Growing Up
Introduction to Solid Foods
Medically Reviewed ✓
Introduction to Solid Foods
Medically Reviewed By:
Dr. Alan Greene, MD, FAAP
Written By:
Tiny Health Team
Published
September 6, 2020

Introduction of Solid Foods

The introduction of solids marks a pivotal time in your baby’s gut and immune development. At around 6 months, as your little one transitions from a milk-based diet to one with a wide variety of foods, you’ll start to see a shift in your baby’s microbes. 

Like breast milk, solid food helps to shape which microbes flourish and which do not. 

For example, many of the compounds that feed microbes (also called oligosaccharides) come from fiber in plant sources like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains. Breast milk is a major source of these compounds (human milk oligosaccharides, or HMOs). These compounds are not digested by the baby, but are very important to help to diversify a baby’s gut microbiome, increasing the overall richness of your baby’s microbial ecosystem and nudging it towards an adult-like composition.

In this guide you’ll learn about the best time to introduce solid foods, how to handle common allergens, and which foods best support the development of your baby’s microbiome. 

Table of Contents:

Introduce solids when your baby is ready
Introduce allergens when beginning solids
What are the best first foods?
Which solid foods are best for the baby microbiome?

Introduce solids when your baby is ready

It’s just as important to look at your baby as it is to look at a calendar when deciding when to start solid foods. When the GI tract is sufficiently mature and coordinated, babies typically signal to their parents that they want to be fed. At first they will show interest when you are eating. Later they will almost demand to be fed.

For a breast-fed baby, who is already enjoying complex, changing, ideal food -- rich in HMOs and with a variety of flavors -- there is no rush to start. You can wait until the protests at being left out are obvious. This will often happen at about the 6-month mark. If it seems to be taking longer, be sure to discuss timing with your pediatrician.

For a formula-only-fed baby, providing variety sooner may be better. You may want to start when your baby is showing keen interest in your eating. This usually happens between 4 and 6 months. But be sure to discuss with your pediatrician before starting if this seems to be happening before 4 months.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents introduce solid food between the ages of 4 and 6 months [1]. 

That said, the CDC, World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, European Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) along with the National Health and Medical Research Council Infant Feeding Guidelines of Australia all recommend starting solids at around 6 months old. 

Similarly, the 2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) has been recently updated and made more complete. It now includes dietary support for babies beginning at 6 months, which is when the DGA Committee determined that solid food becomes an important part of a baby’s diet. 

For the sake of nutrition and protecting against food allergies, the DGA recommends exclusive breastfeeding for a baby’s first 6 months - if possible - with the introduction of solid food at around 6 months of age. This is in line with the global recommendation for exclusive breastfeeding during a baby’s first 6 months.  

Some important signs of infant readiness include:

  • Sitting with little or no support
  • Good head control
  • Opening their mouth and leaning towards food
  • Swallowing food rather than pushing it back out
  • Bringing objects to their mouth
  • Trying to hold small objects

While your baby may be ready for solids a little earlier or a little later than 6 months, the consensus is that solid food provides high demand nutrients to the baby (and the microbiome) that will be important for the second half of the first year.

The TLDR? Introduce solid foods when your baby is ready, typically at roughly 6 months.

Introduce allergens when beginning solids

Over the last several years, recommendations on allergen introduction have shifted dramatically. 

Because food allergies were rising rapidly in the late 1990s, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advised in 2000 the delayed introduction of cow milk until 12 months, egg until 2 years, and peanut, tree nut, fish, and shellfish until 3 years old in order to avoid the development of allergies [2]. However, despite these recommendations, food allergies continued to rise. In 2008 the AAP revised these recommendations, explaining that there wasn’t enough evidence to support that the delayed introduction of common allergens would reduce the risk of developing food allergies [3].

But the recommendation to actively add allergens to a baby’s diet wasn’t established until 2015. This is when the Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP) study found that, for babies at high risk of peanut allergy, the early introduction to peanut and its continued presence in the diet was linked to an 81% relative risk reduction of peanut allergy at 60 months old [4]. 

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Addendum Guidelines for the Prevention of Peanut Allergy were published in 2017 and provided clear guidance [5], suggesting:

  • From 4-6 months: Early peanut introduction to high-risk babies with a first-degree relative who has been diagnosed with an allergic condition, after a physician evaluation
  • At 6 months: Introduction of peanut to babies with moderate eczema 
  • No specific timeline: Introduction of peanut to babies without risk of peanut allergy that is more in line with family and cultural practices

Similarly, the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) advises parents to introduce peanuts between the ages of 4 - 6 months in babies with severe eczema or egg allergy in order to reduce the risk of developing peanut allergy [6]. Before introducing foods with peanuts, parents need to establish that their baby is ready for solids and already accepting other foods. 

If breastfeeding, it’s also a good idea that the mother consumes peanuts and other allergens. 

While these guidelines specifically address peanut and egg allergy, it’s worth noting that the delayed introduction of certain foods like oats and wheat has also been linked to sensitization of food allergens [7]. Likewise, the early introduction of grains and fish has been associated with a decreased risk of asthma, allergic runny nose, and eczema.

  • Wheat, rye, oats, or barley introduced at 5 to 5.5 months has been linked to a decreased risk of asthma and allergic rhinitis. However, cereals given too early - at 4.5 months or less - could mean an increased risk of eczema [8].
  • Fish before 9 months is associated with a reduced risk of allergic runny nose and eczema [9].

Let’s consider the signs of a reaction that you should watch out for  when introducing solid foods. 

  • Immediately - 2 hours of eating food:  IgE-mediated food reactions that include skin or respiratory symptoms. Cow’s milk, soy, and egg are the most common triggers.
  • 1 - 4 hours of eating food: Non-IgE-mediated reactions can show up as GI troubles, such as diarrhea, repetitive vomiting. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommend introducing one single-ingredient food at a time and observing any reactions for 3 to 5 days afterwards [10]. 

With these guidelines, however, a baby would take in only five to ten new foods a month, which limits food exposure in a big way. This is exactly the opposite of what you want to do when working with allergens. At the same time, it’s agreed that variety in food exposure during the first year helps to avoid picky eating [11].

The ability to focus on food diversity and work in allergens closer to 6 months - rather than later - means that waiting 3 to 5 days between each new food in order to watch for a reaction may be too long [12]. Mixtures, combinations, and new foods daily may be fine.

For babies with food allergies, introducing a variety early may be especially important (this doesn’t increase allergies and it’s not that much more difficult to do the detective work if symptoms do occur). And for babies without food allergies (>90% of babies) the early variety is valuable to avoid later picky eating.  It is still important to remember that each baby will show readiness for solids according to their own unique timeline. 

The major food allergens to regularly include in your baby’s diet:

  • Peanut
  • Egg
  • Dairy
  • Wheat
  • Soybean
  • Tree nuts
  • Fish and shellfish

What are the best first foods?

At around 6 months it’s time to start thinking about the first foods that you would like to offer. 

One thing to keep in mind is that - truly - every bite counts. Since portions will be very small and filling for tiny tummies, it’s a good idea to avoid foods lacking nutrient density and instead aim for whole foods that are rich in natural nutrients and flavors. 

For those very first bites, you may want to enjoy a simple family meal. Choose a whole food that is simple and colorful (your baby’s color vision has recently come in) -- perhaps an avocado, banana, or baked sweet potato, so your baby learns that food comes from a produce aisle or farmer’s market, not from a box. Let your baby touch the produce; smell the produce; and watch as you peel and eat. Then take some of the same item, perhaps mixing a bit with something familiar (breast milk or formula) by mashing it in with a fork. Watch your baby open her mouth - and take pictures.

Your pediatrician may suggest baby cereal. You may want to avoid rice-based cereals due to potentially high levels of arsenic [13]. Whole grain oats may be a better choice.

Aside from focusing on nutrient-dense foods and allergens, you’ll want to offer your baby simple, home-cooked foods. These may be foods you’re already eating, mashed or cut in a way to be eaten without choking. For example:

  • A wide variety of fruit and vegetables (best to shop organic, at least for the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen)
  • Animal based protein, such as beef, lamb, and poultry 
  • Organ meat, especially liver
  • Eggs
  • Seafood and fish
  • Grains, seeds, and legumes, including peanut and soy
  • Dairy, including cow, goat, and sheep dairy

Sounds simple, right? 

Feeding your baby can be a simple and easy experience as long as you know which foods to focus on and some basic principles on approach. 

Quick First Foods Tips

  • Prioritize liver, meat, egg, and seafood: These foods provide for a number of nutrients that tend to run low, including iron, zinc, choline, and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Emphasize fruits and vegetables: These foods feed your baby’s microbiome and are a source of antioxidants, like vitamin C, which improves iron bioavailability.
  • Regularly include some dairy products: For example, baked dairy, yogurt, and cheese all offer exposure to cow milk protein, a major allergen. Keep in mind that too much cow dairy is a common cause of iron deficiency in babies.
  • Regularly include some grains, legumes, and seeds: These foods feed your baby’s microbiome and many of them - like wheat, soy, and peanut - are major food allergens.
  • Avoid these foods: Honey until 12 months, caffeinated drinks, juice and added sugar, added salt, and foods with additives, coloring, or emulsifiers. 

How To Feed Your Baby

Responsive feeding - a style of feeding that responds to your baby’s cues - encourages your baby to exercise agency during feeding, in response to their own needs. It’s a child-centered approach that not only supports more ease at mealtimes, but also has been found to promote adventurous eating behaviors [14].

Non-responsive feeding can override a baby’s own hunger and satiety cues, which may later impact appetite regulation and growth that could lead to obesity and potential disordered relationship with food [15].

While responsive feeding is similar to baby-led weaning (BLW) in that the approach is baby-led, parents can practice responsive feeding at any age. Responsive feeding isn’t limited to a certain food texture or to the introduction of solid foods. 

Whether breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, responsive feeding begins with your baby’s first feed and continues as you introduce your baby to solids [16]. While your baby’s cues may change as they develop, the principles of responsive feeding can be applied to your baby as a newborn , toddler, or even during “picky” periods in a school-age child.

  • Get acquainted with - and respond predictably and appropriately - to hunger and satiety cues. This means plenty of eye contact, checking in, and nurturing behavior. 
  • Avoid using food to calm or soothe your baby when they are not hungry.
  • When first beginning solid foods, offer a range of options of foods, flavors, and textures, while avoiding added sugar, refined foods, added salt, additives, coloring, and emulsifiers. 
  • Provide the structure for your child to eat and let your child decide if and how much they would like to eat. Avoid positive or negative pressure to control how much your child eats. 
  • Model the eating behavior you want to see and join your baby during mealtimes.

One of the most common obstacles for parents when transitioning to solid foods is giving up too soon. This can happen when a baby has a negative response to a food, such a skin reaction, or if a food is rejected more than a few times. 

Remember that all exposure counts. A nibble, a lick, or simply the feeling of food  between the palm and the fingers is a form of positive exposure. 

Which solid foods are best for the baby microbiome?

While the consensus is that breastfeeding your baby until 6 months is ideal, it’s worth noting that authors of the The Environmental Determinants of Diabetes in the Young (TEDDY) study found that the baby microbiome goes through three distinct phases of development [17]. In this guide, we will focus on the first phase - or “developmental phase” - which runs from 3 months to 14 months old. 

Breast milk - whether exclusively breastfed or partially breastfed - is one of the most important factors influencing your baby’s microbiome structure. Breastfed infants received 27.7% of their gut bacteria from breast milk and 10.4% from areolar skin during the first month of life [18]. Breastfeeding is linked to higher levels of Bifidobacterium species, like B. infantis, B. longum, B. breve and B. bifidum. Bifidobacteria are a genus of bacteria that normally colonize the gastrointestinal tract and are often considered the “good” bacteria. 

In addition, breast milk has a unique nutritional composition, including the specific milk carbohydrate: human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs). HMOs are a type of complex sugar that a baby cannot digest, but their gut microbes can. HMOs bind to other compounds in breast milk to form human milk glycans (HMGs) that reach the baby colon and feed the Bifidobacteria living there. 

Your baby's route of delivery either vaginally or via c-section, can also greatly impact their gut microbiome profile. This can be seen with babies delivered vaginally having higher levels of Bacteroides fragilis, compared to C-section babies [19].

While the introduction of solid food does initiate a significant shift in the baby’s microbiome, complete weaning - or no longer giving your baby breast milk - has an even bigger impact and drives the maturation of the baby gut microbiome [20]. Bifidobacterium will remain prominent in the infant gut, even with the introduction of solid food, up until breastfeeding is ceased, which continues to offer its protective effect [21, 22].

Likewise, the components of solid foods are digested at different points in the gut and influence the microbiome in their own special way.  

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates include both simple sugars and complex sugars, such as starch and fiber. For the most part, simple sugars are digested and then absorbed in the small intestine, whereas complex carbs travel through the gut relatively undigested until reaching the colon, where they are fermented by gut microbes and act as a prebiotic. 

Prebiotics selectively feed helpful microbes and in turn, benefit overall health. They are defined as “nondigestible food ingredients that beneficially affect the host” [23].

Carbohydrate prebiotics include:

  • HMOs found in breast milk
  • Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) 
  • Galactooligosaccharides (GOS)
  • Insoluble dietary fiber, like beta-glucans from oats
  • Soluble dietary fiber, like pectin and inulin

Different prebiotics will influence the growth of different microbial communities [24]. This is one reason why offering a variety in first foods is so important. It’s also worth noting that baseline dietary differences - whether a baby is fed breast milk or formula - can significantly influence this trajectory [25].

An important by-product of prebiotic fermentation from gut microbes is short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), such as acetate, butyrate, and propionate. SCFAs can reduce the acidity - or pH - of the gut and protect against large numbers of unwanted microbes. They also are known to interact with immune cells and reduce inflammation [26]. 

Legumes, soybeans, fruits, and starchy vegetables: Sources of oligosaccharides and prebiotic plant-based compounds that diversify and increase richness of the baby microbiome.

Whole grains, including cereal bran and oats: A source of soluble fiber, plant-based compounds, and prebiotics. 

Fat

Fat is a macronutrient that includes monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), and saturated fatty acids (SFAs). Ideally, the percentage of energy from fat in a baby’s diet when beginning solids is high; roughly 41% - 44% at 6 to 9 months to mimic the composition of breastmilk. This is important since it will aid the baby in adjusting to solids [27].

Foods such as meat, egg yolk, fatty fish, and dairy are not only a source of fatty acids but also important fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, and K. If breastfeeding, the fatty acid profile of breast milk can be modified with diet. 

When it comes to the baby microbiome, some forms of dietary fat can reduce the levels of bacteria and have a bactericidal effect [27]. 

For example, one study published in the Journal of Pediatrics looked at the potential benefits of a fish and safflower oil blend on the gut bacteria of preterm babies [28]. Researchers found lower levels of proinflammatory harmful bacteria in the group receiving the fatty acid blend compared to standard nutritional therapy. Beyond brain development and immune support, researchers suggest that long-chain omega-3 fatty acids may improve the structure and function of the baby microbiome, particularly in premature babies with necrotizing enterocolitis. 

Fish, seafood, and fish oils: Sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids like DHA; supplemental fish oil is best absorbed when taken with meals.

Iron

Iron is possibly the most talked-about micronutrient of a baby’s first 1000 days. This is because iron deficiency is a common cause of iron deficiency anemia that negatively impacts babies motor, language, and cognitive development [29]. 

In other words, iron supports brain development. 

However, problems can arise in the baby gut microbiome because unabsorbed iron may lead to a decrease in helpful bacteria and an increase in potentially harmful bacteria, while promoting inflammation. For example, in some cases, unabsorbed iron stimulates the virulence and growth of harmful bacteria, like Escherichia coli or more commonly known as E. coli [30].

Heme iron, found in meat, is more bioavailable and easier for a baby to use than non-heme iron [31], found in both food and supplements. What’s more, the benefits of meat as a first food extend to a baby’s microbes. 

A recent study published in BMC Pediatrics shows that babies consuming beef as a first food saw no decline in Bifidobacteria and greater species richness after 4 weeks compared to babies eating iron-fortified cereal [32]. Other studies have found that meat as a first food for breastfed babies significantly increases levels of butyrate-producing Clostridium group XIVa [33], which is a good thing.

If meat isn’t an option, you may be able support iron absorption by offering fortified cereals with fruit rich in vitamin C. 

Shellfish, liver, beef, lamb, and canned sardines: These foods have the highest levels of heme iron, while shellfish are a major allergen and worth regularly including in your baby’s diet. 

Zinc

Zinc is a mineral that supports immune and intestinal health. Similar to iron, zinc is easier to absorb when it’s sourced from meat. This is because phytates - found in whole grains, pseudocereals like quinoa, and legumes - reduce the bioavailability of minerals, including zinc [34]. 

However, supplemental zinc doesn’t have the same deleterious effect on the gut microbiome as supplemental iron. For example, in a study with babies ages 2 - 36 months old with antibiotic-associated diarrhea and pneumonia, researchers compared the effects of zinc given with probiotics versus probiotic alone [35]. The combined treatment was found to increase Bifidobacteria while decreasing levels of E. coli

Another study with 6-month old babies revealed that fortified cereals - containing both iron and zinc - provided greater benefits than iron alone, since zinc appeared to counteract the unwanted effects of iron fortification on the gut microbiome [36].

Oyster, crab, beef, lobster: Oysters are extremely high in zinc and shellfish in general are a major allergen. 


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Take Home Points
  • Introduce solids when your baby is ready, at around 6 months.
  • Introduce allergens when beginning solids.
  • Avoid honey until 12 months, caffeinated drinks, juice and added sugar, and foods with additives, coloring, or emulsifiers.
  • Choose foods that also feed your baby’s microbiome.

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