Updated: Sep 18, 2020
We saw the pediatrician for a well visit when my son was 5 months old. She told us we could start feeding our baby solid foods like infant rice cereal or oatmeal. Because he was a teeny tiny preemie, I was ecstatic to start giving him "real food" because I thought he needed it in order to grow big and strong. She also mentioned that introducing certain foods, such as the egg yolk, early on could help prevent allergies. This made me even happier to start introducing solid foods to my baby.
We continued buying and serving only organic foods (whenever possible) in our home not just because the doctor recommended it for our baby, but because those were our previous habits as well. Our sweet baby excitedly ate everything we offered him and by 7 or 8 months old he was already eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in addition to his barley cereal and eggs. He was still breastfeeding at least every 2-3 hours and was growing rapidly. I was relieved to see my preemie baby “catching up” so quickly.
After I began my own research regarding starting solids for the breastfed baby, I quickly learned how important it is for infants to be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life; meaning they should not have anything else besides breast milk, not even water, until they are at least 6 months old. Supplementing with other foods or water can interfere with the necessary nutrients breast milk provides. It is important to understand that breast milk is still the main source of nutrition throughout the first year, even if your infant has started solids as well (1). For this reason you may have to offer the breast first to ensure your child’s nutritional needs are being fulfilled and then offer solids “for fun” (2).
Many health organizations worldwide also recommend waiting on starting solids until your child is at least 6 months of age because of the important roles breastfeeding plays in their overall health, especially by providing important immune factors for as long as the child nurses (1). Breast milk is a complete and whole food for our infants. Additionally, most healthy full term babies have enough iron stored to last them at least 6 months. After this time, iron-rich foods can then be introduced into their diet while keeping in mind that breast milk is still the main source of nutrition and solids remain secondary throughout the first year.
A common misconception is that parents tend to think that all babies must start eating solids and drinking water at exactly 6 months of age.
Each child is unique and grows and develops at his or her own pace. There is no reason to force infants to eat or drink something they do not want. Some infants are ready to begin solids around 6 months of age, but others may not be truly interested in starting solids until 7, 8, 9 months or older. Following an infant’s cues and reading their signals will help to determine when they are ready. For example, if a baby who is over 6 months old is able to sit up unassisted and can grasp food on their own, it may be time to serve some steamed sweet potatoes with bananas or a mashed avocado for lunch! There is no benefit in encouraging infants to eat solids before they are ready and it is also ineffective as they will push the food out of their mouths (1).
An infamous myth I once believed was that my baby would start sleeping for longer periods of time after starting solids.
Even though starting solids had zero influence on my baby’s sleep patterns, it was fun. I began by steaming and pureeing vegetables or fruits and then hand expressing and adding breast milk into every dish I prepared for my baby during his first few months of eating pureed or mashed fruits and vegetables. This allowed him to have some familiar flavors added into his foods and I liked the idea of him still having the breast milk in addition to the solids because I felt it helped to maintain my supply as well. Although this was time-consuming, I enjoyed creating the homemade mixtures and loved seeing my baby’s reaction to his favorite flavors like pear and turkey or mango, chicken and spinach. I even created a chart and logged each food he tried on each day along with his reaction in order to be sure he did not have any food intolerance or allergies.
By about 8 months, I noticed my child getting upset whenever I tried feeding him.
He got frustrated with me spoon-feeding him because he wanted to feed himself, so I let him. I still steamed the foods I needed to like sweet potatoes, cauliflower and butternut squash, but I had to start to cut everything properly rather than pureeing. I fed him a lot of sliced, ripened fruits like pears and peaches as well as smaller and softer fruits like raspberries and blueberries. Half of our grocery bills went to berries for a very long time! This manner of allowing infants to feed themselves has many advantages, such as putting them in control of what they eat which allows them to stop when they are full or continue eating when they need more (1).
After about 9 or 10 months we offered our baby plenty of meats, seafood, fruits and veggies to ensure he was getting a variety of flavors and textures. Salmon and turkey were some new favorites to prepare as they are easy and nutritious for the whole family. Eventually toast with nut butters became a hit as well and omelets were a staple in our house again. Organic whole-milk plain yogurt topped with frozen blueberries or mango was (and still is) the best remedy to relieve our baby’s pain from teething. After a while he began refusing any fruits that were sliced or chopped and only took his apples, pears, peaches and bananas whole.
If I could go back into time, I would have skipped the infant rice cereal and oatmeal. It is now clear to me that breast milk is indeed "real food" and provides all that a child needs and more for the first year of life and beyond, especially during the first 6 months. I rushed into introducing solids rather than paying attention to whether or not my child was in fact ready. I was following outdated advice and had not taken the time to learn more about breastfed babies’ nutritional needs during the first year. Although making baby purees is not quite necessary, I was most comfortable doing this in order to avoid any choking risks initially. However, I have discovered that this worry can be avoided by simply offering soft and safe foods which infants can feed themselves once they are ready. Had I waited until my son started trying to feed himself after he was around 8 months old, I would have saved so much time that I spent in the kitchen pureeing his meals. With breastfeeding and baby-led weaning, children learn to listen to their own signals and trust their bodies as they are in charge of their intake.
There is no right way to start solids, however, the one recommendation that should be followed is to wait on introducing any foods until your breastfed baby is at least 6 months old (3).
Maybe you’ll be comfortable starting with baby-led weaning and will skip purees all together. Maybe you’ll start with some purees and end up trying baby-led weaning later on. Maybe you’ll practice both equally at the same time. The best part about starting solids is that you’ll never really need to purchase "baby food" along with the many products marketed for feeding babies. You’ll end up saving money by preparing your own foods for your family at home; your real and healthy “human food” will suffice just fine for your baby too (read more about how minimalism can positively influence parenthood HERE). And no, you won’t need to buy any “baby food” cook books nor spend money on baby-led weaning literature; all you have to do is serve your infant whatever the family is eating during meals but cut everything into smaller pieces and be sure it is soft enough.
Finally, one last tip I’ll share which can benefit all families is in regards to the clean-up; you cannot expect an infant to eat neatly. Not only are they tasting the new foods, but they are using their other senses to become familiar with new smells and textures as well. Your child will make a mess and you will generally spend your days preparing food and then cleaning it up. The best things you can do are: make sure the highchair is easy to clean, keep the baby naked or in clothes that you don’t mind destroying during mealtimes, and lastly, keep your dogs near to eat the food off the kitchen floor.
Disclaimer: I am NOT a physician, therefore this is general information only. I am, however, a certified lactation counselor, New York State teacher and mother who is constantly reading, researching and working to share ideas and tips to help fellow families. Please meet with your doctor or qualified specialist to address your personal health concerns.
“Starting Solids.” La Leche League International, 13 Oct. 2019, www.llli.org/breastfeeding-info/starting-solids/.
“Length of Time.” La Leche League International, 24 Oct. 2019, www.llli.org/breastfeeding-info/length-of-time/.
“Up to What Age Can a Baby Stay Well Nourished by Just Being Breastfed?” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/up-to-what-age-can-a-baby-stay-well-nourished-by-just-being-breastfed.