“You have this very critical age window where babies are learning about the world and family cultures, and so much of that happens around food,” Menon said. “What you think of as a nutritional moment actually has really cool impacts on kids’ development.”
Introducing a baby to solids does more than add new nutrients; it forges new brain connections affecting everything from language development to familial bonding.
Such a big-picture perspective can bring clarity to today’s head-spinning food environment, where grocery stores teem with options, and the constantly expanding baby food aisle boasts puree pouches, jars, puffs and bars that are part of the $67.3 billion-and-growing packaged baby food industry.
Staggering variety, paired with the vortex of the Internet, make it both “the best of times and the worst of times” for parents learning how to feed tiny humans, said Mark Corkins, a pediatric gastroenterologist and the chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’s committee on nutrition.
“I’m seeing more parents with pop culture nutrition ideas that are often inaccurate or which they take off the deep end,” Corkins said. “It’s a Google nutrition approach.”
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Social media further fuels comparison and around “ideal” diets and feeding methods that can leave parents anxious and confused. And for families who are food insecure, the daily struggle to keep bellies full can become even more fraught.
“Young parents are in a very vulnerable position,” said Jennifer Anderson, a registered dietitian and public health educator whose company, Kids Eat in Color, offers parents nutritional and practical guidance. “They’re adjusting to having kids for the first time, and they already may be feeling insecure about what they’re doing. And next thing you know, there’s a parent at the playground pushing rhetoric about giving their baby the best — making the other parent feel inadequate. And it just doesn’t have to be like that.”
Instead, she, Menon and Corkins said, introducing solid foods can be an exciting season of growth, experimentation and fun.
Breastmilk or formula does provide foundational nutrition and immunological support through a baby’s first year. But at 6 months, they need more nutrients.
“There’s an idea that ‘food before 1 is just for fun,’ ” Anderson said. “It’s very catchy; it’s also not true.”
As babies grow rapidly, their bodies need more iron, zinc and protein. And a growing body of research shows that complementary feeding — introducing foods while a baby is still nursing — has key implications for brain development, as well.
One study Menon contributed to found that babies who were part of a nutritional intervention in Bangladesh experienced advanced language and gross motor development. Other studies have found that the stimulation involved in the feeding experience affects mental development even if physical growth is not impacted; that foods such as eggs provide a major boost in baby brain building nutrients; and that the early introduction of iron-rich foods can affect cognitive development into adolescence.
Pediatricians typically recommend introducing babies to solid foods by 6 months, although you can start looking for signs of readiness at about 4 months. Make sure that babies can sit up and have strong head and neck control and that they show interest in eating by mimicking chewing or reaching for food.
Parents are often surprised to learn that there is no road map for food introductions. You can fold in new foods in an order that suits your family.
Infant cereal mixed with breastmilk or formula is a typical first meal; but parents could choose mashed vegetables such as carrots or pumpkin; soft fruits such as avocados or bananas; even eggs or pureed meats rich in iron.
Iron and zinc are especially important nutrients early on, since breastmilk no longer provides enough to support babies’ rapid growth at this stage. Fortified baby cereals, beans, lentils, eggs, meats and hemp seeds are all good sources.
A few foods are off limits in the early days: Honey carries a risk of botulism for infants until they are a year old. Cow’s milk is difficult to digest in the first year of life. Try not to rely too heavily on rice cereals, as rice products can contain arsenic levels harmful to children. Avoid high-sodium foods and limit foods with added sugar, as babies “don’t know what they are missing,” Anderson said.
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Meanwhile, parents should let babies try foods such as peanut butter, eggs and fish to help decrease the risk of developing allergies, the AAP said. It’s important to introduce these foods one at a time, to closely monitor the baby and to speak with your pediatrician about any concerns you may have.
Variety is more than spice of life
With those guidelines in mind, parents could provide as much food diversity as possible.
“Babies develop their palate during infancy and into the first and second year,” Anderson said. “Providing variety early on sets them on a trajectory to eat more variety later.”
Variety also helps maximize different foods’ benefits. Serving foods with vitamin C, for example, increases iron absorption, while high-fiber foods served alongside dairy can help prevent constipation.
Don’t add salt to babies’ foods, but don’t skimp on seasoning: sprinkle cumin powder on black beans or whip rosemary into mashed potatoes. Spread hummus on bits of toast and try spoonfuls of sauerkraut. Let babies taste bitterness in foods such as kale, and pucker at the sourness of grapefruit.
Parents could prioritize flavors that are important to their family. For Menon, who lives in India but was living in the United States when her daughter was a baby, that meant mashing dal (cooked lentils) and spiced veggies into her daughter’s baby cereal or mixing yogurt with rice.
“We want our children to be a part of our family tables and enjoy our family food, which is such a big part of life,” she said.
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Shared meals provide a wealth of developmental benefits. They also allow the baby to learn that the table isn’t just a place to fuel up: It’s a place of learning and social connection.
“If you are busy parents, you may not have a lot of opportunities for play time or cultural education,” Menon said. “Mealtimes can be such a centering moment for that to happen.”
It’s also the space to model healthy habits, which are “more caught than taught,” Corkins said.
Family meals can be a logistical challenge and not possible for all meals. But there are ways to simplify the practice to make it routine.
A big one: simply feeding the baby the same thing as the adults, modifying any foods as needed. If you haven’t started finger foods yet, Anderson suggests old-fashioned, hand-crank food mills, which can easily transform a bowl of vegetable curry or beet salad into baby-friendly mash.
That said, don’t impose any special diet — such as dairy- or gluten-free eating — on babies unless an allergy requires it, Corkins said.
“The goal is balance,” he said.
The traditional picture of babies being spoon-fed from jars has been transformed by wider recognition of different feeding techniques and the arrival of new food products.
In the practice known as baby-led weaning, babies skip purées to start with table foods from the get-go. Proponents say baby-led weaning encourages greater independence, more adventurous eating and better appetite awareness — although studies have not confirmed such broad advantages.
Corkins cautions against turning self-feeding and spoon-feeding into dueling camps. “There’s a place for both,” he said.
Anderson agrees and tries to help parents defuse the anxiety that can build when peer parents or social media influencers are dogmatic about a “best” method. Every family and child will have shifting needs and preferences over time, she said; many parents will combine methods to tailor a system that works for them.
“You’re bombarded with these messages that there’s a ‘best way’ or an ‘only way’ to eat. It’s just not true. There are so many ways,” Anderson said. “Parents need to own the decision that says, ‘This is best for my family right now.’ Not ‘My best is good enough,’ but ‘My best is good.’ ”
She applies the same philosophy to other baby food debates such as homemade vs. packaged convenience foods or fresh vs. frozen. And when it comes to organic vs. nonorganic foods, Corkins said the nutritional benefits of eating even nonorganic fruits and vegetables “far outweigh any risks.”
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Whichever feeding methods you adopt, here are some guidelines to keep babies safe and to enjoy mealtimes:
Choking prevention is critical. Even if your baby is capable of chewing, Anderson said that choking often occurs in unpredictable moments such as laughter or being startled.
Soften foods by cooking them and cut round foods into quarters or lengthwise into skinny pieces.
Make sure you can squish foods between your thumb and forefinger, mimicking the pressure of a baby’s tongue against their palate. Avoid hard foods such as popcorn and tortilla chips.
It’s also important for babies to sit secure at a table, supervised — and for caregivers to know how to recognize and respond to choking.
Now is also a time to make peace with smears and stickiness.
“It’s so important for babies to learn to touch food, even if that means rubbing it all over their face,” Anderson said. “I know that can also be emotionally difficult for parents, but getting messy has so many sensory benefits.”
It’s one reason not to rely solely on mess-free packaged foods such as puree pouches. Eating isn’t just about taste: It’s also about texture, smell and color.
Eating is a key time for babies to start exercising autonomy, Menon said — and for parents to start learning the hard, lifelong lesson of relinquishing control.
Become fluent in your baby’s cues
Learning a baby’s hunger and fullness cues is another important dynamic called “responsive feeding.”
If spoon-feeding a baby, that means waiting for them to open their mouth and put their head forward to start and stopping when they turn or push food away. If babies are feeding themselves, it means accepting that there will be leftovers.
“Basically, you are saying, I’m the parent, and I’m offering you this food that I have lovingly prepared for you,” Anderson said. “And now I’m turning it over to you to decide whether you are going to eat it and how much you are going to eat.”
It’s a key skill for caregivers, so they don’t push portions that are too much for a baby’s small digestive system. But it’s also important for children to learn fullness cues from a young age, as pediatricians say it may help prevent obesity.
Don’t be fazed by ‘prune face’
You slow-roast a beautiful butternut squash for your baby — only to watch it get cold on the highchair tray, or spat out onto a bib. Is butternut squash a lost cause?
Not at all, Corkins said.
“Children are neophobes,” he said. “The first time they try a green bean, they may make what I call the ‘prune face’ and spit it out. But you give him another exposure. It might take 10 to 12 exposures — but eventually, the baby looks at those green beans and thinks, ‘Oh, I know what this is!’ ”
Whether you are serving a home-cooked meal at home or eating crackers at a roadside rest stop, building positive associations with mealtime is one of the most important things parents can do for their child.
Menon said bringing “patience, persistence and good humor” to each meal has long-term payoffs.
“It’s hard to be patient when you are busy or when you worry if your child is getting enough nutrition,” she said. “But establishing a positive feeding relationship early on can prevent daily struggle.”
The joy of food is a lifelong gift for children — and parents, too, Anderson said.
“Don’t get too bogged down in the method of ‘doing it right’ or even the nutrition,” she said. “It can be so much fun to feed your baby, to watch their face when they try new things and to laugh when they put spaghetti in their hair. All these things are just so delightful, and it’s okay to just have fun.”