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For the first few months of your child's life, you're bound to run into feeding-related issues (such as figuring out breastfeeding or getting bottle-making down pat) but at least you don't have to worry about what's on the menu. As the American Academy of Pediatrics insists, your tiny eater should stick to breast milk or formula for at least the first four months—and breast-fed children should remain exclusively breast-fed until at least 6 months of age, in order to get the maximum nutritional benefit. At some point in the frame of 4 to 6 months, however, you'll notice your baby watching you while you eat, or even see tiny fingers reaching out to touch whatever's on your plate. Chances are, your budding epicure's interested in adding a little variety to his diet.
But how can you know for sure if your baby is ready to begin eating solid foods? According to pediatric nutrition expert Marilyn Tanner-Blasiar, MHS, RD, don't begin your baby on solids until he's able to hold his head up on his own. He should also have grown out of his extrusion reflex, the instinct that causes babies to spit out anything that isn't liquid. In other words, if you try offering that spoonful of cereal before your baby's prepared, you run the risk of wearing the food instead of feeding it!
- Cereal. Rice cereal is often touted as the best starter food for babies, and it's certainly a safe and simple choice. Although this cereal can be prepared with water, amp up the nutrition by making it with formula or breast milk. Choose an iron-fortified cereal, as iron is essential for proper brain development as well as physical growth at this age. Oatmeal and barley cereal are also excellent transitions into the world of solid food.
- Puréed meat. While critics insist babies are too young for meat, Harvard professor of Pediatrics Ronald Kleinman, MD states that babies are actually able to tolerate a wide variety of grub. Puréed meats such as lamb and beef are a good source of iron that's easily absorbed by your baby's growing body. The AAP warns of iron deficiency among babies, particularly older ones, and recommends iron supplements for tiny tots over the age of 4 months who aren't yet being fed iron-rich solid foods.
- Vegetables. An old wives' tale cautions parents to introduce vegetables before fruit, otherwise your baby will develop a preference for sweet-tasting strained peaches and pass on a mouthful of mushy peas. Dr. Rebecca Unger, a pediatrician at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, refutes this myth, saying that the order in which foods are introduced isn't that important. Help your baby get his nutritional fill with these infant-friendly veggies: avocados, sweet potatoes, peas, carrots, green beans and squash. Skip offering up tomatoes until your baby's at least 10 months old, as the acidity may cause tummy troubles.
- Slow introduction. You're not yet in sync with your little one's dietary restrictions, so it's crucial to present new foods one at a time, waiting four or five days between each new food. If you notice any allergic reactions such as rashes, diarrhea, bloody stools or vomiting, stop offering that dish immediately and call your pediatrician. Some of the foods known to be most allergenic include eggs, fish, and anything containing peanuts.
- Fruit. Many babies do, fact, prefer fruits to veggies, but that tends to be the case no matter in which order you introduce them, and this is a preference which continues on into adult life as well for many people. In addition to being delicious, fruits also contain important nutrients babies need. Suggested fruits include bananas, peaches, apples and pears.
- Homemade fare. While picking up prepared baby food at the market is just fine—so long as you're diligent about expiration dates—many parents prefer to prepare their budding foodie's dishes at home. Pop cooked meat, vegetables or soft fruit (raw if it's naturally soft like bananas or berries, but cooked if it's hard like pears or apples) in a blender. To prepare a large batch, simply freeze tiny portions in an ice cube tray, and put them in freezer-friendly containers afterward. That way, when your baby's ready to eat, you can easily defrost just one cube for his meal.
- Foods to avoid. Some types of food can be just too upsetting to little tummies. Cabbage, broccoli, lentils, and beans (other than green beans) may make your little one gassy. Proteins found in cow's milk or soy milk are hard for wee ones to digest, and both of these types of milk also contain minerals that can actually damage tiny kidneys. Your child's digestive tract is highly susceptible to infant botulism, so stay away from honey and corn syrup, as both are potential carriers of botulism spores.
Although you do need to wait until baby is at least four months old before introducing solids, once the time is right there is no need to limit variety. Try your baby on a range of cereals, meats, fruits and veggies, as the more foods you expose him to while he's young, the less likely he is to grow up to be the dreaded picky eater!