Making Sense of "Stages" and "Steps" on Baby Food Labels

The difference between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd stage baby foods

You'll often encounter charts listing baby foods, how much of them a baby should eat at each stage, and when you should go about introducing them into your child's diet. It would be helpful if baby food products were clearly and consistently labeled so that parents can quickly determine how an option aligns with such suggestions, but brands differ in this regard. The popular brand Gerber has registered trademarks for "1st Foods," "2nd Foods," and "3rd Foods." Other brand labels simply use "1," "2," or "3," which some companies use to refer to the age of the baby and others use to define the stage in which the baby is ready for a certain type of food.

baby food stages
Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell

Baby Food Stages and Steps by Age

The American Academy of Pediatrics, in their "Guide to Your Child's Nutrition," only advises:

"Two rules apply across the board: Begin with stage 1 foods for beginners, and don't offer your child toddler foods, which often contain chunks, until he is an experienced eater."

Most popular brands work around four stages, which coincide with ages 4 to 6 months all the way to 12 months and up.

These stages aren't standardized, but can generally be explained in the following way:

Stage 1: Age 4 to 6 Months

Foods that you might first start your baby on at age 4 to 6 months include single ingredient foods like rice cereal and pureed fruits or vegetables.

Some examples by popular brands include:

  • Beech-Nut Naturals Stage 1
  • Earth's Best 1st Beginner Foods
  • Gerber 1st Foods
  • Heinz Step 1 Beginner Foods

Stage 2: Age 7 to 8 Months

When your baby is 7 to 8 months old, he can eat "2" baby foods, which include single ingredient and combination foods that are strained instead of being pureed.

Examples of stage 2 foods include:

  • Beech-Nut Naturals Stage 2 Apples & Bananas
  • Earth's Best Corn and Butternut Squash
  • Gerber 2nd Foods Garden Vegetables
  • Heinz Strained Vegetables

Stage 3: Age 9 to 12 Months

When your baby is 9 to 12 months old, he should be ready for "3" baby foods. These foods have more texture and small chunks to encourage chewing.

Examples of stage 3 foods include:

  • Beech-Nut Naturals Stage 3 Chicken Lasagna
  • Earth's Best Chunky Orchard Fruit (Chunky Blend)
  • Gerber 3rd Foods Broccoli & Carrots With Cheese
  • Heinz Vegetables Beef & Spaghetti (Junior Foods)

These jars of baby food are easy to spot because they are usually bigger than stage 1 and 2 varieties, since your baby likely have a bigger appetite by the time he is ready for these foods.

Stage 4: After Age 12 Months

Your baby will progress to "4" foods or table food at the end of his first year or the beginning of his second year. At this point, you may be feeding your baby the food that the rest of the family is eating, or you might continue to buy commercially prepared toddler foods.

Examples include:

  • Beech-Nut Naturals Table Time Peach Dices in White Grape Juice From Concentrate
  • Earth's Best Toddler Breakfasts, Snacks, and Entrees
  • Gerber Toddler Foods Apple Mango Brown Rice With Vanilla
  • Heinz Step 4 Toddler Cuisine Chicken & Stars With Vegetables & Gravy

Age Recommendations for Introducing Solids

Keep in mind that the age recommendations for when you start each stage are just general guidelines. Some babies are ready for stage 2 foods before they are 7 to 8 months old, while others might not be ready for them until they are 9 to 10 months old. Instead of starting each stage of baby food at the ages listed, it is usually more important that your baby advances through the different stages in his own good time.

The initial first step to starting your baby on solids at 4 or 6 months varies greatly from child to child and depends on your baby, but one constant is that a baby should be able to first sit up and have good head and neck control.

Be sure to talk to your pediatrician if your child gets "stuck" in any one particular stage and can't handle next-stage foods.

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