Covid-19 has made us acutely aware of how important our health and well-being is but for parents it’s highlighted how critical it is to develop your little one’s healthy relationship with food from a young age.
Experts say until about 6 months old, breast milk or formula is sufficient as the sole source of nutrition for babies. And while this will remain the primary source of nutrition until 12 months, the nutritional needs of a baby increase to support growth and development. And that is why solids become necessary.
For many parents, making the transition to solids can feel daunting. Some babies are varied and adventurous eaters (maniacs for meat, voracious for veggies), while others are picky.
Nadia Jansen van Rensburg, co-founder of Rooted Natural and a clinical dietitian with a special interest in paediatric nutrition, says, from four to six months, infants are developmentally and emotionally ready to start exploring a new method of feeding – and new foods, flavours and textures.
Their nutritional needs increase and the introduction of solids helps to optimise growth and brain development. Plus, more energy from food supports their active bodies as they begin to sit, play and crawl. It’s a wide window period and experts encourage parents to take their cue from their little ones. They suggest
Van Rensburg says children often show you when they’re ready by grabbing at food, and sucking their lips or opening their mouths when morsels are nearby.
When looking at starting with solids, Van Rensburg says it’s a great idea to get into regular feeding rhythms right from the start. “Sit your little one at the table in a chair or in a chair with a clip-on tray and make sure their feet are supported. Avoid screens and any distractions.
“Try to get them excited about the food – its taste, textures, colours and smells. Positively talking about food is an important part of the process.
“Allow them to play. Play is a pivotal part of children’s learning process so let them have fun with their food. That’s how they’ll learn to eat by themselves,” says Van Rensburg.
She also suggests to time the feeding sessions well.
“Your baby should be rested, hungry and interested; not overly hungry, overtired, stimulated or fed. Importantly, you need to be relaxed as well.
“Go with a single flavour at first. Think about starting with vegetables, then progressing to fruit, grains and protein combinations.”
Laager Rooibos and dietitian Mbali Mapholi agrees, saying when introducing solids, it’s important to remember what nutrition the baby needs.
These will include:
Protein: Babies still get protein from breast milk or formula but their requirements have increased a bit. Some of the food sources for protein include beef, chicken, maas, eggs, legumes, beans and fish.
Calcium: This is important for the development of bones and teeth, but cow’s milk shouldn’t be given to babies until their first birthday. There are plant-based calcium food sources to add such as green leafy vegetables, tofu, sardines, fortified baby cereal, beans and lentils.
Whole grains and complex carbohydrates: These are packed with nutrients and proteins that are good for babies. Some food sources include whole-grain bread, whole-grain cereal (baby cereal for spoon-feeding or bite-size cereal for self-feeding), fortified maize-meal, lentils, beans, potatoes and peas.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) suggests that when giving your baby solids be sure you give your baby her first foods after she has breastfed, or between nursing sessions, so that your baby continues to breastfeed as much as possible.
In addition to grains and tubers, the organisation recommends that you start feeding your baby a variety of foods – especially animal foods (dairy, eggs, meat, fish and poultry), fruits and vegetables – every day.
When introducing solids, Unicef says parents should take extra care so that the little one doesn’t become sick.
“As she crawls about and explores, germs can spread from her hands to her mouth. Protect your baby from getting sick by washing your hands and theirs with soap before preparing food and before every feeding.”
It’s also important to know that when presented with a wide variety of wholesome foods and allowed to follow their appetites, almost all healthy babies eat as much as they need to grow and thrive.
As long as the little one is growing at a healthy rate, along their personal growth curve (and a health-care practitioner will let you know if they are not) — they’re probably getting all the nutrition they need.
Mapholi shares additional tips for starting complementary feeding:
1. Start slowly as babies have small tummies. Your baby can eat anything except honey and cow’s milk, which they should only eat after their first birthday.
2. As the baby’s intake of solids increases, milk intake should remain the same.
3. Avoid fruit and vegetable juices as these may cause dental issues.
4. Do not add sugar, salt, or any seasoning on baby food and beverages. You can add oils, nut butter, margarine or peanut butter to your baby’s foods and drinks to improve their nutrition.
5. At 6 to 8 months, it is suggested to purée or thoroughly mash home-cooked food items.
6. From 9 to 12 months, they can start to eat more textured food items. This is when they can hold and eat chopped up foods.
7. Each meal needs to be easy for your baby to eat and packed with nutrition. Make every bite count.
8. Cooking your own baby meals at home is the best way to go about meeting their nutritional needs on a budget.
9. If your baby refuses a new food or spits it out, do not force it. Try again a few days later. You can also try mixing it with another food that your baby likes.