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Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 09:54 am

Simple, soft and sane

Dispelling myths around baby’s first foods

Introducing solid foods to your baby is a delightful milestone, but it can also be one of the most stressful. In addition to messy highchairs and little faces covered in spaghetti, new parents are guaranteed to receive troves of advice from well-meaning family and friends regarding what and when to feed baby, adding layers of confusion to an already loaded topic: how to best feed your child.

The American Association of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization recommend babies be introduced to solid food no earlier than four months, and usually around six months, when babies are able to sit up unassisted and grab things to take to their mouths. However, a study recently published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that 20 to 40 percent of U.S. infants are introduced to complimentary foods (anything fed to baby besides formula or breast milk) at ages younger than four months.

Sure enough, when my baby was only four weeks old, friends began suggesting that I add baby cereal to her bottle in order to help her sleep through the night. The idea of essentially sedating my newborn with empty carbs to get her to sleep through the night seemed wrong, but the pressure was strong.

I spoke to Sibyl Cox, a pediatric nutritionist with SIU School of Medicine, about the timing of starting solids. She told me that before the age of 4 to 6 months, babies have not developed the oral motor skills needed to effectively chew and swallow food, and their digestive systems are still immature.

Complimentary foods are just not as nutrient dense as breast milk or formula. Cox noted that protein and fat are the primary nutrients babies need to grow properly, and many beginning baby foods such as rice cereal or applesauce do not contain them. Babies have small stomachs and need an easily digestible, concentrated form of nutrition for proper growth and development. Additionally, because of babies’ immature digestive systems, much of the goodness in solid foods passes right though them without actually giving much nourishment.

Young babies have a sensitive gag reflex that helps to protect them from choking. Cox told me that a baby’s gag reflex is on the tip of her tongue when she’s born, and that baby will actually “walk it back” to the rear of the palate over the next few months by chewing, mouthing and even gagging herself. “Some gagging is normal,” Cox said, “and parents shouldn’t try to stop their baby from gagging unless it becomes so excessive that it prevents the child from eating or developing normally.”

In addition, young babies have not yet figured out how to coordinate their tongue and swallowing mechanisms. Prior to four months of age, a baby’s swallowing mechanism is designed to accommodate sucking, not swallowing. By four to six months old, most babies have learned to effectively move food from the front of the mouth to the back.

Parents may assume that baby is waking in the night because he is hungry and guess that adding solid foods will help him sleep through the night. In reality, babies wake for many reasons and there is no evidence that beginning them on solids early helps them to sleep longer. Children under four months who are truly hungry in the middle of the night should be offered breast milk or formula, as it is more nutritionally dense than solids.

The best way to know if your baby is ready for complimentary foods is to watch for signs that coincide with developmental changes that indicate she will be able to handle them. Babies who can sit up unsupported, grab things and quickly get them to her mouth, and who are beginning to gnaw on toys will soon be ready to start trying new foods.

My daughter essentially started herself on solids when she was about five months old. I remember we were eating spaghetti with shrimp and she had been intensely staring at my plate, like a dog eyeing a bone. Suddenly she reached out, grabbed a shrimp off my plate, shoved it in her mouth, chewed it up with her surprisingly strong gums and swallowed! It was time.

Cox told me that all food (except honey) can be given to baby starting between four and six months, so long as it is in a form they can manage. For years, we were cautioned against giving potentially allergenic foods to babies in the first year of life, but that advice has been turned on its head in recent years. Much like playing in the dirt boosts the young immune system, early exposure to allergens is now thought to decrease the likelihood of your child developing allergies. Introduce new foods one at a time and a couple of days apart so that you can pinpoint the culprit if a reaction does flare up. Nut butters can be a choking hazard, so Cox recommends mixing peanut butter into oatmeal or incorporating it into baked goods.

While it is true that any food can be given to a baby who is developmentally ready, it is important that the food be in an appropriate form. Cox recommends “meltable solids” for babies just starting out: foods that dissolve easily or are mashable, such as graham crackers, bananas or cooked apples. Many fresh raw foods, such as carrots, apples or broccoli should be cooked until soft and served in pieces large enough for baby to grip with his fist. “Anything crunchy like a piece of raw apple or tough like meat is a choking hazard for a beginning eater,” warns Cox.

Ultimately, we want to nourish both our child’s body and spirit, helping them to establish positive attitudes towards food that will carry them into adulthood. Let your baby get messy and play with her food and remember to enjoy this new experience right along with her.

Contact Ashley Meyer at Ashley@realcuisine.net.

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