Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Baby's First Foods

First Foods

“The book says to take it slow,” my husband called from the living room where he sat leafing through a baby advice book. “Just introduce one new food at a time and wait for at least four days in case the baby has allergies. It’s called the Four-Day Wait Rule.”

I was standing by the stove whisking brown rice I had blended into flour into a pot of boiling water and cooking a yam to mash for our six-month-old daughter who we were just starting on solid foods. She was babbling happily in her high chair, flailing her little legs and cooing in time to her own music. I already had the menu in my head: mashed yam, mashed banana, rice mush, and some cold water to wash it down. But my husband’s caution made me realize I had to choose just one food for today’s mushy feast. Darn!

Starting a baby on solid foods is exciting. They raise their eyebrows at you, pucker their little lips, and look shocked and pleased as they roll the new food around on their tongue, not sure what to do with it. Invariably more food ends up on their bib (and on you) than in their mouths the first few times they try to eat. But get your camera ready—there’s no more photographable moment than that first look of surprise a baby tries solids.

When to eat?

How do you know when your baby is ready to try solid food? Your baby needs to be able to hold his head up by himself and to sit in a high chair, though you may want to hold him on your lap for his first feeding.

“Babies often start showing interest in foods you are eating by watching your movements and opening their mouths,” says Jani Rollins, M.D., a pediatrician in Ashland, Oregon. “They may even reach over and dive into your plate. Most babies have extinguished their tongue thrust reflex by four months. However, most recent recommendations are to wait until closer to six months to start solids,” adds Dr. Rollins.

While six months is a good rule of thumb, there is no reason you have to start babies that young.

My oldest daughter was an eager eater but my second child ate very little solid food until she was well over a year old (she threw up almost everything we offered her). Gauge your child’s interest in food and take your cues from her.

What to eat?

Once you’ve got the bib poised and the highchair ready, what do you feed your baby? The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends starting babies off with iron-fortified rice cereal. Ruth Yaron, author of the bestselling book “Super Baby Food,” adds that other perfect early foods include avocado, banana, and cooked mashed sweet potato.

According to Dr. Rollins, an easily digest high fiber vegetable like puréed cooked squash is an excellent choice for babies who get easily constipated. “Occasionally in babies who tend toward constipation or less frequent pooping, using squash or some other vegetable may prevent worsening of that problem at first,” says Rollins. “You can introduce cereal after that.”

Yaron’s super baby food diet is primarily a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet with the exception of dessicated liver (which is high in vitamin B12, amino acids, and other nutrients), which Yaron recommends adding as a “healthy extra” to a young child’s food. Although I was a vegetarian for 20 years before having children, my husband and I decided to include some organic, nitrate-free meat in our children’s diet. The first time my daughter tried chicken she liked it so much she growled! That said, a baby can be a vegetarian and enjoy good health.

“With careful attention to requirements for iron, vitamins and protein, I think it is safe for babies to be vegetarian,” says Dr. Rollins. “Parents must educate themselves about food options that contain these nutrients.” If you do decide to introduce meat, wait until your baby is eight or nine months old.

Whatever foods you choose to feed your baby, both Rollins and Yaron agree that all of a baby’s early diet should be organic. “If there are pesticides and insecticides in the food—and these are used to kill living things—it’s just intuitive not to put that in a baby’s body,” says Yaron.

What about milk?

Many parents wonder when to introduce cow’s milk products into a baby’s diet. While cow’s milk should not be the staple of a baby’s diet before the age of one, other milk products, like plain whole milk yogurt and cheese, can be introduced to a baby who is nine or ten months old.

Because yogurt contains healthy bacteria that support the digestive system (and help fight against things like yeast infections), doctors often recommend introducing a baby to yogurt first.

“Many families will try a little bit of dairy in the form of yogurt or cottage cheese,” says Dr. Rollins, who also advises her patients to mix cow’s milk with breast milk or formula to get a baby used to the taste.

If you have a history of food allergies in your family, or a sensitivity to dairy products, there is no need to rush to offer your child cow’s milk. The more developed your baby’s digestive system, the more likely he will be to tolerate cow’s milk. Goat milk, goat yogurt, and goat cheese are healthy and more easily digested alternatives to cow milk products and are readily available in most health food stores and conventional supermarkets.

While soymilk has also become a popular alternative to cow’s milk, nutrition experts are finding that this trend is misguided. Recent studies have shown that eating a lot of soy can have negative health consequences for women. According to Paul Buck, Ph.D., a retired professor who held a joint appointment in the Department of Food Science and the Graduate School of Nutrition at Cornell University, the plant hormones in soy products are similar to human hormones and can actually interfere with the production of hormones. “Soy products should never be more than 5% of a female’s diet,” says Buck.

As an excellent source of calcium, cow’s milk is a healthy food for a growing child. However, breastfed babies do not need to drink cow’s milk. Children between the ages of one and three do need 500 mg of calcium a day, according to Dr. Rollins. Nondairy foods high in calcium include beans, green vegetables, and fish such as salmon.

What about fat?

Despite the current fat-free craze in America, experts say that babies need to have a certain amount of fat in their diets in order to grow strong and healthy. “Babies should have fats in their diets,” says Yaron. In fact, fat is both a good source of energy and an essential component of brain development. The AAP recommends that no fats should be restricted from a baby’s diet until after age two.

According to Paul Buck and other nutrition experts, it is a misperception that saturated fats are bad for you. It is hydrogenated fats, also called trans fats, that are highly processed foods and categorically bad for your health. While parents should not allow babies or young children to eat any food containing these processed fats, children (and adults) should have a diet that includes a good balance of saturated and unsaturated fats. Read the labels. If any of the ingredients include the words “hydrogenated vegetable oil,” “partially hydrogenated,” or “trans fat,” put the item back on the shelf!

It is a lot of fun to introduce healthy foods to a baby, who has no preconceptions about how things should taste.

“It’s so easy to feed kids a 100% perfect diet because they don’t know about sugar yet, they don’t know about chocolate yet,” laughs Yaron. “What you feed them, they will eat.”


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