How to involve infants in meal times (before solids are even introduced)

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I receive a lot of questions from parents with infants four to six months old who question if their child is developmentally ready to start solids. It is understandable with conflicting opinion over when to start solids and how to handle that uncertain “in between” when technically you can feed your child and yet might choose not to.

If starting with purees and spoon-feeding, you may be considering starting as early as four months old. At this stage and age, infants are usually unable to sit unsupported. They may not be able to reach for their own food nor handle a spoon independently. Often unable to swallow standard stage 1 solids, parents may thin purees before putting them on a spoon and serving to the child. While self-feeding is inappropriate at this age, parents may feel successful with spoon-feeding solids at this age.

Alternatively, those who wait closer to six months of age to starting solids may have a different experience due to different developmental milestones being met. At this age/stage, infants show the skills necessary to become more independent in their eating. Often able to sit unassisted (or sitting upright with minimal support) and reach for safe first foods offered, infants around six months can begin to safely coordinate self-feeding using an approach like BLW or to begin traditional stage 1 solids.

If you find yourself somewhere in between this window (or even slightly after!) and yet eager to introduce solids, this post will share five ideas for how to involve you infant in meal times before foods are actually offered. Then, you can begin to find the joy of sharing in meals with your infant safely and slowly, based on when they are developmentally ready to do so.

 
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Here are 5 ways to involve infants in meal times (before solids are even introduced)

1 Get comfortable with the routine of having your child join in at meal times

If you are used to being up and about the kitchen at meal times, practice finding new rhythms that will allow you to sit and supervise your newly feeding baby. This will both promote the bonding experience of meal times with your baby while also getting you into the habit of being closely available for safety purposes as well as hands on, as needed, to help with objects that might fall when foods are first introduced.

Preparing for this new season also will likely demand you looking at your schedule to determine when and how you can begin to meal prep a bit, or at least so that there are nourishing options available for your infant. Many items can be made in advance and stored for infants (being purees or BLW options) so that you aren’t having to cook on the spot each time food is to be offered. Depending on the habits your family has for cooking versus eating more convenience foods, this is something to think through so that starting solids becomes less stressful.

For reference: When I meal prep based on my seasonal meal planner, I consider what items I can slightly modify to make baby-friendly for our infant.

2 Choose a high chair

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 Melanie Potock shared the following in a post provided on Science of Mom. According to Melanie, 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 high chair with a removable tray (so that you can pull the baby up to the table) allows for 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.

For reference, these are the chairs we have/most commonly use:

  • Engaging infants at the table: We use the Stokke Tripp Trapp chair with our third child and have really liked it. It was a bit of a learning curve, which is another reason why I encourage families to get to know their child’s high chair a bit before food is offered. This sets parents and child up for less meal time stress and more feeding success.

  • Engaging infants in the kitchen: We also have this counter-top option, which is another way to engage our babies before food is offered. While we rarely ever offer food in this chair (because it lacks the 90-degree support addressed above), it has allowed each of our children the chance to be up at the counter in a safe and secure way while I am preparing meals.

  • Engaging infants on the go: When traveling or at others houses, we have loved this option as it is easy to pack and set up.

3 Practice having your child sit in their high chair

Many parents ask me what to do when their child doesn’t like the high chair. One of the first things I like to find out is, how much experience did the infant have in the high chair before solids were introduced? If a parent knows that their child was comfortably seated and content in their chair prior to solids being introduced, we can begin to evaluate further what is causing the frustration for the child. If, however, the grand introduction to solids also starts with a high chair the child is unfamiliar with, it can be hard to differentiate if a child is uncomfortable with the opportunity to eat itself or their placement in their new chair.

I have some of my favorite chairs linked to my Amazon shop, but in general, the most ideal options are those that stabilize the ankles, knees, and core all at 90 degree angles (you can read more about this here). This will help to stabilize your child properly for safe feeding from infancy on through their potentially picky eating years (when placement can also be important).

4 Consider other essentials

Wondering how to minimize baths after every meal? What bibs are the most practical to pack for daycare or keep at home for easy cleaning? What about your floors - are you ready for the splatter paint project your infant will soon be working on (that you will want to work against)?

All of these things will quickly come up as you introduce solids. Particularly with self feeding where things get a bit messier, you might want to be prepared so that you find yourself less frustrated and more at peace over the process that will soon take place.

For reference, here are some of the “essentials” in my book:

  • LOTS of wash clothes: I ordered these before we started BLW with our third and we use one per meal to wipe him down with. Then, I toss them in the wash each night. It is so nice to have some fresh, soft wash clothes on hand ready to help clean up once solids are started.

  • Splat mat: This Splat Mat is maybe my number one item, outside of the necessities of a high chair and wash cloth. Otherwise, this thing saves me again and again from the mess that happens on the floor once self-feeding begins. Bumkins ships quickly, which is good because if you start self-feeding without a splat mat, you will likely realize very quickly how much you need one of these. You can also use an old towel, table cloth, or bedsheet (for more full coverage), but I find the lined nature of the splat mat (or lined table cloth) helps protect the floors and wipe clean even easier. You can get 15% off any sized order on Bumkins.com using code VEGGIESVIRTUE15.

  • Bibs: We love our Bapron Baby Bibs for some full body coverage that is machine washable. You can get 10% off using coupon code, “VEGGIES10.” We also have these silicone ones that easily wipe clean or these from Bumkins, which also wash up easily alongside our Baprons.

  • Utensils: With self-feeding, you don’t necessarily need any utensils. However, some babies might enjoy the chance to self-feed themselves with them when given the chance (as addressed below).

  • Cups/Straws: Around six months, infants are encouraged to start using open cup and straws. Offering these instead of 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 an ezpz Tiny Cup may help introduce your infant to a new mouth feel for consuming fluids.

5 Practice with utensils

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.

If you are feeling really brave, consider giving your child a bowl that will stick to the table or their high chair tray 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 with some “reward” for their hard work (compared to a bare spoon). This is best executed using products like this first feeding set so that the silicone slip-proof base helps lessen the chance for an utter mess or your hard earned breastmilk (or formula) ending up on the floor.

For reference, these are the utensils we have/most commonly use:

  • Goo-tensils: These are the ideal pre-feeder utensil. Unfortunately, they are rarely available on Amazon due to limited supply from Num Num. I spoke with a representative from their team and was advised that directly on their site or from local small shops may be the best places to find these until more retailers are restocked. I had to pay twice the price of the set we have due to such limited supply (on Amazon).

  • Chewtensils: These are a great option to begin introducing once infants begin to master bringing a utensil to their mouth. Use code VEGGIESVIRTUE15 for 15% off any sized order on Bumkins.com.

In Summary

Hopefully this helps give you some items to brainstorm on before starting solids. With a little pre-planning, you can plan on a smoother start to solids - whenever that might be!

Do you still want more help with how to get started in introducing solids?

I am a member of the International Infant Nutrition Network of Registered Dietitians. This network provides evidenced-based resources for families who want information and support with introducing solid using a Baby Led Weaning approach. For more information on the courses available, please visit here.