How To Give Your Baby The Best Start

By Maryke Gallagher

The 1,000 days between a woman's pregnancy and her child's 2nd birthday offer a unique window of opportunity to build healthier and more prosperous futures. Nutrition during the first years of a child's life provides the essential building blocks for brain development, healthy growth and a strong immune system. In fact, a growing body of scientific evidence shows that the foundations of a person's lifelong health-including their predisposition to obesity and certain chronic diseases-are largely set during this 1,000 day window. As you introduce your baby to solid foods, you're actually laying the foundations for your child's future health - what your baby learns now about tastes and textures will guide their food choices for the rest of their lives!

When to start introducing solids.

The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding up until 6 months to achieve optimal growth, development and health, with continued breastfeeding after introducing solids until 2 years and beyond. At around 6 months your baby is ready to start eating solid food. But don't just go on the numbers "- ensure that your baby shows signs of readiness. In some babies this might happen before 6 months. Importantly don't introduce solids before 4 months or later than 6 months. Waiting until your baby is ready gives her digestive system time to develop so that she can cope fully with solid foods. Introducing solids soon after 6 months means your baby receives essential nutrients from food that helps with growth and development. Remember to continue breastfeeding after introducing solids - it protects your babies digestive system and continues to provide essential nutrients that supports development and protects you baby against infection.

Signs of readiness include: Being able to stay in a sitting position and keep her head steady; coordinate her hands, eyes and mouth for self feeding; has lost the tongue-thrust reflex and does not automatically push solids out of her mouth with her tongue; is eager to participate in mealtime and may try to grab food and put it in her mouth;

"Signs" mistaken for readiness to introduce solid foods: Waking more often during the night; sucking or chewing fists; reaching a specific body weight or being small for age.

What to start with: First Foods

Your baby's first foods can include soft cooked vegetables like butternut, spinach, sweet potato, beetroot, baby marrow and carrots. Soft fresh seasonal fruit such as pear, pawpaw, mango and avocado is good too. These can be offered as chunky purees and finger foods for self feeding. Next foods include soft cooked meat such as chicken, beef and lamb; mashed fish (check for bones!) or hard boiled eggs; and soft mashed lentils, chickpeas or kidney beans. Grains and cereals such as oats, sorghum, maize meal, brown rice, amaranth and quinoa (technically a seed) can be offered as a soft or chunky porridge to compliment vegetables and protein rich foods. Small amounts of healthy fats can be added to meals such as olive-, avocado-, nut oil, avocado pear and nut butters. Full cream unsweetened cows milk products such as full cream plain yoghurt, inkomazi, kefir, fromage frais can also be introduced from 6 months. Do not add sugar or salt to your babies food, and also hold off on giving your baby honey until the age of 1 year. You can use fresh herbs and spices to flavour your baby foods.

Lastly, choose free range-, grass fed -, pasture raised- , organic products that are produced locally where possible. Include family foods, fruit and vegetables in season and culturally acceptable foods where appropriate.

What about allergens? Common allergens* can also be introduced from 6 months onwards. Research has actually shown that it is beneficial to introduce most allergens as soon as possible. Introduce common allergens one at a time, with a day or two break in between, and check your baby for any adverse reactions. If you, your spouse or any of your children have food allergies consult your dietitian or paediatrician before introducing allergens.

*Common allergens include: Cows milk, egg, fish, peanuts (and peanut butter), tree nuts (and nut butters), shellfish, soya and wheat.

How to introduce solids: Handy tips

  1. Introduce a wide variety of foods. Exposing your baby to a variety of tastes and textures makes them more receptive to accepting a wide variety of foods as a toddler and child.
  2. There is no set order in which first foods should be introduced. It is a good idea to introduce dark coloured vegetables and protein rich foods as soon as possible as they contain essential nutrients for optimal development.
  3. You don't have to introduce one food at a time. The latest research show that introducing a bigger variety of foods sooner are beneficial to your babies health and development.
  4. You don't have to offer only smooth purees to your baby. Small lumps in your baby's food will encourage the acceptance of textures, and introducing finger foods for self feeding stimulates fine motor control, exploration and learning. Be mindful of choking and avoid giving your baby hard- or small round foods like whole grapes and cherry tomatoes, or food with skins like fruit. Remove all bones from meat and fish before giving it to your baby. Whole nuts are not appropriate for your baby until she is old enough to chew it properly. ""
  5. Don't be afraid to offer strong tasting foods such as broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes, lemons and olives. If you are worried about gas forming foods causing your baby discomfort, offer small amounts at first to help her digestive system to get use to it.
  6. Continue offering a food even if your baby refuses it the first time. It can take up to 15 times of offering a food before a baby will accept it. Remember that the food you offer your baby is not only for 'nutrition' but also to help your baby learn and explore and develop her senses. Don't be alarmed if most of it lands on the floor at first - it's all part of learning.

Follow your baby's lead on how much she needs. Look at your baby's cues to indicate when she's had enough like moving her head away, keeping her mouth closed or pushing the food away. "

Want to read more about the introduction of solids? Here are some additional resources

About Maryke

Maryke Gallagher is a registered dietitian with more than 14 years combined experience in private practice, research, lecturing and consulting to industry. She has special interests in sports nutrition, allergies, as well as nutritional genomics. She is passionate about breastfeeding promotion and the translation of nutrition science, nutrition communication and leadership.

She is also actively involved in nutrition education and development of educational material for school going children, and lectures to students on nutrition. Maryke is passionate about her family, and a mother of three children under the age of 6.