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A Solid Foundation

Follow the Food Cues

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Feb. 4, 2002 -- When Kyra Hurlbut was 5 months old, she began trying to snatch food from her mother's spoon. Her mother, Lydia, knew that this was a cue that Kyra was ready for solid foods. With the first cereal serving, it was love at first bite. "She chowed the whole thing," Mom says.

Eating "real food" is an exciting milestone -- one of the first visible signs that your baby is growing beyond the infant stage. But don't be too eager for your little one to grow up. Eating solid foods is an important transition, and you'll want to take the time to do it right. Pushing your baby to eat solids too soon may be setting him up for bad eating habits later. And, contrary to popular belief, starting solids sooner won't hasten a longer night's sleep.

Babies are usually ready to eat solids at about 4 to 6 months when they've lost their tongue thrust reflex and are able to take food into their mouths and swallow it. By then, a baby's body is better able to digest solids and filter out harmful food allergens, as well. Rather than waiting for some magic age to switch to solid foods, parents are better off waiting for cues from their baby that they're ready for the new experience, says Daniel Kessler, MD, director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at The Children's Health Center of St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix.

"Feeding solid foods should be a participatory process," says Kessler. "Otherwise, you're force feeding them, more or less, and the danger with that is you're overriding their normal regulatory capacity to know when they're hungry and when they're satiated."

That's particularly important these days with obesity on the rise -- about 14% of children 6 to 11 and about 12% of adolescents are overweight. "We're looking at what are the early factors for the development of obesity, and some of it might have to do with these early feeding habits," says Kessler.

Here are some signs that baby is ready for solid foods:

  • She is able to indicate in some way that she's ready to be fed, such as opening her mouth when you touch a spoon to her lips.
  • He is able to eat sitting up and has the oral motor skills to move the food from the front of his mouth to the back and swallow.
  • She is able to signal when she's had enough, such as turning her head, showing displeasure, or using a hand to push the spoon away.
  • He shows a distinct interest in your food, grabbing at items on your plate or utensils.

If your little one doesn't seem ready, don't sweat it. Put the cereals back on the shelf, go back to breast- or bottle-feeding exclusively (which is all your baby needs nutritionally for the first six to nine months anyway), and try again in another week or two. It's more important that mealtimes are fun, rather than a battle.

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