So, it’s time to start feeding your baby food. By now you and your baby have learned all about nappy changing, playing, sleeping (or not sleeping), bathing and fitting tiny limbs into tiny clothes. Introducing family foods, sometimes called ‘solids’, ‘complementary feeding’ or ‘first foods’, to your baby is another learning process you and your baby will embark on.
Starting family foods doesn’t need to be stressful. Follow these simple tips for introducing food to your baby.
Follow your baby’s cues
Your baby will give you signs when they are ready to start eating food. It’s time to start introducing foods when:
- your baby has good head and neck control and can sit upright when supported by you or furniture
- your baby shows an interest in food when you are eating it: looking at your plate when you are eating or reaching for your food
- your baby opens their mouth when you offer them food on a spoon.
Every baby is different and develops at their own rate. Babies need only breast milk or formula until they are around 6 months of age. It is then recommended to introduce foods to meet your baby’s increased nutritional and developmental needs.
Most babies will start showing signs that they are ready to eat foods at around 6 months of age. Food should not be introduced to your baby before they are 4 months old.
Don’t force it
Introducing new foods will go best when you and your baby are both relaxed and happy. Your baby will be more receptive to trying new foods when they’re not really hungry, so try giving them some food after breastfeeding or formula.
Remember that this is a new learning process for your baby. If they begin to get grizzly or refuse to eat one day, don’t force them. Just try again the next day or when they are happy and relaxed.
Be prepared for mess when your baby is learning to eat food: it is natural for them to use their hands and fingers. Over time mealtimes will become less messy.
Texture is key
Introducing food helps your baby learn how to eat. It gives them experience with new tastes and textures, helps their teeth and jaws to develop, and teaches them how to chew. They will also practise skills that they will later use for language development.
Texture is important when first introducing foods. Because your baby is new to eating, start with pureed foods that are easy to move in their mouth and swallow. Next move on to mashed foods, then minced and chopped foods, over the following months. You can also give them ‘finger foods’ which they can hold in their hands, like pieces of cooked vegetables or bread crusts.
It’s important that your baby learns to chew food by moving from soft foods to foods with a lumpy texture and finger foods so by the time they are around 12 months of age they are able to eat a wide variety of nutritious, family foods.
Focus on iron first
Babies receive iron from their mothers during the third trimester of pregnancy. Your baby is born with iron stored in their body, which helps them grow and develop; iron is particularly necessary for healthy brain development.
As babies grow older, their stored iron levels deplete. At around six months of age, they can’t get enough iron from breast milk or formula alone, so babies need to get iron and other nutrients that are essential for their growing bodies by eating other foods.
When beginning to feed your baby foods, start with iron-rich foods like iron-fortified infant rice cereal, mashed or pureed meats, mashed beans or lentils.
Think family foods
As long as they are nutritious and the right texture, it doesn’t really matter what your baby’s first foods are. After baby cereals and purees, move on to mashed foods and finger foods. Try offering a variety of foods from different food groups.
Home-cooked family meals are fine for your baby, as long as they are nutritious, and you’ve made the texture suitable. You can try:
- mashed vegetables
- mashed cooked eggs (not raw or runny)
- cooked fish
- minced or pureed meat
- mashed beans and lentils
- smooth nut pastes
- bread crusts or toast
- or dairy foods like yoghurt or cheese.
Read this post on Raising Children about how to prepare food for your baby.
Start small and work with their appetite
Your baby doesn’t need to eat a lot of food when starting out. At first, start with about 1-2 teaspoons of food, then increase the amount according to their appetite.
Babies should eat around 3 times a day by the time they are 12 months of age, as well as continuing to be fed breast milk or formula.
Foods to avoid
There are some foods you shouldn’t give to your baby. Avoid these foods:
- honey until they are 12 months of age
- cow’s milk until they are 12 months of age
- reduced fat dairy food until they are two years of age
- whole nuts and other hard foods like raw carrot which are a choking hazard until they are three years of age
- unpasteurised milk
- added salt and sugar to homemade food
- and juices, cordials, sugar-sweetened drinks, tea and coffee.
Discretionary foods – foods that are high in salt, saturated fat or sugar, but low in fibre and nutrients are not suitable for your baby and should be avoided. These are often called ‘sometimes food’. Examples of these foods are chips, cakes, biscuits, lollies and pastries.
Be aware of choking hazards
Babies should always be watched when they are eating or drinking. Their small windpipes can make it easy for them to choke on foods, particularly if the pieces are large or hard.
Sit your baby up while they are eating and prevent choking by cooking and grating, finely slicing or mashing hard fruits and vegetables like carrots, celery and apple. Cut food into pieces that are smaller than a pea so that your baby can easily chew and swallow.
According to the Australian Government Department of Health, common foods that cause choking in children include:
- small round and oval foods, like grapes, berries and cherry tomatoes – these foods should always be cut up lengthways
- nuts and seeds
- hard foods that can break up into smaller pieces
- and hard fruits and vegetables.
You can read more about choking hazards and first aid here.
You can find further reading about introducing family foods to your baby at the links below: