Is your baby ready for solid food?

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As soon as my son could sit up on his own, we’d squeeze his fat little legs into his high chair and pull him up to the table while we ate. He’d wave his tiny silicone spoon and watch every morsel that went into our mouths with intense longing — not to mention plenty of drool.

At a little older than five months, we finally gave in and started feeding him tiny dollops of brown-rice cereal. Within a couple days, we’d moved on to bananas and sweet potatoes. I felt a tad uneasy, knowing I was contravening long-standing guidelines from both the World Health Organization (WHO) and Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS), which recommend feeding babies nothing but breastmilk (or formula) for their first six months. But the joy on that baby’s face as he attempted to shove gooey veggies into his mouth — well, how could I deny him?

“It’s a bit of a difficult issue,” says Barbara Grueger, a paediatrician in Whitehorse, and member of the CPS’s Community Paediatrics Committee. “Most children can have all their nutritional needs met by maternal milk until six months, without needing anything except vitamin D.” But she admits that the WHO’s six-month recommendation − upon which the CPS’s own guidelines are based — is geared toward a more global perspective, including countries where clean water and wholesome food are scarce. “There is some discussion around whether or not this is necessarily the best advice for developed countries with a clean water supply,” she says. “The vast majority of children will start sometime between five to six months.”

Sherene Sieben, a registered dietitian with Health Stand Nutrition Consulting in Calgary, agrees. “If you can absolutely wait until six months, do it,” says Sieben. “But I also think there are some babies who are ready by five months.” Her own daughter, who’s now 10, began eating solids at five-and-a-half months. “She was completely ready to eat and to take the spoon away from us. I wasn’t going to wait until six months.” There are a couple of other signs to watch for, Sieben says. “If they can sit up and support themselves, if they can lean forward in a high chair, and if they’re really engaged, then they’re ready.” Besides, she adds, babies ingest only a tiny amount of food at the start.

(I can attest that the vast majority of that lovingly homemade squash purée will end up plastered in your baby’s hair and wedged between the floorboards, not in her mouth.) “Introducing solid food is not for calories. It’s really for skill and food repertoire,” says Sieben.

But just about everyone agrees that introducing solids before four months is too early: Not only is it a choking hazard, but it also increases the likelihood of obesity later on. Recently, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed 1,334 moms and found that more than 40 percent of them had introduced solids before four months — and almost one-tenth had started solids at four weeks — despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its solid-food guidelines last year from between four and six months to six months, period.

By the one-year mark, your baby should be eating two or three meals a day (plus snacks) to replenish his iron stores, which begin to run out after six months, says Grueger. If your little one isn’t a fan of rice cereal — which, let’s face it, tastes like cardboard — try iron-rich foods like lentils, tofu, fish, cheese and meat. (The CPS now recommends introducing these foods right away, rather than waiting the traditional nine to 12 months.)

In my experience, it wasn’t long before both my babies grew into truculent toddlers who ate nothing but toast and cheese, so enjoy every enthusiastic bite while you still can.

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