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A Parents Guide

to Feeding Your Baby

That first year of life, your baby will hit so many milestones: their first smile, their first coo, their first wave, and maybe even those first steps. But just as important as all these monumental moments is what's on their plate (and in their bottle). It sets the stage for healthy eating habits that they can keep for life.

"All your feeding choices for your baby during the first year of life are very important because more growth occurs during this time than at any other," says Steven Abrams, MD, a professor in the department of pediatrics at University of Texas Dell Medical School in Austin.

Here's your guide for everything from how to nurse like a pro to choosing the right formula to when to start solids.

The first feeding decision you'll have to make for your little one is whether to breastfeed or give them formula -- or a combination. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says breast milk is the best nutrition for infants. Babies should be only breastfed for the first 6 months, according to the AAP. After the baby begins to eat other foods, the AAP encourages mothers to continue to breastfeed until at least the baby's first birthday, or longer if the child and the parent are willing. Breastfeeding up to 2 years and beyond is beneficial for both, especially for mothers.

In addition to the many health benefits for both baby and mother, it saves money. If you nurse, you don't have to pay for formula, which can be expensive. You'll also save money on health care, since babies who breastfeed are less likely to get sick.

But breastfeeding can be hard to stick to for the long term. While more than 80% of new moms nurse immediately after birth, only a little more than half are still doing it at 6 months.

"It can be very hard for moms to breastfeed exclusively, especially since many have to go back to their jobs, and many workplaces still don't have supportive policies," says Abrams.

Any amount of breastfeeding is better than none, he stresses, so if you can only do it for a couple of months or have to supplement with formula, you should feel good about your choice.

Not all moms can breastfeed, either. If you have HIV, for example, you shouldn't nurse. If your child is premature or has other medical conditions, it may be harder for them to learn to breastfeed too. "No mom should feel ashamed if she has to give her baby a bottle." Abrams says.

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Baby Bottles

Tanya Altmann, MD, pediatrician and author of What to Feed Your Baby, Calabasas, CA

Philips Avent Wide-Neck Bottle

Gladys Vallespir Ellet, nurse coordinator for lactation services, New York

Comotomo Natural Feel Baby Bottle

Dr. Brown's Wide Neck Baby Bottle

If you decide to nurse, be forewarned that the first few weeks are the hardest. "It was by far the most exhausting thing I ever personally went through," says Chanda Bradshaw, MD, associate medical director of Well Newborn Care at Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone Health and mom of three kids. "Even as a pediatrician myself, I was surprised that my babies wanted to nurse so much, really every 2 to 3 hours."

The good news is after the first couple of weeks, you and your infant will naturally settle into a routine, she says. Here's how to move that along:

Make sure your baby is latched on correctly. Look for these signs that they are:

  • Their mouth is open wide with lips turned out.
  • They suck your whole areola, not just your nipple.
  • Their chin and nose are resting against your breast.
  • They suck deeply, in rhythmic bursts separated by pauses.
  • You can hear them swallowing regularly.
  • Your nipples don't hurt.

If you notice that your baby sucks only on your nipple or in a light, quick manner, you hear clicking noises, or experience nipple pain throughout the feeding, seek help from the hospital pediatrician or lactation consultant, Bradshaw says. These are all signs your infant isn't latched on correctly.

Be prepared for cluster feeding. This is when your newborn treats your breasts like an all-you-can-eat buffet. They can nurse as often as every 30 to 60 minutes, for hours at a time. "It's perfectly normal -- it helps to bring in your milk," Bradshaw says. "The light at the end of the tunnel is that your baby will conk out for a few hours afterwards. It's important to make sure that you sleep when they do, so you can be well rested for the next go-round."

Pay attention to hunger cues. You should nurse whenever they show signs that they're hungry. This may be crying. It may also be more subtle signs like moving their head around as if looking for your breast or sucking on their hands, says Gladys Vallespir Ellet, a registered nurse and nurse coordinator for lactation services at NYU Langone Health. Each time you breastfeed, switch the side you start with. This will help both your breasts continue to make milk.

Check their diapers. By day 4 or 5 after birth, babies should have at least 6 wet diapers a day and at least four yellow BMs a day. This is a sign they're getting enough milk.

While you're breastfeeding, you should make sure to follow a balanced diet just as you did when you were pregnant. And this is no time to cut calories: Your body needs an extra 500 calories every day to keep up with your needs and your baby's.

What to Eat When You’re Breastfeeding

To nurse successfully, you'll need the following:

Breast pump. Whether you need it to go back to work or for an occasional date night, a breast pump is key for those times that you need to take a break from breastfeeding. The good news is your health insurance must cover the cost of a breast pump. The bad news is you may be limited to certain brands. Fortunately, most of the main brands are usually covered by insurance, says Syeda Amna Husain, MD, a pediatrician in Marlboro, NJ. "I personally love the cordless pumps, like the Medela Freestyle Flex, as you can be on a Zoom call and stick the pump right into your bra and no one will know what you're doing," she says.

Nursing bras. Make sure you have at least three to wear while breastfeeding, says Polly Gannon, a lactation consultant at Calabasas Pediatrics in Calabasas, CA. Avoid ones with underwire. These can put pressure on milk ducts, which can impact supply. They also should be stretchy to accommodate breast changes that happen during nursing and have thick back closures with at least four hooks for support. "I personally like Medela's sleep bra because it's made of fabric that wicks moisture away, which is good if you leak milk at night," Gannon says. Other bras Gannon likes are Belly Bandit, which comes with removable pads, or, for a more romantic option, Cosabella Laced In Aire Nursing Bralette.

Nipple balm. Just like moisturizer can soothe dry, chapped hands, the right nipple balm can do wonders for sore nipples. "They help slow the loss of moisture from your skin so it's less likely to dry out from your baby's constant nursing," Gannon says. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using medical-grade purified lanolin. Another option are products made with olive oil, which is safe for babies to eat, Gannon says. She likes Whole Foods' Organic Nipple Butter or Motherlove Nipple Cream. Don't use petroleum jelly, she notes, as that's not safe for your child.

Nursing pillows. A breastfeeding pillow can ease strain on your back, neck, and arms and provides support to your baby, says Tanya Altmann, MD, assistant clinical professor at Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA and author of What to Feed Your Baby. "Most women stop needing one after the first month of breastfeeding, but it can help a lot at the beginning," she says.

The Boppy nursing pillow is great for brand new moms since its U-shape design easily contours to a new mom's still swollen tummy, Gannon says. She also likes My Brest Friend's pillow, as it has a wraparound design and backrest to provide extra support for both mom and baby.

Breast Pumps

Syeda Amna Husain, MD, pediatrician, Marlboro, NJ

"You can be on a Zoom call and stick the pump right into your bra and no one will know what you're doing."

Medela Freestyle Flex Cordless Breast Pump

Nipple Creams

Polly Gannon, lactation consultant, Calabasas, CA

Earth Mama Organic Natural Nipple Butter

Motherlove Nipple Cream

Nursing Bras

Polly Gannon, lactation consultant, Calabasas, CA

"It's made of fabric that wicks moisture away, which is good if you leak milk at night."

Medela Sleep Bra

Belly Bandit Nursing Bra

Cosabella Laced In Aire Nursing Bralette

Nursing Pillows

Polly Gannon, lactation consultant, Calabasas, CA

Boppy Nursing Pillow

My Brest Friend Nursing Pillow

Even if you plan to exclusively breastfeed, you want to still acquaint your baby with a bottle around 3 or 4 weeks. "By then, you've established your milk supply, but it's still early enough that your baby isn't likely to refuse a bottle," Ellet says.

Here's what you need to know, whether you're nursing, formula feeding, or a bit of both.

Expect to feed frequently, at least at first. It's true that formula-fed infants don't require as many "meals" or "snacks" as breastfed ones. But all newborns have small tummies. Expect yours to take 2 to 3 ounces of formula every 3 to 4 hours. By the end of the first month, they'll take at least 4 ounces per feed, about every 4 hours. At 6 months, you can expect them to eat 6 to 8 ounces four or five times a day.

If your newborn sleeps longer than 4 to 5 hours, wake them up and offer a bottle.

Formula Options

Cow's milk-based formula. This accounts for about 80% of all formula sold, Altmann says. Milk sugar has been added to make it similar in composition to breast milk. The butter and fat have also been removed and replaced with vegetable oil and other fats that are easier for your baby to digest.

Soy formula. These are sometimes recommended for babies who can't digest lactose, the main carbohydrate in cow's milk formula. Just keep in mind that up to half of all infants who have a milk allergy are also sensitive to soy protein, points out Altmann. Therefore, soy formula may not be the best option.

Hydrolyzed Formulas. These formulas take cow's milk proteins and break them into very small pieces. If your baby is truly allergic to cow's milk, they will need a type of formula known as extensively hydrolyzed formula, like Enfamil's Nutramigen or Pregestimil, or Similac's Alimentum. These formulas tend to be more expensive than either milk-based or soy formula.

Best Type of Bottle

Bottles can be glass, plastic, or a hybrid of both. Some may have a plastic liner in them. These can help limit the amount of air your infant swallows. This can cut down on fussing, but they're more expensive, Altmann says. Glass bottles don't have chemicals that can potentially get into the baby's formula, but can easily break. As your baby starts to hold the bottle themselves, you'll want to stay away from breakable glass bottles. Hybrid bottles have a glass liner inside to prevent chemicals from coming into contact with the baby's formula, and a plastic outside that keeps them from breaking. Whatever type you choose, don't use a bottle designed for self-feeding: That can contribute to cavities since it encourages constant feeding, Altmann says.

You don't need to buy a baby sterilizer. You can wash all the items (including the bottle brush) in a dishwasher once a day with hot water and a heating drying cycle. If you don't have a dishwasher, wash them with warm, soapy water, then boil them once a day for 5 minutes. Let them air dry. Like bottles, bottle brushes will also need regular cleaning. Some are dishwasher safe. If they're not, use hot, soapy water. You should also look for bottle brushes that have long handles and a curved brush head, so you can reach all parts of the bottle. Altmann likes the Philips Avent bottle and nipple brush.

There's no correct age to begin solid foods. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that your baby be able to sit in a high chair. For most infants, that is between 4 and 6 months. It's not recommended to start earlier than 4 months, as that's been linked to increased weight gain.

Other signs that they're ready include:

  • They open their mouth when they see food. If they watch you eat and reach for your food, they're probably ready.
  • They can move food from a spoon into their throat. If you offer them a spoonful of rice cereal and it dribbles out of their mouth, they're not ready yet, Bradshaw says. Wait a week or two, then try again.
  • They've doubled their birth weight. That's usually at around 4 months of age.

Remember, breast milk or formula should still be your baby's main source of food until at least 6 months, Bradshaw says.

Baby Probiotics

Tanya Altmann, MD, pediatrician and author of What to Feed Your Baby, Calabasas, CA

"This helps build up the good bacteria in babies' guts, which reduces inflammation that may contribute to colic."

Evivo Baby Probiotic

"You can start with any food -- fruit, a vegetable, even meat -- long as it's pureed," says Sarah Adams, MD, a pediatrician at Akron Children's Hospital. The easiest food, though, is probably infant cereal that's diluted with breast milk or formula. (Altmann recommends oatmeal instead of rice, due to concerns about arsenic). Have your baby nurse or drink part of a bottle first, so they're not starving, then give them a very small amount of food—less than half a spoonful. If they seem confused or spit it out, don't push it. You can try again in a week or two.

After that, introduce one new food from any food group every 3 to 5 days. "You want to space it out, to watch for allergic reactions like vomiting, diarrhea or rashes," explains Altmann. Whenever possible, Altmann recommends that you make your own baby food, rather than rely on commercial brands. A Congressional report released in February 2021 concluded that ingredients in many baby foods, including organic brands, have high levels of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and cadmium.

"You don't have to buy a special blender, but I personally like the BEABA Babycook, which steams and purees your food," Altmann says. "I used to use it every Sunday, freeze individual portions into an old-fashioned ice cube tray, and pop it in the freezer. Each day I'd defrost two cubes of veggies and two cubes of protein for lunch and dinner."

Once your baby reaches 6 months of age, you can begin to introduce more allergenic foods such as eggs, dairy, soy, peanuts, and fish, says Anna Nowak-Wegrzyn, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone, New York. "We know now that if we introduce foods like peanuts early enough, we can significantly lower the risk of children developing that allergy by about 80%," she explains.

The one exception is if your child has severe eczema, she notes, as that puts them at higher risk to develop a food allergy. Check with your pediatrician. They may refer you to an allergist for testing before you give your baby these more allergenic foods.

But within a couple of months of your little one starting solids, "their diet should include a wide variety of pureed foods like meats, cereals, fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish, and whole grains," Nowak-Wegrzyn says. Give them a new food once or twice a week along with foods they eat all the time. If they don't like it, offer it again in a few days. Babies sometimes have to try a new food up to 15 times before they'll eat it.

You can start finger foods once your baby can sit up and bring their hands to their mouth, Altmann says. At first, make sure anything you give them is soft and easy to swallow, she adds. Think small pieces of bananas, well-cooked pasta, or cut-up peas. Once your child becomes a pro with these, you can give them foods that need more chewing, usually around 9 months of age.

At this time, you should move away from purees and canned baby foods. "You especially want to avoid the stage 3 and stage 4 baby foods that have a bunch of ingredients -- you want your baby to get used to the texture of real food," says Beth Saltz, a pediatric dietitian in Woodland Hills, CA.

Your Baby’s First Finger Foods

If your child isn't ready to eat bite-size pieces of what the rest of the family is having for dinner, she recommends that you toss them into the blender or food processor to puree them. "There's no need for a specific baby blender. I like the Cuisinart Smart Stick hand blender, which is small, portable for travel, and very easy to use," she says.

But by the time they reach their first birthday, they should be sitting at the dinner table with the rest of the family, eating what's on the menu along with everyone else.

Baby Food Blenders/Makers

Tanya Altmann, MD, pediatrician and author of What to Feed Your Baby, Calabasas, CA

Beaba Babycook Baby Food Maker

Beth Saltz, pediatric dietitian, Woodland Hills, CA

"Small, portable for travel, and very easy to use."

Cuisinart Smart Stick Hand Blender