When your baby is around six months old, begin to offer them a combination of finger food and homemade purees, says Dr Julie Bhosale.
The AUT researcher, nutrition lecturer and mother-of-two has written a step-by-step guide to introducing solid food – The Nourished Baby.
As every child develops differently physically and emotionally, it can be difficult for parents (especially first-time ones) to read the signs that their baby is ready for solids, Bhosale says.
The World Health Organisation recommends babies are breastfed or formula-fed until around six months of age – and she concurs.
“It just gives the baby’s gut that extra time to mature.”
A baby putting things into their mouth is one sign they’re ready for solid food, but not the only sign, she says.
It’s also important that the baby can physically hold themselves up. (Babies that haven’t spent as much time on the floor may not have developed their core and neck muscles enough to support themselves by this age.)
A baby experimenting with the eating process can be another clue.
“If they’re able to grab the food and put it into their mouth and swirl it around and have a go at swallowing – you’re on the money.”
When food is put in the mouth of a baby who feels unready to swallow, some will poke out their tongue in what is called the extrusion reflex.
“It’s them going ‘Hey, Mum and Dad. I’m just not ready.”
Baby-led weaning (offering a baby food they can feed themselves with) has huge positives because it gets them eat with all of their senses, Bhosale says.
Yet a strict definition of ‘finger food’ can lead to babies sometimes missing out on important nutrients from vegetables, iron and healthy fat, she says.
“Meat, spinach, fish and eggs – you’re going to struggle to get that in a very strict finger food only baby-led weaning style.”
She recommends parents that “get the best of both worlds” and offer both babies both finger food and purees, which are an effective way to get the nutrients in, she says.
“You’re going to be hard pressed to get a big spinach leaf into a baby at six months of age. If you do – awesome. The benefit of a puree is you can pack in those nutrients.”
Parents shouldn’t be afraid to let babies have a go at feeding themselves even liquefied food, she says.
“Learning to eat is messy. It’s not Instagram. It’s not beautiful kitchens and pristine babies all dressed in white... Babies are going to make a mess and a lot of it.”
Beware the billion-dollar baby food industry, Bhosale says.
“Food that’s in a packet or a jar that can sit on a shelf for a long time can’t possibly have the same level of nutrients as fresh food.”
She analysed every single baby food product in NZ, Australia and the UK as part of her research for The Nourished Baby.
15 percent of all products had added sugar and over 50 percent contained fruit (so were extremely high in fructose (natural sugar).
“To me, this is a huge red flag, that we have products marketed as being safe from four months of age that have literally sugar added. I just think that’s horrendous. It’s not needed at all.
“The minute that you start overloading them with a lot of fructose, you’re not going to get them to start developing their food preferences for vegetables.”
For parents with questions about allergies, Julie Bhosale recommends the Allergy New Zealand website.