From Breastfeeding to Family Foods - when baby needs more than milk

Around the middle of your baby’s first year, that is at about six months, your baby will start showing signs that he is ready for family foods:

  • He will be able to sit up in a high chair or on your lap; he will have lost the tongue thrust reflex (that protects him against choking in the early months, but also means food gets thrust out of his mouth, rather than swallowed);
  • He will be watching you closely as you eat and probably reaching for your food  - although being able to grab objects and put them into his mouth is not necessarily an actual sign of readiness ( after all, even young babies will watch you and may reach for food).  
  • Your baby may seem to suddenly be more hungry but not satisfied by extra milk feeds over a period of several days.

Introducing new foods – baby led or parent feeding?

There are two main styles of introducing family foods to your baby’s diet : you can introduce foods on a spoon or your clean finger to your baby or you can simply offer him pieces of what you are eating from your own plate (as long as foods are soft and safe). Many parents choose a mixture of both - letting baby feed himself pieces of suitable food placed on his high chair tray or shared from your plate,  and parent feeding (food offered to baby with a spoon).

When to start family foods

The World Health Organisation and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) both recommend starting family foods at around six months when baby shows signs of readiness.  

 Why six months?

According to a statement by the Australian Breastfeeding Association,The reasons the major health bodies in the world and in Australia recommend around 6 months take into account ALL factors around the safest time to start which include but are not limited to allergies.

There are risks to introducing solids at 4 months and these risks include:reducing the mother's breastmilk supply and baby's breastmilk intake; increasing the risk of infection (particularly gastroenteritis); increasing the risk of obesity; increased strain placed on the baby's digestive system and kidneys, particularly in relation to digestion of starches.

There is absolutely no advantage to starting solid foods earlier than around six months – there is no evidence that solid foods will help your baby sleep longer for instance. In fact, a baby with an upset tummy is likely to be more wakeful. 

Starting solids earlier than at least four months (but preferably closer to six months) poses a number of risks such as premature weaning and malnutrition if your baby eats too many solids and these displace milk feeds (milk will be most of your baby’s diet for the first year).

Or you could increase the risk of allergies by exposing your baby to potential allergens that his tiny gut isn’t equipped to deal with: between four and seven months a baby’s intestinal lining goes through a developmental growth spurt called closure.

This means that the intestinal lining becomes more selective about what to let through. This is due to increased secretion of IgA, a protein immunoglobulin that acts as a protective coating in the intestines, preventing harmful allergens from passing through the gut wall. In the early months, IgA secretion is low (although breast milk is high in IgA), allowing allergens to easily pass through the gut wall and enter the bloodstream. As these particles enter the bloodstream antibodies may be produced to them, causing an allergic reaction.

These are valid reasons to see introducing solid foods as just that –an ‘introduction’ rather than a meal, and to wait until your baby is developmentally ready.

However you choose to introduce family foods, if you have a family history of allergies or your baby has been sensitive to foods passing through your milk, it is wise to introduce a single food at a time in increasing proportions so that you can see how it affects your baby. If he experiences any adverse reactions such as tummy discomfort, vomiting or rashes with a new food, it is best to stop that food. If you have concerns, please check with a dietician or paediatric allergist.

Ditch white rice cereal

Common infant feeding advice suggests rice cereal as a first food. This advice started when babies were generally introduced to foods other than milk early (at around 3 or 4 months) . At this age babies are not ready to manage anything other than runny mush, nor are their gut linings ‘closed’ to foreign molecules that may increase sensitisation and potential allergies.

This advice was (and still is), heavily promoted by baby food companies. However, evidence based advice from the WHO recommends: ‘As a global public health recommendation, infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health.’

Paediatrician, Dr Alan Greene, Clinical Professor at Stanford University School of Medicine warns of a potential connection between feeding babies refined cereals and obesity. He says, "one of the things that I have become convinced of is that white rice cereal can predispose to childhood obesity. In fact I think it is the tap root of the child obesity epidemic.

"Conversion of the white rice flour to glucose begins while the cereal is still in the baby’s mouth, lighting up the hard-wired preference for sweets (and the cereal is nearly 100% glucose by the time it is absorbed in the intestines). potentially setting up a preference for processed refined grain products."

Dr Greene advises, "by the time your baby is truly ready for family food (around 6 months), he will be ready to explore a variety of tastes and textures - there are brown(unrefined) rice cereals for babies or you can offer oat porridge or congee (normal rice - not rice flour- cooked in bone broth, so it's highly nutritious).

He says, "let every child’s first food be a real food. My preference for the first bite is to give a baby a bite of something they’ve seen the parent eat, something they’ve seen come from the produce aisle, a garden, or a farmers’ market. I love avocados, sweet potatoes (cooked until soft), or bananas as a first bite — mashed with a fork with some of the breast milk or formula they’ve already been getting.

Baby led weaning

This style of introducing family foods is simply offering your baby whole pieces of food from your own menu and allowing him to choose how much to eat, rather than pureeing or mashing ‘baby’ foods and spooning them into your baby’s mouth (and often ‘encouraging’ him to ‘eat it all up’). This has now been labelled ‘Baby Led Weaning’ because your baby will naturally set the pace at which he is ready to proceed with eating.

The main principle with baby led weaning is that you offer your baby food by either allowing her to take it from your hand (or not, as she chooses), or you simply place food such as soft fruits or cooked vegetables on her highchair and allow her to feed herself. There are no purees and no spoon feeding. The baby leads.

Proponents of baby led weaning claim the advantages of this style of baby feeding include: babies get to explore taste, texture, colour and smell of foods naturally it encourages independent eating helps develop hand-eye coordination makes fussy eating and food fights less likely because you avoid stress around meal times and pressure to ‘eat it all up’ or encouraging your child to eat when she may not want to.

For an in-depth discussion about Babyled Weaning, see Pinky's podcast interview with Dr Gill Rapley, infant feeding researcher and Babyled Weaning pioneer. 

Baby won’t eat yet?

Please don’t worry if your baby seems disinterested in eating with gusto for several months after you introduce his first tastes of solid foods. It is important to be respectful and trust that your child knows his own body signals for food.

A good rule to consider is: ‘it is your responsibility to provide healthy food and it is your baby’s choice whether he eats or not.’

And remember, your little one will never starve himself as long as he has access to healthy nutritious foods and at this stage milk will form the majority of his diet anyway.

If your baby is a ‘late starter’ and still seems disinterested in eating family foods at eight to ten months and you feel concerned, you can ask your doctor for a blood test to check his iron levels. Chances are, if he received all his cord blood at birth; you are breastfeeding and eat a healthy diet yourself; he is active (a baby with low iron levels will probably be lethargic); and his growth and development is on track, you can relax. Just expose him to family mealtimes so he can join in socially and model your enjoyment of food when he is ready.

Wondering about weaning?

For more tips on moving beyond exclusively breastfeeding, check out the Ebook Weaning With Love by IBCLC Lactation Consultant, Pinky McKay.  Whether you are choosing to introduce family foods, wean from breast to bottle or you are happy to breastfeed until your nursing baby becomes a walking, talking toddler and initiates weaning by him or herself, or something in between, you will find tips to make this process as easy on you and your little one as possible.