4 Signs Your Baby Is Ready for Solid Foods

My last post went into great detail about the research on age of starting solids and health outcomes, including nutrition, growth, illness, and allergies. If you read that post, you know that there are small risks and benefits of starting earlier or later (in the range of 4-6 months), but there’s no evidence for an optimal age of starting solids for all babies. Here’s what to look for instead, starting with a brief summary of the data on age:

1. Your baby is at least 4 months of age.

Read my post on this if you want to know the details and see the references. If not, here’s a summary:

  • There is good evidence that it’s best to wait until at least 4 months of age to start solids, unless advised otherwise by a doctor for a specific medical reason.
  • Starting solids between 4 and 6 months of age may give babies a boost in iron nutrition, assuming they’re getting some good dietary sources of iron. Exposure to potentially allergenic foods, such as wheat and eggs, by about 6 months may reduce the risk of allergy to those foods.
  • Exclusive breastfeeding until 6 months of age may reduce your baby’s risk of minor gastrointestinal infections, although this isn’t shown in all studies. For moms, it may also result in greater weight loss and prolonged lactational amenorrhea.

Whether or not you start solids at 4 months, 6 months, or somewhere in between is up to you and your baby. The research on this topic is still evolving, and either is a fine choice. In fact, given that babies develop at different rates, it seems unlikely that all babies would be ready to start solids the moment the clock strikes midnight on their 4-month birthday or 6-month birthday.

This was the same sentiment eloquently expressed in a 2009 editorial by British pediatrician Martin Ward Platt, using the term “weaning” to mean starting solid foods:

“The weaning debate has been largely predicated on the notion that there is some magic age at which, or from which, it is in some sense ‘‘safe’’ or ‘‘optimal’’ to introduce solids. Yet it is highly counterintuitive that such an age exists. In what other area of developmental biology is there any such rigid age threshold for anything? We all recognize that age thresholds are legal inventions to create workable rules and definitions, and have no meaning in physiology or development, yet when we talk about weaning we seem to forget this.”1

Given this, it’s really up to you to follow your baby’s lead, watching for the developmental signs discussed in the rest of this post.

2. Your baby can sit upright and hold his head up straight.

These gross motor skills signal that your baby has the core body strength and stability needed to eat solid foods. Pediatric feeding specialist and certified speech language pathologist Melanie Potock explained why this is so important on my Facebook page:

“Gross motor stability (in this case trunk stability) provides the support for fine motor skills. It’s very hard to learn to eat purees off a spoon or do any sort of self-feeding of soft solids if the trunk is not supported. Try it yourself by letting your trunk relax and fall into the back of your dining chair, slightly slumped. Now stay that way and try to bite, chew and swallow. Imagine if you were just learning to eat this way!”

[I’m thrilled that Melanie Potock wrote a guest post explaining more about why stability is so important and how to best seat your baby comfortably at the table here: S.I.T.! Feeding Your Child Using Stability and Independence at the Table]

In other words, when babies have gross motor stability in place, they’ll have a much easier time with the fine motor and oral motor skills needed for feeding. That means that baby should be able to sit comfortably upright, on his own or with a little support, and hold his head up to face you. In one study, babies were able to sit in a caregiver’s lap without help at 5.5 months, on average, but this milestone was quite variable (standard deviation of 2 months).2

Trunk stability is also important because it allows you and your baby to be able to be face-to-face during feeding and for your baby to be an active participant in deciding whether, how much, and how fast to eat. You offer baby a bite, and he leans forward and opens his mouth if he’d like to accept, or he turns his head away to say no thanks. With good trunk stability, a baby can communicate his wants and needs to you, and you can be responsive to them. This way, feeding becomes a respectful and pleasant conversation between the two of you.3

Feed your baby responsively, watching for his cues of wanting more or being done, like a back-and-forth conversation.

3. Your baby has the oral motor skills to handle solid foods.

At birth, most babies are already skilled at sucking. Sucking is an involuntary reflex that develops around 32 weeks of gestation, and babies practice it in utero before birth. Sucking gives them the skill to efficiently transfer milk through a nipple, whether from breast or bottle.

To eat from a spoon, a baby needs a different set of oral motor skills. Continue reading

What’s Your Feeding Style? (Fearless Feeding Review and Giveaway)

Do you have a feeding philosophy? What’s your feeding style?

These are not the most common topics in parenting discussions. We’re often too busy talking breast and bottle, baby led weaning or purees, organic or conventional, and how to get our kids to eat more vegetables. But the question of feeding style, I believe, matters more to children than any of these oft-discussed topics.

I am really pleased to have a new book on my shelf that covers the HOW and WHY of feeding children just as well as it covers WHAT to feed: Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, by Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen. Both authors are registered dieticians, mothers, and bloggers. They take a long-term view on feeding – that we shouldn’t just be concerned with what our kids are eating today, but also about teaching kids to eat well for a lifetime.

9781118308592_Castle.inddFeeding style is one of the first topics in Fearless Feeding, so if you’re not sure how to describe your own feeding style, here’s your chance to give it some thought. Castle and Jacobsen discuss 4 feeding styles, analogous to parenting styles that may be familiar to you: Continue reading

Reclaiming Happy Hour, Toddler and All

When Cee was an infant, I remember lamenting to a friend about how difficult the evening hours could be. Cee was often fussy. Husband was usually returning home from work hoping for some quality time with her, but instead she would cling to me.  Meanwhile, I had some crazy idea about getting a balanced meal on the table. Sometimes, I wanted nothing more than to be alone in the kitchen with both hands free. With a demanding baby, dinner usually ended up only being accomplished when Husband stepped in to finish what I had started and to clean up the mess left in my wake.

My friend empathized. She told me that she had deemed this time of day between about 5 and 7 PM, “Unhappy Hour.”

It is a fitting name, I think. Pre-kids, we would have been meeting friends for drinks and appetizers after work. Or maybe Husband and I would be cooking dinner together, glasses of wine in hand, telling each other about our days. It was often my time to go for a run or to a yoga class or to take my dog for a long walk. Regardless, happy hour used to be that time of day when we could reconnect with our friends and family, unwind from the day’s work, and recenter ourselves.

Reconnect. Unwind. Recenter. Is that even remotely possible with a toddler awake in the house?

These days, Unhappy Hour is daycare pick-up, sometimes errands, and dinner preparation, all within about an hour in order to stay on track for an on-time bedtime. Cee seems to fall apart at the least discomfort or injustice, and my efforts to console her can completely throw off my dinner preps. If both Husband and I are home, we can tag-team this – one of us hanging out with Cee and the other taking the lead on dinner. Sometimes Cee seems to need one or the other of us more, just as she did as an infant, and we make adjustments as needed. Things are tougher though if one of us is working late, and given Husband’s weird work hours, this happens a lot.

I’ve been reading Ellyn Satter’s Secrets of Feeding a Happy Family. It is required reading for one of the courses I’m teaching this fall, and I highly recommend it. It is really a comprehensive guide to feeding – from attitudes about feeding and eating, to meal planning, to cooking itself. Satter even addresses Unhappy Hour, which she calls “Bewitching Hour.” That she included this is brilliant. You can preach all you want about the value of the family meal and balanced nutrition, but if you can’t get past Unhappy Hour, you’ll get discouraged fast. That’s when the fast food drive-through suddenly seems like a great idea. Continue reading