How to tell when babies can eat baby food, and which foods to start with

The Diet Guide

The start of solid foods represents the start of an entirely new world for your baby — a world filled with delicious culinary adventures from bright strawberries and plump peaches to cool and creamy ice cream.

But just when can you start your little one on baby food? Here’s what you need to know. 

Don’t start your baby on solids too early

Starting your baby on solid food too early can be dangerous. For one, they may accidentally suck food into their airway or lungs, which could cause choking or pneumonia.

Plus, researchers have found that introducing solid foods before four months of age is linked to negative health effects, such as obesity and certain autoimmune disorders later in life. So it’s important not to introduce baby food before your baby is ready. 

And contrary to certain popular beliefs, starting your baby on solid foods will not help them sleep longer through the night. So, if that’s what you’re after, sleep training is a better option.

You can introduce solids around 6 months 

First things first: the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents should only feed their baby breast milk for about the first six months of life. This is because breast milk contains all the nutrients a child needs early on and can protect the baby from infectious and chronic diseases, according to the World Health Organization.

However, all babies are different and, depending on their developmental stage, you can, in some cases, start babies on solid food as early as four months, says Kara Willoughby, MD, a pediatrician with Spectrum Health Medical Group Pediatrics.

How to tell when your baby is ready for solid food

Willoughby says that she looks for developmental milestones that show the baby has gained the head and neck strength they need in order to safely swallow solid food. You can look for signs such as: 

  • Solid head control: The baby can hold their head upright while in a (held) seated position and turn it both ways. 
  • Upper body strength: Such as being able to push to straight arms during tummy time to hold their chest upright.
  • No more tongue-thrust reflex: Tongue thrust is a reflex that newborns have where they will automatically push solid foods out of their mouth if someone tries to feed them. This reflex usually goes away between four to six months of age.   
  • Show an interest in food: The baby follows food or opens their mouth towards food.

Choosing your baby’s first food 

The AAP hasn’t found any conclusive evidence that introducing foods in a certain order, like giving vegetables before sweets, makes a big difference. 

This is mostly because babies, by nature, are almost always going to show a preference for sweets. However, Willoughby says that their office advises parents to start with vegetables and work from the least sweet to the sweetest. (It can’t hurt, right?)

She recommends starting with foods in the following order: 

1. Green foods, such as green beans, avocados and peas

2. Squashes, sweet potatoes, and carrots 

3. Fruits, such as pears, apples, and bananas

“Avocados are always a great food to start with because they are packed full of nutrients,” Willoughby tells Insider. “Cereals [rice or oatmeal] are great as well and are fortified with iron.”

The AAP also recommends that as your baby eats more solid food, you should encourage self-feeding with appropriate finger foods and spoons, as well as drinking from a cup when they’re around six months old. 

Homemade vs. store-bought baby food 

When it comes to choosing store-bought versus homemade baby food, Willoughby’s official stance is that what’s best is “whatever works best for your lifestyle.”

“If you have time to make it — great,” she says. “If not, that’s great too! We just ask that if you make it yourself, try to avoid seasonings and additives such as salt, sugar, and butter — work on developing simple tastes.” 

What comes next

After you’ve officially introduced solids, you should still continue to breastfeed as you are able. 

“Breastmilk is going to continue to provide your baby with essential nutrients in addition to immunity and germ-fighting power,” Willoughby says. 

Even when your baby begins eating solids, around six months old, breastmilk or formula should still be your child’s main source of calories and nutrients. Because breastmilk and formula have the essential fat, calcium, and other vitamins and minerals that their growing bodies need.

“Their appetites may become smaller as they are growing less quickly during this time, and as their diet is supplemented with solid foods, but breastmilk and formula will continue to be an important part of their intake,” Willoughby says. 

Willoughby explains that infants should consume approximately 24 ounces of breastmilk or formula a day, up to, and beyond age one. After one year, you can continue to give them breast milk, or you can switch your baby to whole milk, along with plenty of water with their meals.

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