There are a couple of things I would go back and do differently with my older kids if I could… feeding them differently as babies is one of them (along with making different choices about vaccinations). In this post, contributor Daja tells us the truth about best first foods for baby- and it’s the opposite of what moms these days are told to feed their babies! -Jaclyn
Rethinking baby food
When I had my first baby (nearly 16 years ago now! Wow, times flies!) I was like any new parent: excited about each new stage, eager to do everything just right, and slightly naive in following the advice of supposed experts.
The baby books, the nutritional pamphlets at the doctor’s office, and even my dear grandmother said to give baby cereal as the first food.
You know that baby cereal, right? Just add water and it often has the consistency of paste. These cereals come in a variety of grains, but rice, oats and “mixed grains” are the most common. And this cereal feeding should begin around 4 months old.
But my baby didn’t jive with them. She didn’t like them. She got constipated and fussy. It just wasn’t working for us.
The Standard American Diet vs. tradition and the rest of the world.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that solids can be started as early as 4 months old (if other developmental milestones are met) and that good early foods include iron and zinc fortified cereals and mashed fruits and vegetables. After your baby can sit up and is ready to start messing around with finger foods (around 6 months), the AAP says that you can give wafer-type crackers, cooked pasta, sweet potatoes, etc. (source)
However, traditional cultures didn’t apply these rules to feeding their babies. Through the work Dr. Weston A. Price and others who have studied the diets of those ancient cultures around the world, we can see a few key things:
- Babies are breastfed for extended lengths of time, the worldwide average being approximately 4 years. Solid food does not need to replace breastmilk until the child is truly ready, which for my kids has been well after they are a year old.
- Babies are not fed difficult to digest foods (which includes most grains and starchy foods such as potatoes) until their molars come in, which can vary widely, but is anywhere from 12 months to 28 months.
- Babies are given high quality, nutrient dense, REAL food when they are ready for food.
Why the foods babies eat are so important
In order for the body to break down difficult to digest foods (namely starches, e.g. grains, potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.), the body produces a digestive enzyme called amylase. There are two kinds of amylase: salivary amylase and pancreatic amylase. This enzyme is responsible for splitting starches so that our bodies can use them.
Babies do not create this enzyme. In fact, they don’t start making salivary amylase until 6 months of age and then only in very small amounts. Pancreatic amylase isn’t present until the molars are—sometime between 13-19 months on average.
Therefore, if you start a baby on grains too young, you may be creating a tremendous strain on their little bodies which are still developing in so many ways. Starchy foods should be avoided, with the possible exception of bananas, which naturally contain amylase to aid in their own digestion.
Because babies are biologically adapted to breastmilk, it can be assumed that in most cases breastmilk contains the nutrients they need. If breastmilk doesn’t have it, perhaps the baby doesn’t need it. This logic can be applied to the area of nutrient fortified baby foods. Some professionals will suggest supplementing a baby’s diet with iron or zinc or including iron fortified cereals because babies are often low in iron.
However, breastmilk does not contain a lot of iron and in fact, contains chelators that inhibit some iron absorption. Can we at least explore the idea that perhaps too much iron would be toxic for a baby and breastmilk is a protective factor? (See Dr. Cate Shanahan’s research on the effect of iron on gut health.)
Introducing the best first foods for babies
So, when should we introduce solids? And how do we go about nourishing our babies when they are ready for more than breastmilk?
Rather than look at the chronological age of your child, instead consider their developmental milestones.
- Head control. Your baby should be able to hold his head up on his own without assistance.
- Core control. Your baby should be able to remain seated upright on his own without being propped.
- Teeth. I look for the arrival of the first teeth as one sign that my baby may be ready. But, I wait to feed those starchy foods until the molars begin coming in.
- Gag reflex. When babies are young, they gag easily. This is a protective factor from choking. When the child is ready for solids he will be able to take food from the front of the mouth, move it to the back and swallow without gagging. Before this time, food put in the mouth will be pushed out with the tongue. This is a sign that the child is not ready.
- Eagerness. A child who is ready for solids will often be eager to try new foods. He will be grabbing food off your plate, trying to get it into his mouth for tastes. A child who must be coerced or turns his head away may be trying to tell you that he is not ready for solid foods.
Watching all the cues and not just one thing (such as a magic age of 4 or 6 months) is a better way to get a full picture of what your child needs.
My grandma’s generation (God bless them) used to make the holes in the baby bottles bigger in order to get more grains into the baby. Oy.
When we introduce solids, we give the baby more freedom than a force feed. I place a bit of mashed or finely chopped food on the table or high chair tray and let the child explore.
My baby is 14 months. He will squish food between his fingers, bring some to his mouth, play with it a bit before he is ready to actually eat a substantial amount of anything. When he is eager to eat more, we spoon feed him.
We don’t get in a hurry or force him. When he shows us signs that he has had enough we stop.
There is conventional advice that babies should be introduced only single ingredient foods so that you can more easily identify allergens. However, if you do not have a family history of allergies, I personally haven’t found this necessary. For example, if I am eating spit pea soup, I will let my baby eat some along with me–even though it has multiple ingredients (split peas, broth, herbs and cream).
What? The best first foods for babies:
The same ideas of “nutrient dense” food that you try to consume while you are pregnant and breastfeeding can also guide you in introducing first foods to your baby. Here are some of the first foods we introduce to our babies:
- raw or cultured butter (yes, I feed my baby butter straight)
- bone broth (source)
- liver (here’s a pate recipe I make for my family: Chicken Liver Pate)
- egg yolks
- coconut oil
- coconut milk kefir
- fish roe
The truth about the best first foods for babies
This is one of those instances where the truth may be at odds with our current model. And that’s OK. The truth can be summed up in one sentence: the best first foods for babies are nutrient dense whole foods that are easily digested and are introduced only when the baby shows you that they are ready.
Apply those principles to what works for your baby, and you’ll be just fine.