Introducing solid foods to baby is a momentous occasion. Even down to my fifth baby, we had the video camera rolling for their first taste of "real" food.
But do we understand the implications of that first bite? Baby's first food can leave a lifelong imprint on their food preferences. And if we start foods, especially certain ones too soon, it can have immediate as well as long-term consequences on their health.
So let's start by figuring out WHEN!
Beginning solid foods too early has been associated with other problems later in life, such as obesity, respiratory problems like bronchial asthma, and food allergies. Before the age of three months, babies lack the necessary digestive enzymes and saliva to properly digest food. When food (and even cows milk or cows-milk formulas) are given to babies this young, it can put undue strain on their young kidneys. Additionally, babies younger than three months do not contain the necessary acidity in their stomach to prevent harmful nitrites (found in the soil and subsequently in foods like carrots, potatoes, and beets) from poisoning them.
Many people start feeding their baby infant cereal at very young ages with the notion that it will help them sleep better at night. To test this practice, researchers in Boston studied 1600 babies to see if it was effective. The results of this two-year study found that babies who were fed infant cereal actually slept LESS!
While many pediatricians say it is okay to start giving babies solid food as young as four months, the World Health Organization recommends that babies are exclusively breastfed until at least six months of age. This means that contrary to all the "educated" opinions saying babies need certain nutrients beyond what mother's milk can give them in the first six months, they actually get exactly the right amount of nutrients from mother's milk until AT LEAST six months of age! (Would God's design be any less?!)
So after six months of age, WHAT foods are best for baby?
Well if you're a fan of my Facebook health page, you've clearly seen what side I take on the white rice infant cereal. On my side, Dr. Mercola and Dr. Greene have wonderful articles about the dangers of feeding baby this nutritionally-void food. "When you feed your baby a bowl of infant cereal, picture yourself dipping directly into your sugar bowl and feeding baby a spoon or two, because that's essentially what it amounts to." (http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/12/20/get-the-white-out-of-babys-first-foods.aspx) Here are just a few of the problems with feeding this to baby:
1. It creates an addictive taste preference for sugary, starchy foods right away in life;
2. It increases the baby's risk for developing diabetes later in life;
3. It causes constipation, which makes baby more prone to dozens of illnesses and even more prone to fevers;
4. It puts undue strain on baby's immature organs.
Rice cereal was not put onto the store's shelves because it was deemed as healthy. "Experts" discovered that of all the grains parents were feeding their children, rice was the easiest for little tummies to digest. But for some reason, they decided to strip rice of its best qualities, add some synthetic nutrients, and sometimes soybean oil (from genetically-modified soybeans, another contributing factor to allergies), and market it as baby food. Nice.
What "experts" missed is the fact that ALL grains are hard for babies to digest, making them a poor choice for baby's first food. Dr. Mercola and the late Weston A. Price both recommend cooked egg yolk (preferably from local, pastured chickens not fed antibiotic-laced food) for a very nutritionally-dense food. Since a growing brain needs cholesterol to develop, egg yolks provide brain-food as well as protein and other important nutrients.
Mashed avocado is another awesome first baby food. This fruit is incredibly high in fat (in a good way!), making it another good food for growing brains. It's easy to mash with a fork or puree in a food processor, and babies love the taste of it!
In addition to bananas, baby can also start getting into the world of cooked veggies. Sweet potatoes are one of the best choices. Carrots and winter squashes are other good sources of fiber and beta carotene. To make things easier for homemade baby food, you can even find butternut squash cubes in many grocery stores' produce section. Simply steam and mash!
Some people notice that after a few weeks on solids, baby may become constipated. As stated earlier, constipation can make baby more prone to fevers, infections, and a weakened immune system. It is not healthy for babies or adults to have less than one bowel movement every 24 hours. There are a few things you can do to get things moving:
1. Make foods at home. Jarred baby foods are treated at such high temperatures to remain shelf-stable that they lack the necessary enzymes and fiber for digestion.
2. Maintain an even balance between cooked and raw foods in baby's diet. Raw foods are the only ones that will contain adequate digestive enzymes. Eating cooked foods diminishes and even destroys natural digestive enzymes, so it is essential to replenish them regularly with raw foods as well.
3. Of course, make sure you're not feeding baby white rice cereal!
4. Feed baby fresh mashed papaya. I've found papaya to be much more effective than prunes/prune juice at getting things moving, and it is a safe food for babies as young as six months. Fresh papayas contain very unique and powerful digestive enzymes, which is why health food stores often sell papaya digestive supplements. Mashed papaya will cause a bowel movement within about six hours, but it is often much sooner.
Selecting and ripening papayas can be tricky the first time. First, the more yellow on them, the riper they are. If you buy one that is all green, it will take at least a few days to ripen. They are ready to cut into when they are mostly all yellow with a bit of wrinkling on the skin. It will feel somewhat soft upon pressure. Wash off the outside, peel, and then cut in half the long way. Scoop out the seeds (interestingly, you can save them, dry them, and use them in place of black peppercorns in your grinder!), and chop up. Mash some for baby and put some in smoothies for the whole family! (I usually end up putting some in the freezer for smoothies later as well.) Since it takes a while to ripen the ones you get from the grocery store, I suggest keeping one on your counter at least every other week.
From there, you can move onto other cooked veggies like green beans, peas, and beets, as well as fruits like pureed apples, pears, peaches, etc. For further information on when to feed your baby these foods and recipes, check out this website: http://wholesomebabyfood.com/. It has an extensive collection of recipes on each of baby's first foods.
Another great resource for making homemade baby foods is your local library. The market is growing for books on this topic. At your library, you can thumb through them. If you see recipes in a particular book that use instant rice cereal and sugar, put it back and look at another one!
When making homemade baby food, be sure to use organic vegetables and fruit whenever possible, but especially for foods that grow in the ground such as carrots and beets.
To make homemade baby food, it helps to make big batches of it and freeze whatever you will not use within two days into ice cube trays, then into freezer bags. When you have a variety of different purees in your freezer, it makes it fun to mix and match for new creations! To reheat, I bought a small stainless steel saucepan specifically for baby's food. I definitely do not recommended heating baby's food in the microwave. (If you want to know why, check out this link: http://www.realfoodnutrients.com/DB/MicroWaterExperiment.htm?sid=Mcvitamins)
As far as grains go, some experts say that waiting until after the first year will prevent potential allergies to wheat and other grains. Other experts say exactly the opposite--that waiting will cause an allergy. So I'll leave that up to you. With baby #5, we waited until he was around 9 or 10 months and offered him cooked brown rice. You could buy boxed, shelf-stable, organic brown rice infant cereal, but it's much cheaper and much healthier to make it homemade. To make it, grind uncooked, whole grain brown rice (not minute brown rice) in a coffee bean grinder until it is very powdery. Cook in boiling water or breastmilk (at least 4 times the amount of liquid to rice powder) on low, stirring constantly and adding more liquid if necessary, for about 10 minutes.
But our most commonly-fed grain was oats. Since we make oatmeal for breakfast quite frequently, we usually made baby's along with ours. I started by soaking equal amounts of oats to water (soaking helps the digestive process along), add in a tablespoon of kefir/yogurt, cover, shake, and soak overnight. In the morning, I put the same amount of water used the night before in a pan and bring to a boil. Add soaked oats/water, some cinnamon and any dried fruits you like such as figs, prunes, or fresh fruits like diced apple. Cook on med/low for about five minutes. Place baby's in a blender and puree. Then add a natural sweetener like maple syrup or honey to the rest of the family's oatmeal, as well as some ground flaxseed, raw wheat germ, and nuts/seeds. (This would be a good place for the disclaimer: Do not feed honey to infants under one year of age, as it can cause botulism which can be fatal.)
We did not do many grains, however, and concentrated on nutrient-dense vegetables, some fruits, and some proteins such as egg yolks, grass-fed beef, and homemade yogurt. In addition to keeping the amounts of grains low, we also managed to keep baby's diet free from refined sugars. (Check my sugar-challenge page for more info on why I thought this was important.)
Baby food snacks like zwieback toasts and are just as high in sugar as doughnuts and other pastries that everyone knows are unhealthy. But as soon as manufacturers put the "baby" label on it, consumers assume that it is good, nutritious food for baby. (Look on the nutrition label for the list of ingredients. If any form of refined sugar--"sugar", "high-fructose corn syrup", "evaporated cane juice", etc. appear on there, especially as one of the first three ingredients, put it back. Please.)
In addition to the high sugar content, these foods are made with processed grains (like the white rice cereal) and are heat-treated and preserved oftentimes with chemicals to make them nice, handy snacks that last forever. "Organic" snacks are usually no better as they contain just as much sugar; and organic sugar is still refined sugar. Parents are better off giving their baby a liquid multivitamin and avoiding the sugar and chemicals in these foods.
But sometimes, you need a snack for on-the-go, right? Here are some of our favorite portable baby and toddler snacks:
1. Dates rolled in coconut. Can you say YUM! Dates are a fruit with the highest natural sugar content, making them delicious. They are also high in fiber, which slows the absorption of that natural sugar into our bloodstream and helping with digestion. Our natural foods store sells dates rolled in coconut that are pureed already so they are soft and only slightly chewy. (Make sure they do not contain nuts.)
2. Bananas. Portable, convenient, easy, cheap. Enough said.
3. Freeze-dried fruit. Trader Joes and even Walmart sell freeze-dried fruit in convenient little packages. Look next to the nuts at Trader Joes or next to the raisins at Walmart.
4. Whole wheat pita pockets. I've used these in place of bread when I need something quick because pita bread is made with a whole lot less ingredients (and none of the hard-to-pronounce ones) than store-bought bread.
Of course, jarred foods would be an option for those times when you're on the go. But with the amount of time that many families are actually on-the-go nowadays, it's nice to have healthier options to take with!
Baby's first year foods set the stage for baby's nutritional preferences and health later in life. Put some effort into it and make it a great start! It's worth the time!