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Transition to solid food is exciting, messy and confusing

Woooosh. Airplane coming in for a landing. It’s time to feed your baby solid food.

But when?

How?

Whether you’re a first-time parent or it’s not your first rodeo, fears about allergies, stress and the mess it will create are common and normal. But it’s important not to get lost in stress. The process can actually be very rewarding.

“The transition to solid foods is an exciting time. It’s messy, fun and an important benchmark in a baby’s development. They will let you know when they are ready,” said Marlee Malone, public health nutritionist at the Middlebury office of the Vermont Department of Health, told theIndependent.

Babies typically begin to transition to foods other than formula or breast milk around six months, according to Malone. They do not need to have teeth to begin the process.

Jackie Prime, mother and caretaker at Mary Johnson Children’s Center, recently transitioned her fourth child, Amelia, to solid food.

“It’s wonderful to watch the process,” she said. “My daughter really, really enjoys raspberries, and she’s a very vocal eater, so she’s like ‘mmmmm’ the whole time she’s eating. And so finding those foods, and seeing that develop for children, of their strong likes and dislike, it’s a really fun interactive time feeding children.”

Prime marveled at the development from her spoon-feeding every bite to simpler mealtimes, and even times when her daughter tries new foods off of her mom’s plate.

But reducing stress isn’t just advised. In fact, it may be essential to the process. Prime encourages caregivers to be very mindful of what emotional state they are bringing to mealtime.

“If you’re stressed or worried and all those things, children feel all that. Coming to mealtime with an open-mind and introducing it in a positive way is really important,” she said.

Prime herself is a rather picky eater, but she makes a conscious effort to present foods that she may dislike with a positive attitude. Still, every child is different. Although she was consistent in presenting all four kids with a diverse array of foods when they were learning to eat solid foods, two still grew to be rather selective, while the others were a bit more adventurous.

READY TO GROW

There are some key signs that a baby is ready to transition to solid foods. For instance, they will often trace with their eyes each and every bite their parents or caregivers take, according to Malone. Other signs include the ability to sit up alone or with support; control their head and neck; open the mouth when food is offered; swallow food rather than pushing it back out onto the chin; bringing objects to the mouth; trying to grasp small objects, such as toys or food and transferring food from the front to the back of the tongue to swallow, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.

However, even after such signs, sometimes the baby is not ready, as all babies are different. A sign of this could be the baby pushing food off the spoon with their tongue. But fear not. You do not have to make these high-stress situations with lots of tears.

“Introduction to foods should be an exciting and calm experience so that the baby is interested and eager to learn,” Malone said.

It is important to follow the baby’s lead. In these cases, Malone recommends waiting and trying again at a later date. The CDC refers to the foods and drinks as “complementary foods,” as they complement the breast milk or formula that a parent should continue to feed their child.

“Babies during this stage are still getting many of their nutrients from human milk or formula so it is OK if they aren’t in the mood for other foods,” said Malone.

To begin the process, Prime started by introducing breast milk and cereal at about five to six months. She also chose to provide homemade baby food. Over the course of three months, Prime transitioned from “super purees” to thicker, more consistent food and eventually table food.

Babies show readiness cues for finger foods through a developmental landmark known as the pincer grasp, according to Malone. At this point, the baby can pick up food between their pointer finger and thumb and bring it to their mouth.

“There are many muscles involved with chewing and swallowing that develop as part of eating readiness. Starting with soft foods in small bites is recommended,” said Malone.

For solid food, there is no particular order, according to The American Academy of Pediatrics. By the time the child is seven or eight months old, they can eat a variety of foods from different food groups, including infant cereals, meat or other proteins, fruits, vegetables, grains, yogurts and cheeses.

Some foods are potential choking hazards, so it is important to feed foods that are the right texture for the child’s development, advises the CDC. In order to prevent choking, the CDC recommends preparing foods that can be easily dissolved with saliva and do not require chewing, feeding small portions and encouraging your baby to eat slowly and always watching the child while eating.

There is no way to avoid baby making a mess, as babies’ willingness to touch food is a key aspect of their development, Malone said. Moreover, children might take time to adjust to new food textures, and cough, gag or spit up, according to the CDC. Caregivers should be prepared for this mess. Malone recommends having a mat, towel or shower curtain spread out below very young children while they are learning to eat.

It is also normal to notice changes in bowels during this introduction phase, according to Malone.

Allergies can be scary. Prime herself has an allergy, and there are significant allergies on her husbands’ side. She contacted doctors around concerns about allergies, and recommendations have evolved over time. When Prime’s daughter Jocelyn, now 18, was a baby, the message was to withhold peanut butter, for instance, though now parents are recommended to give children a little bit.

Experts recommend introducing one single-ingredient food at a time, waiting three to five days between each new food, in order to see if your child has any problems with that food, such as allergies. If a child has severe eczema and/or an egg allergy, caregivers should talk with the doctor about when and how to safely introduce foods with peanuts. Other potentially allergenic foods, such as fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, soy and sesame can be introduced at the same time as other foods. Drinking cow’s milk or fortified soy beverages is not recommended until the child is older than 12 months, but other cows’ milk products can be introduced sooner.

It is also important that childcare facilities help with the process. Prime, who also works at Mary Hogan School, commends the work that they do. They have an option to provide food, and take pictures of kids while they’re eating and foster an overall positive environment.

“Every family has so many different values and customs and cultures that come into food,” she said. “I feel fortunate that I have my children in a place that respects my family values around food. I think that can be kind of tricky to navigate as well.”

Linda January, executive director of Otter Creek Child Center, has open lines of communication, and checks in regularly with families about what they are trying at home and what they want Otter Creek to try.

“It is really individualized for each child and family as this transition looks different for everyone,” she said.

There is also a difference in whether the parent breastfeeds or provides formula, mainly in the parent’s milk supply. Moreover, recent formula shortages have left some parents feeling that they need to introduce alternative feeding practices sooner than recommended due to the inability to find formula, according to Malone.

To find help with the process, local health offices have a special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children, also known as WIC, and other staff who can provide assistance, services and recommendations. Contact Marlee Malone in the Middlebury Department of Health office at 802-388-4644 or by email at ahs.vdholhmiddlebury@vermont.gov.

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