Babies store iron in their livers while they gestate. Milk has next to no iron in it. At some point after birth, babies’ iron stores begin to diminish. This is often when they show signs of interest in iron rich solid food. Hopefully, this occurs around the time they are developmentally ready in other ways. Unfortunately, some babies have their cords cut soon after birth and don’t get all of their own blood – some of which remains in the placenta or umbilical cord. I think this leads to anemia or a premature necessity for solids or supplements before the baby is otherwise ready.
What are the readiness signs? If we sat on the floor and ate with our hands the readiness signs would be obvious. A ready baby would simply join in the family fare. The baby would be able to sit stably. She would probably (but not always) have some teeth. She would be interested in eating food. The interest thing is most important. We need to trust babies to know when they are ready. The ready baby would pick up pieces of food, put them in her mouth, gum, chew or mash them up and swallow them. I believe that when babies can do this they are ready.
When my kids were babies the standard practice was to formula feed and then begin solids in the form of rice cereal at six weeks. Then we were supposed to feed pureed bananas, pears and the like. The idea was that formula was deficient in certain nutrients and early supplementation with solids would somehow make up for it. The myth that babies on solids would sleep better or longer was rampant (and persists today).
For some reason I never followed that template. I must have read some radical article about the “late” introduction of solids and stuck with it. I breastfed my children, but hardly anyone else did in those days. I tried feeding my oldest son at age six months with a spoon, but he wanted to feed himself so I let him.
My middle son didn’t eat any solid food until around his first birthday. When he could sit on his own, we dutifully placed him in a high chair at the table with the rest of us during mealtimes. We offered him little pieces of food which he fed to the dog. His first solid food ended up being guacamole. He ate quite a lot. After that he ate everything we ate. It all happened at once. That was it.
I am against poking rice cereal or other pureed concoctions into babies’ mouths with little spoons. Normal babies don’t really need “baby food”. We don’t need to buy it and we don’t need to make it. Babies can eat what we eat. We might need to mash it up with a fork or cut it into pieces, but if they are really ready that’s all we need to do.
Babies will show interest in spoons and other utensils when they are ready. My philosophy is that if the baby wants a spoon the baby gets a spoon. Sometimes babies want certain utensils before they are ready. One of my granddaughters has been especially interested in using a knife since before age two. Luckily, she lives with adults who can safely cut her food for her.
I do think it makes sense to introduce new foods singly and, in some cases, in a particular order, especially if there are food allergies in the family. That way we know which food is the culprit if the baby has a reaction. Sometimes that doesn’t always go according to plan. One of my granddaughters got the food urge on vacation in Europe at age five months. She grabbed and tried to eat everything she could snag off our plates. She had many multi-ingredient new foods that were not necessarily on her parents’ list of what to introduce first.
Self feeding can be a bit messy. Use a bib. Put plastic under the baby’s chair. Get over the idea of white carpeting in the dining room until the kids are grown. Kids spill. We always employed dogs as part of the self feeding team. The floor can stay pretty clean with the right dog on duty.
Last, self feeding eliminates what I think is the weirdest part of spoon feeding. When we spoon feed our babies they have to eat in order to please us. I would rather my kids eat for healthier reasons.