Q&A: introducing solids

Cat writes:

"How about a primer on introducing solids? Like...

You know how the general rule is 4-6 months? What if you wait six months and he doesn't like it right away and you have to put it away for a week or more. Are you screwed? Should you start at five in case things don't go well or quickly?

I'm a sucky cook, but I feel like I might be able to handle boiling and mashing food matter. Can I do it with my handy dandy hand blender or do I have to buy a real food processor? Which books or web sites would you recommend for recipes? Does one even need recipes to mash up some veggies?

What should I know that I can't even think to ask about?"

Americans are totally neurotic about introducing food to babies.

There, I said it.

We've concocted all these rules for ourselves, some of which are based on research, some of which are almost sort of based on research, and some of which appear to originate from the vicinity of the gluteus maximus of the teller.

And yet, even though we follow all these rules with a religious fervor not seen since the Crusades, our kids (and adults) aren't any healthier than people in any other developed country. In fact, we're probably less healthy than most of them. So let's take a look at some of the things you hear all the time and whether they're based on facts or hearsay. (And remember that I'm no expert either. I'm just someone who reads a lot and is extremely skeptical. So if you think what I'm saying sounds fishy, look it up.)

#1: You have to introduce solids within a certain time window or your child won't learn to eat them. Really? You mean my kid won't learn to eat if I don't introduce rice cereal on Day 183 and pears on Day 192? That's funny, because my mom never gave me any Guinness, spicy kimchi, or coconut curry soup as a baby, but I sure learned to put those away. (Mmmm....forbidden kimchi...) This one is just plain dumb. People all over the world introduce different foods on different timeframes to their kids, and yet we all manage to eat successfully (barring any actual eating or digestive disorders, of course).

If you don't want to start food until your kid is 6 months, or 6.5 months, or even 12 months, your child will be fine. Breastmilk or formula should make up the bulk of your child's nutrition for the first year anyway. Before that eating's mostly just for fun.

#2: You shouldn't introduce solids before 6 months. This one's actually based on some recent research. Before 2005, the guidelines were to introduce foods at 4-6 months. The AAP changed the recommendation to advise waiting until 6 months. A study showed a correlation between children who started solids earlier than 6 months and an increased rate of diabetes later on. Bear in mind that a correlation is just that, but unless you have a strong reason to introduce solids sooner, you might as well wait until 6 months. I'm guessing we'll have more of the story on this in another 5-10 years.

#3: Always start with fortified rice cereal. It's non-allergenic, and babies (especially breastfed ones) need the iron. This one's part old wives' tale and part incomplete science. Some people do have allergies to rice. Also, rice is extremely constipating, so if you have a baby who already has pooping problems, you absolutely don't want to start that baby on rice (or bananas or applesauce, either). There's also some recent thought that even though breastmilk has a low iron content, babies are able to process all the iron in it, so they actually absorb more iron from breastmilk than they do from other sources. Once they start eating things that have been fortified with iron, though, they lose this ability to process the iron in breastmilk as efficiently. So giving breastfed babies things fortified with iron may actually impede their ability to absorb iron. Not at all what you want to do.

This also just doesn't make any sense logically. If you had to start with rice, wouldn't all cultures across the world start their babies on rice? Some do, definitely, but not all of them by any shot. And even the ones that do are more likely just to cook down regular rice instead of using processed fortified rice powder.

#4: Start with rice cereal, then do that for 3 days, then introduce a new food only every three days. That way you'll know if your baby is allergic to something and it'll help prevent allergies. Unless you have a history of food allergies in your family, there's no need to do this. Most other countries have no higher rate of food allergies than the US does, and they don't wait three days between new foods. It's the kind of thing that makes us feel good about how vigilant and structured we're being, but is just extra busywork.

#5: After you've gone through the cereals, introduce vegetables next. If you start with fruits your baby will develop such a taste for sweet things that s/he will never want to eat anything savory. On the surface, this sounds like it makes sense. But I think the person who came up with this one had never tasted either breastmilk or formula as an adult. Short of pure sugar water you could hardly come up with sweeter liquids than those two. I'm betting that almost everyone reading this spent weeks or months consuming nothing but sweet breastmilk or formula, but I'm also betting almost everyone reading this loves savory things like hot buttered popcorn, crispy green beans in sesame oil, a huge chilled Cobb salad, spicy Buffalo wings, and, well, I'd better stop now before my drool shorts out my keyboard.

#6: Don't give your baby nuts, honey, egg whites, or shellfish until at least one year old, although two would be better. There's truth in this one. Nut allergies can be life-threatening, so you don't want to introduce them any sooner than you need to. There's a form of botulism in honey that toddlers on up to adults can easily process, but babies can't. Cooked honey is fine because the heat kills the botulism, but you should hold off on raw honey for a year or two. Egg whites can be allergenic, so you should probably wait until a year to give them. Shellfish (shrimp, lobster, etc.) can also be allergenic. And besides, wouldn't you rather save the lobster for yourself until your child is old enough and smart enough to ask for it?

So those are the things you hear most often about introducing foods. Other than that, the way you introduce foods should be a function of your personality more than anything else. Some people really want to cook and mash things. If you want to make all your baby's food, check out the books Super Baby Food (especially good for vegetarians), First Meals, or Mommy Made and Daddy Too!.

Some people really like doing jarred foods and advancing up the "stages." Yes, the stages are completely a marketing gimmick, but they aren't going to hurt, so if you like the ease and selection of jarred foods, go for it. Just make sure you read labels, because some jarred foods have tons of crap in them. (I even saw MSG--a neurotoxin--in one of the jars at my local grocery store. Not good.)

There are other people, though, that think babies will do perfectly well eating selected table food as soon as they start eating solids. With my first I did all the cereals first like a good little mommy (until I tasted one and vowed never again to serve my child anything I wouldn't eat, and rice cereal is pretty blechy) and then moved on to cooking and mashing all his food (I never used a food processor or blender--my old-fashioner potato masher did the trick). It turned into almost a full-time job. I'm pretty lazy, so I vowed just to let any subsequent children eat what they could manage on their own.

With El Pequeño, as soon as he was around 6 months I just stopped preventing him from grabbing things and putting them in his mouth. He tried bread, corn tortillas, apple, banana, mango, papaya, green beans, and a bunch of other things in that first week. Some things he'd chew for a long time. Others he'd spit out right away. He didn't really swallow much of anything until he was around 8 months old.

At about this point, someone left me a link here on Ask Moxie to this Dutch study: Guidelines for implementing a baby-led approach to the introduction of soild foods. Woo-hoo! Paydirt to justify my gut feeling that there was no need to spend hours mashing separate foods for my baby. It also explained why he wasn't swallowing--he just wasn't ready yet.

For those of you who aren't going to click over to read the whole article (in English, not Dutch, BTW), the money shot is that babies are actually less likely to choke if they control (with their own hands) what goes into their mouths and how. It also appears that no matter how early babies are allowed to pick up foods and stick them in their mouths, they won't start swallowing them (if they can control it) until closer to 6 months. Fascinating, isn't it? Seriously, go read the article, or at least scroll down to the bottom to the "DOs and DON'Ts" section.

So if you ask me what I do for my baby, I'll tell you that he eats what he wants to from whatever we're eating. (Today--he's 10.5 months--he ate a huge apple, half a whole-grain English muffin, turkey burger, lots of soup with barley and carrots and peas and kale, and part of a baguette.) But you should do what you want to with your own child. If you want the structure of following a schedule to introduce things, make one up (just consider your poor child's taste buds if you're thinking of starting with cereals--maybe sweet potato or banana would be more appetizing?). Go crazy cooking and mashing, or line up all the little jars in a neat row.

Just don't let yourself get tied up in knots about it. There will be plenty of time for that when he's a toddler and stops eating a bunch of things, and then again when he's 3 years old and only wants to eat bagels, French fries, and buttered toast. The best advice anyone's ever given me (and probably everyone else) about feeding is to offer a variety of nutritious foods, but let the child choose how much to eat. And don't take it personally when the child doesn't eat, because that can start a control game you don't want to get involved in.

Have fun starting foods. And make sure to take lots of pictures.