In recent years we’ve seen the rise of baby-led weaning as an alternative to spoon-feeding purées when infants are starting solid food. Along with this idea has come a common phrase that “food before one is just for fun”.
I can understand where this idea originated. When transitioning to solid foods the majority of the child’s nutritional requirements still come from milk feeds. During the 6–8 month age only around 5–8% of a child’s energy will come from solid foods. This will shift during the 9–11 month mark with the child getting closer to 25% of their energy from food. However, milk, be it breastmilk or formula is still where most of a child’s nutrition comes from.
So does this make the process of introducing solid foods less important or necessary? Is it merely just for fun? People could be led to believe that if they are seeing the introduction of solid foods as only providing a small part of the child's nutrition. However, there are many other important reasons why we introduce these foods in addition to milk around the time a child is 6 months.
Why is introducing solid foods at this age so vital?
To prevent nutrient deficiencies. Particularly for Iron and Zinc. When a baby is born they have some stores of Iron however around the 4–6 month mark these stores begin to dwindle and additional nutrition is required to help meet the baby's requirement for these nutrients. With increasing rates of Iron deficiency worldwide it is important that Iron-rich foods are introduced as a priority during this period. Solid foods also provide energy, protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals which are important for growth, cognitive development, and maturing of muscles, bones and organs.
Developmental reasons: Research shows there is a critical developmental window at which we should introduce solids to our children. This is between 6–9 months. Children need to progress to a more mashed texture before the age of 9 months and more chewy textures before the age of 10 months. If the progression of eating to these textures is delayed these children often have more feeding problems and difficulties accepting family foods as they grow older.
Reducing the risk of allergies. In previous years it was advised to avoid the introduction of potentially allergenic foods till the child was older than one. However, studies now show that earlier introduction of potentially allergenic foods may reduce the chance of developing food allergy, particularly in babies with severe eczema or egg allergy. These foods include egg, peanut, cow’s milk (dairy), tree nuts, soy, sesame, wheat, fish and other seafood. A child should be exposed to these foods before the age of 1 (even those who have a higher risk of developing an allergy).
Taste development: Infants need exposure to a wide range of tastes and flavours. Studies show that if a child is exposed to a more flavour variety they will be more accepting of novel flavours in the future.
Social aspects of feeding: Part of learning to eat is also learning that mealtimes are about more than just food. It’s also a time for connection and coming together. The responsive and reciprocal process of eating and feeding is an important time for learning about relationships food and communication.
It’s essential when we are feeding we are following our baby's cues. Are they hungry? are they developmentally ready for that texture? are they letting us know that they’re still processing that mouthful and are not ready for another bite? Are they full and have had enough? have we set them up for success with feeding by offering solids at a time when they’re not too tired or hungry to enjoy this experiment?
Parents care deeply about what’s right for their children. Having a rigid set of rules and advice around feeding makes it difficult to tune into your baby's individual needs and development. You can choose to feed your child by spoon feeding, using baby-led weaning or a combination of the two, whatever is best for you and your child. All of these approaches can be responsive and in partnership with your child when you tune into their cues.
From a professional perspective, I believe, a combined approach to feeding can have many advantages. It enables you to choose what works best for your child, and their developmental ability, while also providing family foods in a safe way.