This post is part of our ongoing Five Questions With series, in which we interview a pregnancy, postpartum, or baby health and wellness expert on their particular area of focus. Is there an individual or topic you’d like to see featured in “Five Questions With”? Send us an e-mail.
This month on the HMHB blog, we’re focusing on baby and toddler feeding. Today we’re chatting with Megan Garcia, a mama to two boys, and the creator of First Foods & Beyond. First Foods & Beyond is a program that walks you through introducing solid foods to your baby with a meal plan, detailed food lists, schedule, recipes, shopping lists, and more. It’s a great resource for the mama who feels overwhelmed with the prospect of introducing solids to her baby. We were thrilled to pick her brain and get answers to our questions related to baby feeding! Want to connect with Megan? Follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.
What foods should be introduced first?
I’m a big fan of animal-based foods (like red meat or liver) as a first food because animal foods are packed with nutrients that the body can easily absorb and use. Plant-based foods, not so much.
There are two things happening that all parents need to know about when their baby begins solids:
1) Your baby needs certain nutrients from food that cannot be found in breastmilk.
2) When beginning solids, your baby will eat very little.
So, if your baby only manages one bite before he begins waving his hands and throwing food in the air, you want to make that bite count! And the way to do this is with foods that are high in nutrients like iron, zinc, vitamin D, and an omega-3 fat called DHA.
Liver is hands down my number one choice for a baby’s first food. It’s a source of all the above nutrients. You can actually find more DHA in beef liver than in meat (assuming it’s grass-fed). Liver is also a source of choline, vitamin B12, and vitamin K2. These nutrients support baby’s brain and immune system development.
How often and how much food should be given?
When starting first foods, usually it’s a good idea to offer solids two times a day. As your baby gets closer to 8 months or if he seems hungry, up it to three. As for quantity, it really depends on how you feed your baby and your baby’s appetite.
I say how because folks who follow baby-led weaning may notice that their baby eats less. When just beginning solids, it’s easier for baby to swallow a puree than finger food. If you notice your baby isn’t eating much and you want to get certain nutrients in (like iron, which babies really need), I recommend a combination of both: Feed baby an iron-rich puree while he has something to hold and suck on.
Usually your baby will let you know when he’s had enough to eat. He may begin dropping food, playing with it, or showing interest in something else. In my opinion, it’s never a good idea to force baby to eat or encourage “one more bite.”
What are the pros/cons of of babyled weaning (BLW) vs. purees?
If I’m being totally honest I’m not a hardcore fan of one over the other. Here’s why…
The basic idea for BLW is that at 6 months, baby is developmentally ready to grab large, soft pieces of food. The American Academy of Pediatrics asserts that it’s healthy for baby to self-feed, and self-regulate at that age, as well.
The argument against purees and for BLW sometimes cites a 2012 paper that links purees with an increased risk of obesity. One headline was, “Spoon feeding makes babies fatter.” But I’m not sure that’s the whole story. What I’m more interested in is baby’s connection to food: tasting it, feeling it, wanting it, and feeling “done.”
With a strict puree approach, a baby may not have the chance to feel food, or practice holding, sucking, gnawing, chewing, and swallowing. This may make it harder to introduce texture later on. Research has found that if you wait until after 9 months to introduce texture, you may be encouraging picky eating in childhood.
When beginning solids, some mamas might feel worried that their baby isn’t reaching developmental milestones if baby rejects self-feeding or eats too little for BLW to be sustainable. I want these mamas to know that full BLW isn’t the only healthy way to feed their baby. They’re doing an awesome job by responding to baby’s cues while feeding. Some babies need a little more space and room to get comfy with food. Our job is to adapt and help our babies meet their nutritional needs, whether it’s with homemade purees, soft pieces of food, or a little bit of both.
What are the most common myths regarding first foods?
Myth #1: Food before one is just for fun. Okay, I think most folks know this is a myth. But I still hear it through social media, so I know that on some level the myth lives on.
For breastfed babies, food before one is serious business. We know that low levels of iron have a subtle and irreversible impact on motor skills, problem solving, and even emotional regulation. For example, a recent study found that iron-deficiency anemia in babyhood could be linked to behavior issues later on.
Myth #2 A baby cannot digest grains until his molars are in because he doesn’t have enough enzymes (specifically, pancreatic amylase). This is big in the traditional foods community. What folks don’t realize is that common first foods like avocado or banana also have quite a bit of starch, requiring amylase for digestion. And something like potato has just as much starch as grains, meaning it requires the same amount of amylase for digestion.
So, basing the “no grain” rule on amylase doesn’t really make sense. Babies do make varying amounts of salivary and pancreatic amylase and breast milk also contains amylase.
You might still want to avoid grains and legumes because they contain compounds that bind to minerals (but so do dairy and egg yolk). If grains are your personal norm and your baby’s iron levels are good, mamas can choose to give their babies fermented grains before 12 months. These plant foods also have fiber in them, which diversifies baby’s microbes. So again, you don’t need to avoid grains due to the amylase issue, but you may wish to avoid them for other personal/health reasons (gut health, allergies, sensitivities, and so on).
What does the latest research say about the introduction of solids and food allergies?
The latest research (with peanuts and with eggs) says there’s a sweet spot you want to target when introducing allergens. Offering your baby allergenic foods from 6 to 11 months may help to protect against the development of food allergy later on.
Research also says that the baby microbiome (the little ecosystem of microbes living in baby’s gut) plays a role. We know that gut health is affected even from within the womb, so keeping mama’s gut healthy plays a role in baby’s gut health and possibly in reducing future allergies for baby.
The take-home: Once your baby begins eating solids, you want to introduce a wide variety of foods, including allergenic foods. A variety of food feeds different microbes in baby’s gut, which supports a flexible immune system.
Bonus: What did you feed your kids yesterday? What did you eat yesterday?
In the morning my 8-month-old had a bone marrow fritter (click for the recipe on my blog) and for dinner he ate a version of what we ate: slow cooker chicken (a strip of leg meat) and purple sweet potato roasted in lard. My five-year-old ate crispy shredded chicken, sauerkraut, avocado, and a sprinkle of pine nuts. I gave him purple sweet potatoes, but he left most of them on the plate. I had the same bowl plus cilantro.
East, P., Delker, E., Lozoff, B., Delva, J., Castillo, M., & Gahagan, S. (2017). Associations among infant iron deficiency, childhood emotion and attention regulation, and adolescent problem behaviors. Child development.
Coulthard, H., Harris, G., & Emmett, P. (2009). Delayed introduction of lumpy foods to children during the complementary feeding period affects child’s food acceptance and feeding at 7 years of age. Maternal & child nutrition, 5(1), 75-85.
Ierodiakonou, D., Garcia-Larsen, V., Logan, A., Groome, A., Cunha, S., Chivinge, J., … & Tagiyeva-Milne, N. (2016). Timing of allergenic food introduction to the infant diet and risk of allergic or autoimmune disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Jama, 316(11), 1181-1192.
Rachid, R., & Chatila, T. A. (2016). The role of the gut microbiota in food allergy. Current opinion in pediatrics, 28(6), 748-753.
Megan Garcia is a mama to two boys, has a master’s degree in Traditional Oriental Medicine, and is the creator of First Foods & Beyond. Professionally, she has written about gut and immune health for nearly a decade. When Megan found out she was pregnant in 2011, all of her attention turned towards her baby’s first 1000 days – nine months of pregnancy and the first two years of development. Combined with a deep love for food, it was only natural for her to create a program about first foods.
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