Introducing your baby to solid foods opens her up to the wide world of edible textures, flavors and colors. Infants digest and gain essential nutrients primarily from formula or breast milk in their first year, but by the time they sprout teeth and require additional energy, solid foods start to become an important part of their diet.
When a baby is at least 6 months old and is ready to begin eating solids, his parents must prepare for a variety of reactions. You may find that the feedback ranges from pursed lips and a wrinkled nose to open-mouthed delight. During this experimentation phase, you may also discover that your baby has food sensitivities. Your child's doctor can help you determine when your baby is ready for solid foods.
First, it is important to understand two different types of sensitivities. Food allergy occurs when the body's immune system reacts to a food or food additive that it considers toxic. The reactions are the result of allergy-blocking histamines that are released to try to contain the toxic element. Symptoms can range from vomiting and diarrhea to skin rashes, runny nose or wheezing.
"The most common allergens are referred to as the Big Eight," says Dr. Robert Gravani, professor of food science at Cornell University. "Peanuts, tree nuts (pecans, walnuts), egg, wheat, dairy, soy, fish and crustaceans cause 90 percent of the allergic reactions. The remaining 10 percent are caused by hundreds of other substances."
The second type of sensitivity is food intolerance. Unlike allergies, these responses are not related to the immune system. When the body encounters a food molecule that it has difficulty breaking down or digesting, it responds with a reaction such as gas, bloating, diarrhea or headaches. Some common causes of food intolerance are lactose (cow's milk products), gluten (found in grains like wheat) or preservatives and additives.
Dr. Juan Sotomayor, allergy and asthma pulmonary specialist at the Allergy and Asthma Diagnostic Office in North Syracuse, says food sensitivities are inherited. Children of people with hay fever and other allergies are more likely to develop food allergies themselves.
"Introduce small amounts of one new food at a time, and wait two or three days before introducing another," he says, "especially if you have allergy tendencies in your family." Reactions may be delayed up to two days but symptoms will be fairly easy to notice. Feeding your child just a half-teaspoon of a new food will help determine if your baby's system will tolerate it.
"Breastfeeding does not offer permanent immunity from food sensitivities but clearly has multiple benefits and may help delay allergies for a limited time," Sotomayor says. There is no evidence delaying introducing a commonly allergenic food will help to avoid an allergy.
Since parents can't always control food additives found in packaged foods, the best way to avoid them is to choose whole and natural foods whenever possible. Consider making baby's first foods at home; it is a great way to know exactly what your little one is eating and guarantee the freshness and quality of the ingredients.
By making homemade food for your baby, you choose the ingredients that go into baby's food and avoid unnecessary processing and additives. You also save money by adapting your family meals to suit baby's diet. And your child gets to sample home-cooked baby foods, which taste better than mushy, bland commercial foods.
A small-size food processor will turn practically any soft-cooked food into a baby-ready feast. Follow these simple tips:
- Choose vegetables and fruits that are easily pureed for the youngest eaters and without stringy fibers or heavy skins.
- Start with foods that are easy on the stomach and rarely allergenic, like lamb, rice and non-acidic vegetables and fruits.
- Don't worry about combining foods that sound strange to adults. Your baby may love baked peaches and lean meat pureed together!
- Prepare quick meals by freezing portions into ice cube trays and storing cubes in plastic containers for later warm-ups.
Stew lean chicken, sweet potatoes and green beans (cut into chunks) in a little water until tender, then puree finely or pulse into soft chunks for toddlers with teeth. Even meats can be easily prepared at home; simply puree chunks of cold, cooked, boneless meats with enough water to reach the right consistency for your child.
One whiff of the meat from baby food jars is usually enough to show you how much yummier homemade meats are. You'll save money, give your child the best food possible and spend only a few minutes a day adapting the food you normally cook to nourish your little one.
With a little planning and the simplest ingredients, your baby begins a lifelong habit of enjoying wholesome, fresh and seasonal foods.