Starting Solids and Baby's First Foods

Baby Eating Baby Food With a Spoon
Image Source / Getty Images

The advice to start your baby on solid foods between 4 and 6 months of age isn't just an arbitrary number. For the first six months of life, breast milk or formula meets all of your child's nutritional needs. Even if you start solids at the earlier end of the spectrum, these new foods are not meant to replace breast milk or formula.

Your child's first encounters with food will be supplemental, experimental, and part of a learning process for them rather than being necessary to meet their daily caloric and nutrient requirements.

Signs of Readiness for Solids

From birth, babies are accustomed to getting their food primarily from a breast or bottle via sucking. If anything else manages to make its way into their mouths, infants have a tongue-thrust reflex that kicks in to prevent choking and gagging.

By the age of 4 months, the tongue-thrust reflex will begin to disappear. This is one indicator that your child might be ready to give solid food a try.

However, that's not the only indicator. Your baby's delicate digestive system lacks the enzymes necessary to digest anything but breast milk or formula. By about 4 months of age, infants start to produce the enzymes needed to digest other foods, such as baby cereal.

Your baby has depended on you to support their head when they are upright. When they start to gain control of their own head, it means their neck muscles are strong enough to keep the throat elongated and help prevent choking.

Previously, your baby's reflexes helped keep them fed. Rooting, sucking, and crying let you know that it was time for them to eat. Early on, your baby was not aware of what was going on during feeding.

As they grow, your baby likely began to express interest in seeing the bottle or breast (perhaps even reaching for them) because they recognized them as signals that feeding was on the way.

Around 4 to 6 months of age, your baby will usually start to express interest in what you're eating. They may even try to grab your spoon or get something off your plate.

When they were a newborn, you knew it was time to stop feeding your baby when they stopped sucking or fell asleep. You would also get a clear signal when the bottle or your breasts were empty.

As your baby gets older, they will start to turn their head away from the bottle or breast and refuse to drink more once they are full.

What If Your Baby Is Not Ready?

Here are some readiness skills that your baby needs to have before they will be ready for solids. If your baby has not yet these milestones yet, keep feeding them breast milk or formula.

  • Digestion. If your baby's digestive system isn't ready for solids, introducing them could cause stomach problems.
  • Head support. A baby who can't support their head could easily choke.
  • Reflexes. A baby who is still trying to force food out of their mouth with their tongue is not ready to swallow anything thicker than liquids.
  • Turns their head away. If your baby can't turn away from food, they will learn to keep on eating even though they are full. This could possibly contribute to future obesity.

Keep feeding your baby breast milk or formula until you notice the signs that they are ready for solids. Watch for the cues noted above and trust that your baby will be ready for these new foods in their own time.

Optimal First Foods

Most experts recommend rice cereal as the first solid food for your baby. For one, rice cereal is bland, so your baby won't be offended by a strong taste for their first foray into solids.

Rice Cereal

Rice cereal can be thinned and thickened as necessary, is not highly allergenic, and is easy for your baby to digest.

One concern parents sometimes have with rice cereal is that rice is often heavily sprayed with pesticides. Whether you are making your own rice cereal or buying commercial brands, you might want to consider going for organic baby food rice cereal if you are worried about pesticides.

Fruits and Veggies

That said, don't feel like you have to start with rice cereal if you would prefer not to. Pears, applesauce, peaches, bananas, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and avocados are other solids that can be good options to start with.

Sometimes babies who start out on cereal experience a bit of constipation. Adding something like peaches and avocados can alleviate or prevent constipation.

Potatoes are another good starter food because they're often already part of your family's meals. You won't need to do any extra or special preparation other than mashing and mixing the potatoes with some liquid like formula or breast milk.

Another piece of advice you're likely to hear involves starting fruits. You might have heard that if you introduce your baby to fruit first they will develop a sweet tooth and refuse to eat anything else. However, that's not strictly true.

If your baby refuses strained green beans and other vegetables, it doesn't mean they have been "spoiled" by the natural sweetness of fruits. Rather, they just have not yet developed a liking for the stronger flavor of veggies. A baby who refuses more flavorful foods usually just needs time to adjust.

Homemade or Commercial Food

You can make your own baby food or buy commercial versions. Some benefits of homemade baby food are that it's easy for you to control what goes into it, and there is usually less waste. You can make a lot and freeze it in small batches.

However, commercial versions also have benefits. They are great to have on hand for when you're short on time or to toss in your diaper bag.

Store Bought Foods

If you're using commercially prepared baby food, be sure to check the ingredients. In the baby food aisle, the first foods for starting solids will usually be called just that or have a number 1 on the jar.

"First foods" typically contain a single ingredient, like carrots and water. Commercial baby cereals are usually labeled as a single ingredient as well. Foods meant for older babies often contain a combination of ingredients (such as apples, prunes, and pears).

If you grab a jar of food for the wrong age group, you might inadvertently expose your baby to ingredients that have not yet been introduced into their diet. This isn't necessarily dangerous, but it can make determining a food allergy more difficult.

Preparation

When you're making baby food, keep it thin. It should be slightly thicker than breast milk or formula—think heavy cream or buttermilk. It could coat the back of a spoon, but it should still drip off and not cling or stick to it. The consistency should be even with no lumps. Prepare about 2 teaspoons.

There are some excellent baby food books that can show you how to prepare your baby's first foods. These books will also supply you with new food ideas to try as your baby grows.

Temperature

It's not necessary to heat baby food, though some babies prefer it that way. A good guideline is that if you eat a particular food heated up (like oatmeal or potatoes), warm it for your baby. If you eat the food cold, such as pears or avocados, serve it to your baby chilled.

If you heat food in a microwave, do it at 50 to 60% power and make sure to stir it before serving to get rid of any hot spots. Always test the temperature of the food you've warmed before you feed your baby to avoid burning their mouth.

How to Feed Your Baby

The first few times you try to feed your baby solids, make sure they have a bib on and not much else—it could get messy, and you can save yourself some laundry.

Sit your baby on your lap and start offering the food slowly. Some parenting experts recommend that you feed your baby in an infant seat. This option is fine as long as the seat can be adjusted to be in a mostly upright position. Some seats recline too much to be safely used during feeding.

If your baby isn't sitting well enough for a high chair or in your lap, wait a few more weeks until these milestones have been reached before starting solids.

Use a small spoon—preferably a soft, covered spoon rather than metal (your baby could bite down and hurt their gums on a metal spoon). If your baby doesn't seem to like the spoon, try Dr. William Sears' suggestion: Just use your finger. Make sure your hands are clean, then dip your finger into the food you've prepared. Then, let your baby suck or gum it off.

Keep in mind that your baby is most likely not going to manage to swallow much at first.

Offer tiny amounts, go slow, and be ready for both a mess and some faces that border on hilarity.

Remember that taste is a sense. Compared to other senses, an infant's sense of taste is underdeveloped. It's similar to seeing bright lights or hearing loud noises for the first time. Even if your baby likes the food you've offered, their initial experience with a new taste can be a bit of a shock.

Food Safety

Your baby's saliva contains enzymes that break down food. If you serve your baby food straight from a jar, then return the jar to the fridge, you will find that it's a runny mess the next day.

To avoid this, use a cup or bowl to portion out the amount you think your child is going to eat. At first, this will only be about a teaspoon or so. If your baby wants more, use a fresh spoon to add another teaspoon at a time.

When you're finished, don't add what's in the bowl back to the jar. If there is any left, throw it away.

Food Allergies

Some foods tend to cause allergies more than others, like milk and eggs. Any new foods should be introduced one at a time with a few days to a week between. That way, you can watch for allergic reactions or sensitivities.

For example, if you introduce rice cereal when your baby is 6 months old and find that it is well-tolerated, you could introduce applesauce a few days later. There is no need to stop feeding rice cereal while you are introducing applesauce, as you have established that your baby handles the cereal just fine.

Whether or not there is a family history of allergies, watch for the signs of an allergic reaction after introducing a new food into your child's diet.

If your baby has symptoms of a severe allergic reaction, such as hives, difficulty breathing, swelling of the mouth or throat, vomiting and diarrhea, or loss of consciousness, call 911.

Choking

Many foods can be a choking hazard for babies and young children. Most of these foods won't be a concern until a child is older and starts taking lumpier foods. Still, parents should be aware of foods that carry a risk of choking and know what to do in a choking emergency.

High Chair Safety

While your child is in the high chair, check that they can support themself, which includes holding their head on their own. Always use the strap on the chair and make sure that the chair's tray is not too tight on your baby's chest. Watch your child the entire time they are in the chair.

Clean the high chair after each feeding. Some chairs have removable trays that are small enough to fit in a dishwasher. A thorough trip through the dishwasher is the best way to get all the cracks and crevices where pureed food likes to hide and spoil.

Don't Rush or Overfeed

Take your time to introduce new foods. Pay attention to your child's cues and interest. Plan these new feeding experiences a couple of hours before or after a bottle or breastfeeding. Let your child take the time that they want—whether it's a little or a lot.

If your child seems uninterested, don't worry about it. Try again another time later in the day or on another day altogether.

If your child turns away or refuses to open their mouth, end the feeding and move on to another activity.

Don't feel like your child has to eat any set amount. Let them learn to respect what their body is telling them about their level of fullness and nutritional needs. Babies have very small tummies!

A Word From Verywell

Remember, the first couple of months that your child is being introduced to solids is meant to be mostly a learning experience. Do not skip any feedings or reduce the amount of formula or breast milk your baby has been receiving. They still need all the nutrition they have been getting from the breast or bottle.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Spalinger J, Nydegger A, Belli D, et al. Growth of Infants Fed Formula with Evolving Nutrition Composition: A Single-Arm Non-Inferiority Study. Nutrients. 2017;9(3) doi:10.3390/nu9030219

  2. Klerks M, Bernal MJ, Roman S, Bodenstab S, Gil A, Sanchez-siles LM. Infant Cereals: Current Status, Challenges, and Future Opportunities for Whole Grains. Nutrients. 2019;11(2) doi:10.3390/nu11020473

  3. Callen C, Bhatia J, Czerkies L, Klish WJ, Gray GM. Challenges and Considerations When Balancing the Risks of Contaminants with the Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables for Infants and Toddlers. Nutrients. 2018;10(11) doi:10.3390/nu10111572

  4. Ross ES. Flavor and Taste Development in the First Years of Life. Nestle Nutr Inst Workshop Ser. 2017;87:49-58. doi:10.1159/000448937

  5. Gan J, Bornhorst GM, Henrick BM, German JB. Protein Digestion of Baby Foods: Study Approaches and Implications for Infant Health. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2018;62(1) doi:10.1002/mnfr.201700231

  6. Anagnostou K. Safety of Oral Food Challenges in Early Life. Children (Basel). 2018;5(6) doi:10.3390/children5060065

  7. Lorenzoni G, Azzolina D, Baldas S, et al. Increasing awareness of food-choking and nutrition in children through education of caregivers: the CHOP community intervention trial study protocol. BMC Public Health. 2019;19(1):1156. doi:10.1186/s12889-019-7469-7

  8. Kurinsky RM, Rochette LM, Smith GA. Pediatric injuries associated with high chairs and chairs in the United States, 2003-2010. Clin Pediatr (Phila). 2014;53(4):372-9. doi:10.1177/0009922813510599