and exploration. You may have many questions like when to start solid foods, what foods to introduce first, and how to balance introducing food while still breastfeeding. Understanding your baby’s growth and development, as well as their nutritional needs, can help you navigate the process. Mealtimes can be fun for the whole family and a great time to spend time together, share stories, celebrate family traditions, or create new ones while enjoying food together!
Eating solid foods is a developmental milestone. The process from breastfeeding, the introduction of solid foods, and eventually eating full solid food meals is connected to other skills your baby gains, each building on the one before it.
Breastfeeding is the perfect introduction to the progression of solid food introduction. When you respond ot your baby when they shows cues they want breastfeed and them unlatching when they are full prepares them to follow their hunger and fullness cues with solid foods as well. Letting the baby take the lead allows them to really explore the foods they are trying, eat at a comfortable pace and stop when they are full, which has been shown to influence healthy weight gain and metabolism. (1)
During the first year of your baby’s life, breast milk will remain the main source of nutrition. Solid food introduced at 6 months old or older, is called complimentary food. It is not meant to replace breast milk. Your milk should always be given first, before any solid foods are offered.
Building Blocks & Signs Of Readiness
Sitting up unassisted - Your baby can get themselves into a stable seated position all by themselves and back out of that position. Core strength enables them to sit unaided and upright, which protects their airway during eating. If you are slouching when you eat, imagine how much harder it is to chew and swallow food properly. Stability in your baby’s hips to support a seated position and the ability to lean-in towards food and sit back away from food are necessary skills needed before solids are given. (6)
Head turning - While seated, your baby needs strong core and neck strength to turn their head freely and comfortably from side to side. They will be able to look at their food and navigate picking it up, chew food safely, and turn their head away when they are finished. Holding their head up and stable also protects their airway so they can direct the food they chew toward their esophagus, not their airway, avoiding choking.
Reaching for their parent’s food - Around the middle of the first year of life, your baby may begin to grab your food. This is a sign of curiosity and should not be interpreted as readiness for solid foods. They see what you are doing and want in on the fun. In preparation for chewing, babies switch from bringing their fists to their mouth and sucking on them (a sign they want to nurse) to bringing objects to their mouth and “chewing” on them.
Teether toys, like the Legendairy Milk Silicone Teething Toy, can be a great tool for practicing moving their tongue side to side and strengthening their jaw and preparing for chewing solid foods.
Food stays in - For breastfeeding, the tongue needs to come out of the mouth (extrusion reflex). The baby is then able to latch and suck to get milk. This tongue thrust also ensures anything other than their milk will be pushed out of the mouth. As your baby grows and becomes ready for solid foods, their lips become more able to draw inward to close around a spoon or food. (2) The tongue thrust reflex is fading, and food will not be pushed out of their mouth. If you spoon-feed your baby, watch if their lips are closing around the spoon or if food is being pushed back out of their mouth. If it is pushed out, hold off a little longer on giving solids. They may need more time to be ready.
Chewing and swallowing - Around 6 months of age, the baby’s swallow reflex becomes more pronounced. Their lips being able to close, gives their jaw stability to move food around in their mouth and swallow. After your baby picks up a piece of food and brings it to their mouth, their tongue pushes the food to the sides of the mouth, which is why lateralization of the tongue is essential. Their jaw muscles work to “chew” the food. Even if they have few teeth, they will gnaw the food smashing it between their gums. These jaw and tongue movements play an important role in speech development.
Pincer grasp - Your baby is beginning to use their fingers versus their whole hand to grasp food and bring it to their mouth. The pincer grasp is usually not as developed until closer to 9 months old.
How to Introduce Solid Foods
Family mealtimes are often a convenient and enjoyable time for introducing solids. Eating with the family is a social activity. You probably have noticed your baby enjoys watching what you are doing while eating and grabbing what you have on your plate.
Sitting in a high chair that allows your baby to be upright with their feet resting on a footrest gives them stability and makes it easier to be comfortable while eating. It is not as easy to eat when your feet are dangling unsupported. Avoid the harness-type highchairs because they can restrict your baby’s arm movements.
Let your baby feed themself. Remember, food is an exploration for the senses as well as skill building. Let them reach for and pick up their food to bring it to their mouth. It might get messy, and that is ok. The more involved they are with feeding, the more variety of food they will be open to trying.
Pay attention to their cues. If they reach for more food, offer more. If they are turning away, that is their way of saying, “Thanks, I’m all done.” They know when they have had enough.
Go slowly. Breastmilk is still their primary source of nutrition and calories. Only little bits of food offered initially, and increase the portion as your child gets older.
At 6 months old, give them 1 - 2 Tablespoons worth of food to try at 1 or 2 meal times a day. As they get older, around 8 months old, they will be eating finger foods at 2 - 3 meal times a day. At 12 months old, they will be eating 3 meals a day and snacks.
Water can be given in small amounts with meals.
Introduce whole foods with a variety of colors, textures, and flavors that are nutrient-dense. Avoid packaged foods as they are less nutritious and often contain unhealthy ingredients. Offering what is served at your mealtime can be a nice way to begin.
Foods that are high in iron, vitamin C (for better iron absorption), and calories. (7) Some ideas are strips of meat, lentils or beans, steamed stalks of broccoli or carrots, and avocado wedges.
Food that is left whole or lightly mashed with a fork but still lumpy is preferable so your baby exercises their jaw muscles which is shown to benefit overall oral development. (3) Pureed foods are ok to include but should not be the only way food is given. Your baby may enjoy practicing using a spoon.
What Foods To Introduce
Beans and legumes (4)
Meats, fish, and cooked egg yolks
Steamed or roasted vegetables
Organic whole foods, pasture-raised, and sustainable foods, whenever possible
Risks Of Starting Solids Too Soon
Increased risk of choking
Parent’s milk supply decreases
Overfeeding when baby is fed rather than feeding themself
Reduced nutrition if beginning to eat more solids and less breastmilk
While breastmilk contains everything your baby needs for at least the first 6 months of life, the introduction of solid foods should include foods that add to your baby’s overall nutritional profile. (5) There are no flavors or foods that are specifically off-limits when introducing solid foods. There are babies all around the world eating many different flavorful foods as part of their family’s mealtimes and traditions. Follow your baby’s lead and enjoy the introduction of solids with your baby.