By four months, your sweet little one is likely reaching for toys, as well as your plate! Many parents assume this interest in everything you are eating is one of the first signs your infant is ready for solids.
While such curiosity towards food can lead to an infant’s unintentional first bite, it doesn’t always mean that an infant is ready to actually eat.
Why do you not let your older kids leave Barbie shoes next to their baby sibling or marbles next to the infant play mat?
Because babies eat everything!
Whether it is just mouthing anything while slobbering on everything, to a more concerning attempt to actually eat a teeny little fairy shoe, babies instinctively put just about everything into their mouths especially by 4 months and after. Too many parents assume this part of development parallels pediatrician-approved timelines to start solids and prematurely begin introducing food. What follows is often a negative experience for everyone involved that do not boost the nutrition nor feeding experience for infants.
In this series, you are learning:
I. The expert opinions are on when to start solids
II. The health concerns of feeding babies too soon, too late, or right on target
III. The opportunities for when to start solids based on developmental cue
Specifically, this post should prevent premature food introduction by highlighting the opportunities for when to start solids based on developmental cues.
For parents and families who want to heed the advice of experts and introduce solids, this post will highlight how to follow developmental cues over the calendar.
First, we will identify cues for readiness that ideally need to occur before solids are started. Second, we will share age-appropriate ideas for how to introduce your child to the eating environment, even when no food is involved. Third and lastly, we will also discuss strategies that help set you and your child up for success with starting solids.
1. Follow developmental cues over the calendar
Do you remember when your child began to show more head and neck control? Show core strength? Opened their mouth for a spoon? Keep contents on the spoon actually in their mouth? Begin eagerly trying to eat whatever you were eating?
By now, you may have forgotten exactly when each of these developmental cues first occurred. What I can tell every parent though is that looking back, all you need to know is that these cues happened BEFORE you introduced solids.
Too often, parents first memories of their child eating include them pushing the food back out of their mouth (known as tongue thrusting), only for it to be scooped off their chin and offered again into their mouth.
Besides the grossness of regurgitated food being scooped up and given again, the whole process is pretty cute and entertaining…the first time. But try to sustain that every time you offer food and the process is going to wear both you and your baby out. Instead, pay attention to their development of these cues. Each are critical to the development of the gross, oral, and fine motor skills required for starting solids.
Gross Motor Developmental Cues
Your once bobble head baby should now able to control the movements of his head. Developmentally, this is one of the first cues that occurs before an infant starts solids. Around this 2-4 month window, parents often place their infant in Bumbo like seats and are amazed with their ability to “sit.” Don’t be deceived into thinking though that you can just go ahead and attach a Bumbo tray and begin solids at any time. Think about the greater continuum. Babies need to develop strength from their head, through their neck, all the way down to their core. With this, they begin showing the ability to sit with assistance and eventually, unsupported by props or other people. But it all stems from their ability to hold their head up.
Something that seems to be contradicted often when it comes to developmental readiness for solids is an infant’s core strength. Some reputable sources claim that infants only need to be able to sit but with support before solids are introduced. Others suggest that a stronger core is crucial before babies are suitable candidates for starting solids.
Oral Motor Developmental Cues
Opens mouth when offered spoon
If you are trying to force a spoon into your infant’s mouth, just stop. If they don’t open up when offered a spoon, there is a strong possibility that they are not yet ready for spoon-feeding. Communicating with their body language like this is one of the most innate ways your baby can communicate with you. Whether they are not ready now or want to indicate they’re full (when given solids), respect their cues before you ever try to force solids.
Note that if infants are still refusing a spoon/solids by 7-8 months, consider speaking with yor child’s pediatrician to rule out any other reasons for food refusal as well as to ensure the nutritional adequacy of their diets without solids having been introduced already.
Loss of tongue thrust
Could you relate to what I recited as many parent’s first memory with food? This is it, or a lack thereof. Many infants are fed solids before they have loss their tongue thrust movement, being that which pushes foods back out of their mouth. Ideally, infants should be able to take in the spoon, remove food from a spoon, move it towards the back of their mouths, and successfully swallow it.
Fine Motor Developmental Cues
Brings objects to their mouth
Infants usually don’t develop the ability to pinch between their pointer finger and thumb (known as the pincer grasp) until closer to 9-12 months. Before that, they often rake food with their fingers. But before either of these milestones appear, infants are often able to palm items and bring them to their mouths. Be it toys or utensils at the table (see below), children often show they are ready for solids when they begin to reach for food and bring it to their own mouths…even when unsolicited!
2. Involve infants in meal times (before foods are ever introduced)
If your child is not yet showing the necessary development cues to start solids listed above, consider all the ways that you can start to include them in meal time before solids are ever introduced. These support parents when they begin to see one of the first signs develop and yet, don’t really know what to really do with: an interest, eagerness, and genuine curiosity towards eating.
Sit Infants at the Table
According to most feeding experts, it is ideal to have your infant in a seat that you can look at face to face. This causes family’s to often invest in large high chairs with feeding trays attached or to practice unsafe methods for feeding like Bumbo seats placed upon the kitchen counter or family table. While both options do allow you to look at your baby directly, neither is ideal if you are in the market for a highchair/feeding seat.
Pediatric feeding expert Melinda Potock shared the following in a post provided on Science of Mom. According to Melinda, the Bumbo seat, "puts the child’s pelvis into a posterior tilt, causing pressure on the stomach that can exacerbate reflux and spitting up at mealtimes." So besides the safety aspect of keeping this chair up where the rest of the family enjoys a meal, Bumbos are not considered an ideal seat for infants to eat in.
As for larger high chairs with attached feeding trays, you do not have the ability to bring the baby up to the table to be a part of a meal. These are often used best when babies are fed independent of family meal times, which is not a practice most experts would ever recommend.
Instead, opting for a seat like the Fisher Price Space Saver or Keekaroo Height Right Chair are recommended as both safe AND allow your baby to be seated at the table with you. Regardless of whether they are ready for solids yet or not, this offers a valuable time for them to learn to social aspect of sitting with other family members for meals.
When infants are offered solids prematurely, they often lack the hand-eye coordination to not only hold a spoon but also to bring that spoon to their mouth for a successful bite. One of the wonderful ways to engage infants during meal times before they show readiness to eat is to allow their exploration of how to use utensils. This offers them something to do while seated at the table apart from playing with a completely unrelated toy. Giving clean, infant-sized spoons is a fun and developmentally appropriate way to introduce your child to utensils before they actually “need” to know what they are for. Such familiarity helps them understand the purpose, sensation, and skills required for holding a spoon in their hand, bringing it to their mouth, cupping their lips around it, and the mouth feel of it inside the mouth on their tongue.
Consider Bowls of Breast milk Slushies
If you are brave enough to bring bowls into this stage of infants learning the cause of effect of endless “dropping,” consider giving your child a child safe bowl with frozen breast milk in it. Freezing it is a thin layer on a pyrex dish then stirring up to have a “slushie” consistency offers them an age-appropriate offering for meal times. Furthermore, the texture is safer than allowing infants to eat ice cubes or chips and yet a firm enough consistency where they may practice their spoon skills. This is best executed using products like this ezpz slipmat in place of a standard or even “slip-proof” bowl (Ha! Yeah right). Such products remove the potential for an utter mess everywhere, plus your hard earned milk is less likely to make its way all over the floor.
Offer Sippy and/or Straw Cups
Offering an alternative cup to a bottle at meal times is another fun way for your infant to begin developing new skills at family meal times. Whether you choose to use breastmilk, formula, or to introduce water at this age/stage is up to you and your child’s pediatrician, any of these may be placed into a transitional cup. The process to effectively drink out of a standard cup vs bottle typically takes time, so starting with products like these highly-recommended trainer cups or our favorite straw cups may help introduce your infant to a new mouth feel for consuming fluids.
3. Strategies for successful introduction of solids
For parents who start feeding their children around four months, their baby is usually unable to sit unsupported. They may not be able to reach for their own food nor handle a spoon. Unable to swallow standard stage 1 solids, parents often have to thin purees before putting them on a spoon. This all makes self-feeding a near impossible opportunity at this age. Instead, parents assume a spoon-feeding approach more traditional to our Western culture.
Alternatively, those who wait closer to six months of age to starting solids have a different experience. At this age/stage, infants show the developmental cues that allow them to become more dependent in their eating. Often able to sit unassisted and reach for the food offered in front, infants at such later ages and stages are able to initiate their first bite literally on their own (with supervision, of course). This meshes well with the emerging concept of Baby Led Weaning (BLW). BLW is most commonly seen as the approach to feeding infants in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere around the world.
So while age appears to make some difference to an infant’s risk for disease and other health concerns like food allergies, it is the stage these developmental cues present that dictate how different first feeding experiences can be.
Such a review as the one shared above leads me to wonder --
What do you want your experience with starting solids to be like – for both you, and your baby?
I know you want to listen to the research on what age is best. I am sure you are also willing to be adaptable in order to minimize the risk for food allergies. I can only assume you want to have the most positive feeding experiences as well.
So evaluate your child’s developmental cues accordingly. Use the calendar as a guide, as well as other helpful milestone marker estimates like the one below from Science of Mom, to estimate when may be the most opportune age AND stage to start solids with your baby.
Once YOU have determined when is best to start solids for YOUR child, my next posts will play a bigger role in progressing you and your child through starting solids. I will be sharing more on food introduction via spoon-feeding as well as techniques from Baby Led Weaning. You can follow along with all of the upcoming posts by clicking here.
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