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Breastfeed for as long as possible - the longer you and your baby want to, the more beneficial it will be for your baby. Until about 6 months of age, human milk or infant formula alone provides all the nutrients your baby needs for growth and development. Around 6 months, solid foods can slowly be introduced. Human milk or infant formula is still the main source of nutrition for your baby.
When to introduce solids
According to the World Health Organization, exclusive breastfeeding should be continued to 6 months, as human milk supplies 100% of the baby’s nutritional requirements until this age.
Starting complementary foods too early or too late are both undesirable.
What are the signs that your baby is ready for solids?
- Can hold the head up.
- Can swallow by moving the tongue from the front to the back of the mouth.
- Is interested in what other people are eating – your baby might try and grab what you are eating.
Why not too early?
There is an increased risk of a reaction to foods when solids are introduced too early. The baby’s immune system may react to proteins found in food other than human milk. These reactions trigger responses in the baby, which are often seen in young children as a rash on the skin, loose poos or sore ears.
Introducing solids early does not help your baby sleep through the night. Dropping the night feed is more likely to be a developmental stage and has little to do with feeding.
When solids are started, these foods displace some of the human milk or infant formula your infant drinks. This reduced quantity of milk may not be sufficient to meet their nutritional needs.
Why not too late?
Babies can become low in iron as human milk and infant formula don’t have enough iron to meet their needs after 6 months. Iron is important for brain development, immunity, strength and energy for activity.
You might miss the critical time for your baby to learn how to chew and swallow lumpy food. After this time, your baby may get lazy and not want to bother with lumpy food.
Your baby needs more energy than what human milk or infant formula can provide to grow well.
Why do infants need solid foods?
At about 6 months, babies need more iron than they can absorb from human milk or formula. The foetus stores iron during pregnancy and if the baby is born at full-term, these stores last about 6 months. After this time extra iron is needed from foods other than human milk and formula. They also need to learn to chew food, which helps develop the muscles needed for speech.
Good sources of iron include:
- Infant cereals and other breakfast cereals with added iron, mixed with expressed human milk, infant formula or boiled water.
- Red meat such as beef or lamb.
- Legumes such as cooked lentils, beans and chickpeas.
- Green leafy vegetables.
- Wholemeal breads and cereals.
This second phase of infant nutrition is a time of transition from milk to soft foods, finger foods and finally, to family foods.
First steps in giving solid food
Early tasting of solid foods is intended more for educational purposes than for nutrition. Human milk or infant formula will still be a major part of the diet. Even when your baby reduces milk intake because they want more solid foods, the milk they drink will still be an important source of energy, protein, minerals and vitamins. Offer 1-2 teaspoons of solid food at first, increasing gradually to 2-4 tablespoons per meal.
Often, infants who are fed their first semi-solid food will spit it out - not because they do not want the food, but because the tongue motion used in sucking is the only one they know. Now they must learn an entirely new feeding technique. But don’t worry, babies are fast learners!
Choose a spoon that is small and smooth-edged. Your baby may find plastic or rubber spoons easier to use.
Choose foods that are easy to digest, contain iron and not likely to cause an allergic reaction. Puree in a blender or food processor or mash with a fork if the food is soft.
Common starter foods include:
- Infant rice cereal mixed with the expressed human milk, infant formula or boiled water (do not use cows milk).
- Soft fruits and hard fruits that have been cooked.
- Vegetables such as sweet potato, potato, zucchini, carrot and broccoli.
There is no need to add salt or sugar to the foods you prepare for your baby.
General advice on introducing solids
Introduce one food at a time so that you can see if your baby has a reaction to any particular food. Babies are usually introduced to strained solid food containing one single ingredient at a time - one new food every 3-4 days.
Introduce new foods repeatedly until your baby happily accepts them.
- If your baby tends to refuse a new food, offer it again in a few days. The more times you offer a new food, the more likely your baby is to accept it after repeated tastes. Once the baby is familiar with the food, it may become a "favourite" later on.
- Make feeding a happy time. There is no need to force foods on your baby. If they don’t want to eat, try again later.
- Keep each food separate so that your baby can learn about different tastes and textures.
It is important to gradually change the texture of the food from pureed foods to lumpy mashed foods to finger foods such as pieces of soft fruits, cooked vegetables, strips of chicken or beef and cheese. Even babies without teeth can manage these foods - all they need is practice.