Good nutrition and healthy eating is important for everyone. It is especially important in the early years as children have very specific energy and nutrient requirement; as it is a time of rapid growth and development.
With an increasing amount of information available online, parents can often receive mixed messages about when to start introducing solid foods and which foods to offer. It can be difficult to navigate through countless forums and online message boards and distinguish evidence based information from opinion. Parents will often seek advice from family members and friends which may add to the confusion around when’s the best time to start and which foods should be given.Research has established a strong connection between the early eating habits and future eating habits of individuals. If a child is exposed to a varied and healthy diet in infancy they are more likely to continue these practices into later years; the same can be said for unhealthy eating behaviours. Therefore, when it comes to introducing solid foods, the age to start and the types of foods offered are important.
When are families introducing solid foods?
The most recent Infant Feeding Survey (IFS), published in 2010, revealed that the majority of parents had introduced solid foods before the Department of Health’s (DOH) recommended age of around 6 months, with 75% of mothers having started by the time their baby was 5 months old. Those families that followed the DOH guidance around the introduction of solids, reported that information received from health professionals or written information resources were the most influential in their decision to wait until around 6 months. While the IFS survey revealed some really positive trends in the types of foods babies were offered, fruits and vegetables, baby rice and a variety of homemade foods, 38% of mothers reported offering their baby ready- made baby food. These often contain ingredients such as salt and sugar, are expensive in comparison to homemade foods and don’t allow for the more gradual progression of thicker more lumpy textures. Some baby food products will contain ingredients unsuitable for infants. For example, egg and cows milk* should not be introduced to infants until they are over the age of 6 months. However, a jar of egg custard baby food will be advertised as suitable from 4 months. If a parent were to give this to their baby under the age of 6 months, it could increase the risk of a cows milk or egg allergy.
(* cows milk can only be introduced as an ingredient in food from 6 months and is not suitable as a main drink until the child is 1 year of age.)
This demonstrates that discussion with health professionals around the safe and appropriate introduction of solid foods can help families make informed choices that will benefit the health of their infant. It’s essential that all families receive consistent evidence based advice and support as many complimentary feeding practices today do not reflect DOH guidelines.
To help ensure consistently across the health professional workforce, Early Start Nutrition deliver Food and Nutrition for Infants training. This supports health professionals in reviewing current guidance and recommendations around the introduction of solid foods and how best to communicate key messages to families. The training explores the following topics:
- The safe storage and preparation of breast and formula milk
- Evidence based information on the importance of the safe introduction of solid foods
- The DOH recommendations on the appropriate age to introduce solid foods and signs for readiness
- Suitable first foods to offer infants, placing emphasis on homemade family foods
- Texture progression and the introduction of finger foods
- How best to manage food refusal and the strategies that can help to support and encourage infants
- How much is enough- food intake and portion size.
- The recommended age to introduce cups and/ or free flow beakers
- Suitable drinks for infants
- The Healthy Start Scheme and government guidelines on vitamin drops
- Resources and evidence based information sources to help support you in communicating key messages
Tops tips for introducing solid foods
- The DOH recommend introducing solid foods around 6 months of age
- If food is introduced before the age of 6 months, certain foods need to be avoided due to the risk of allergy. This is discussed in more detail in the training
- First foods to offer include: soft mashed fruit and cooked vegetables, starchy foods such as mashed potato and plain baby rice and iron rich foods such as mashed chicken, flaked tuna and mashed lentils. Remember: babies food doesn’t need salt or sugar added to it as we don’t want them to develop a taste for it
- The texture of babies food should gradually become thicker and lumpier to help develop their biting and chewing skills
- Finger food should be encourage from around 7 months to encourage babies to self feed
- Homemade foods are much more nutritious for infants and exposes them to family foods
- Infants should be encouraged to explore food and make mess
- The amount of food babies will eat often varies from day to day and even from meal to meal. They will eat as much as they need
- Babies like to copy so eating together as a family will help babies to learn
- A cup or free flow beaker should be introduced from the age of 6 months
- Some infants will need to be given vitamin drops.
It’s our job to make sure families get the advice and support they need to give their babies the best start in life!