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Luka McCabe Answers Every Question You Have About Starting Solids

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Midwife, nurse, birth and parenting educator and certified nutrition consultant Luka McCabe has turned a universal felt frustration and confusion over how to start your baby on solid foods into an evidence-based platform that Aussie parents have come to rely on: Boob to Food. Always thorough, Luka obliged us by answering every question that’s ever been asked about starting solids. For more, check out Milk to Meals. A beautiful, hardcover book with almost 300 pages, packed with insights and tips on transitioning from milk, choosing a feeding method to suit your family, navigating the top allergenic foods, which nutrients to focus on to meet your baby’s nutritional needs and when to incorporate certain foods in their diet in the most mindful way (plus much more!). You can purchase the Milk to Meals book as part of the Boob to Food x The Memo Starting Solids Gift Set.

Starting solids isn’t linear — there can be many ups and downs. There will be times your baby eats heaps, and times they won’t eat at all. The best thing we can do is learn to trust their tummies. The Division of Responsibility is an approach to feeding and mealtimes developed by Ellen Satter that recognises parents are responsible for deciding when a child eats, where they eat and what is offered, while recognising children are responsible for deciding whether and how much they eat. This approach encourages us as parents to offer a variety of foods and trust our child’s internal hunger and fullness cues. It’s not always easy! It means we need to ditch the pressure, bribery and “encouragement” techniques and trust our kids to listen to their bodies. Following this approach helps establish a healthy relationship with food and fosters self-regulation in eating.

It is our job to provide the food, and it is their job to choose whether to eat (or not eat) the food! Keep in mind that some children need up to 8-15 exposures before they choose to eat a new food. All exposures are positive, even if your child doesn’t eat all the food offered.

What signs do you trust to indicate your baby is ready for solids?

While we can often get caught up on the right ‘age’ to introduce solids, it is more important to watch for your baby’s developmental signs of readiness; as all babies develop at their own pace, in their own time! Just like some babies will walk at 9 months and others will walk at 18 months, there is no real ‘normal’.

The signs of readiness are important because they are indicators that your baby's delicate and intricate digestive system is ready to handle solid foods. These signs are:

  • Your baby is able to sit up, unassisted. Now this can get a bit confusing — what constitutes sitting unassisted? The aim is that while they may still topple a little bit, that they can support themselves in a seated position for a period of time once in the highchair — without needing to ‘stuff’ the highchair, and without the use of a seating aid. This sign is really important, as our digestive system is made up of muscles, which aid in moving the food from the mouth through the digestive system and back out through the bottom. When a baby has enough core strength to sit on their own, this is a good indication that the muscles of their digestive system are strong enough for food. The other reason this is important, is that if they are slumping forwards or sideways in the highchair, then they are at an increased risk of choking or aspirating on food. They also need to have the use of both of their hands to reach for food and take it to the mouth.
  • Good head and neck control. Their head shouldn’t be ‘toppling’ around or slumping forward. This is very important from a safety point of view, because if their head is slumped then this can occlude the airway and increase the risk of choking. Having strong head and neck control also helps them to turn their head towards or away from food to indicate if they have had enough food or want more food.
  • Baby shows an interest in food. This is an important sign when in conjunction with the other signs above — as an interest in food can happen early, around 4 months. This often confuses parents who think that they are ready for solids, however, they are also interested in your car keys but it doesn’t mean they want to drive! So showing interest is a good sign, but shouldn’t be the only sign.
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Our favourite very ‘first foods’ that you might like to choose from are:

  • Bone broth (on its own or mixed in with some vegetables)
  • Avocado (ripe slices or pureed with some bone broth or breastmilk/formula)
  • Root vegetables e.g. sweet potato, pumpkin, parsnip, swede, beetroot (peeled and steamed in slices, or pureed with some bone broth)
  • Coconut cream – straight from the can or pureed with avocado or with steamed vegetables
  • Liver strips or pate or mixed through vegetable puree (read more about liver here)
  • Pasture-raised, organic meat – slow cooked in strips or pureed with vegetables and bone broth. Slow-cooked meats like chicken thigh, lamb shoulder and beef cheeks are great to start with!
  • Bone marrow – delicious mixed into puree or spread onto finger foods.

Is there a certain way you recommend to “start” solid food?

Tasting things is ‘starting solids’ — many babies when they start solids are only tasting and it can take a while to ingest the food. When first starting it is definitely OK to not offer food every day. Breastmilk or formula is still the primary source of nutrition, food is an accompaniment to that. However you can definitely offer every day if you wish.

Once you’ve begun, what does the first meal look like?

We’ll preface this by saying there is no ‘best’ first-food — but there are ‘best first-FOODS’. What this means is don’t focus on the single meal, but focus on what you’re consistently offering them. Most babies don’t eat much the first few weeks anyway, and food is so much more than just nutrients. It is a whole learning experience for them: new flavours/textures/smells and sensations.

We do have one golden rule for first foods though — don’t start with a top allergen. We want to start with a food considered ‘low-allergenic’ just to make sure that they can tolerate food at all, before moving on to any allergens.

Contrary to what you might have been led to believe, babies don’t need to be offered bland and boring food like rice-cereal. In fact, it's actually best to introduce REALLY flavoursome foods from an early age — before any picky eating might arise. And you ABSOLUTELY can combine different foods right from the start — just don’t combine any top-allergens with another new food — this way if a reaction does occur, you know what your baby reacted to. If there is a family history of any food allergies, then also be mindful of this food when offering, even if it isn’t considered a top allergen.

If your baby does have trouble digesting foods considered low-allergenic, if they have eczema, asthma or a family history of food allergies then err on the side of caution and follow a slower more mindful approach to introducing new foods, as they could be at higher risk of developing allergies. Always seek individual guidance if unsure.

Your baby does have some nutrient requirements after 6 months of age that breastmilk or formula doesn’t quite meet anymore — predominately iron. For this reason we recommend trying to focus on nutrient-dense and iron rich foods where you can. This means foods that provide a lot of nutrients in small amounts.

Once you have introduced some first foods, the idea is really that your baby starts eating what you eat (or a version of). There is SO much to say about the benefits of eating as a family, eating the same (or at least similar) meals, and modelling good eating habits to your baby. It will also reduce the cooking and preparation for you if you can all eat the same thing! This will generally also ensure your baby is eating a variety of foods and getting the nutrients they require.

How much do you offer them in those first few days, and when?

When first starting out, your baby will likely not eat very much — if anything at all! As a general rule, start by offering them 1-2 tsp of food, or 1-2 pieces of finger food, once a day and gradually build from there. There is no ‘right time’ to offer solids, work in with your family and when suits you. Keep their milk feed (breastmilk or formula) as priority until 12 months of age, and offer solids some time after a milk feed, where they are happy and not overtired. For most 6ish month olds, this will be around mid-morning.

Do they need a meal routine? Like their sleep schedule?

Not necessarily. We believe communication in general is really important, and so explaining to your little one that it is meal time is great. Eat together as much as possible, so if you have any routines you do as a family you can definitely implement them — for example you might have a hand washing routine or set the table etc.

In saying all that, you will likely adapt this rhythm without being conscious you are doing it. Meals will likely be in the highchair at the table, with a bib, a cup of water and their own spoon anyway. One point to be aware of is not to put your baby in the highchair until the meal is ready, because once they are in the chair, the stopwatch starts until they want to get out!

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Are there any recipes or food combinations you recommend for the first few months that aid nutrition absorption?

As mentioned, the key nutrients our little ones need us to focus on from food are iron and zinc. The easiest way to incorporate both iron and zinc into your child’s diet in the most bioavailable way (meaning the easiest way for your child’s body to assimilate the nutrients) is by feeding your baby meat and other animal products. Red meat and liver have greater zinc and iron concentrations than unfortified plant foods, so offering this regularly will help to meet your baby’s requirements. Some plant foods will also contain iron, but this is in the form of non-haem iron which is not as easily absorbed by the body.

Some favourite sources of haem iron for babies include:

  • Chicken liver (10 mg per 100g)
  • Beef (3.4 mg per 100g – depending on the cut of meat)
  • Lamb (4 mg per 100g – depending on the cut of meat)
  • Sardines (6 mg per 100g)
  • Bone marrow (4.5 mg per 100g)
  • Kangaroo (4.5 mg per 100g)

Some favourite sources of non-haem iron for babies include:

  • Egg yolk (4.5 mg per 100g)
  • Lentils/kidney beans (2-3 mg per 100g)
  • Parsley (8mg per 100g)
  • Spinach (3mg per 100g)
  • Prunes (8mg per 100g)
  • Almonds (4mg per 100g)
  • Pepitas (10mg per 100g)
  • Tahini (5mg per 100g)

What advice do you have for parents of newly solids-eating babies who are worried they aren't getting enough nutrition?

Remember that your little one's main nutritional needs are being met by breastmilk or formula. While your baby does have some additional iron requirements that are no longer being met, don’t underestimate the nutrition power-house that is their milk feed. If your little one isn’t eating much, then we would encourage you to focus only on iron-rich foods. While foods like pancakes and gummies etc are super fun, they are best kept until your baby is ingesting food and having more than one meal a day so that we can prioritise those iron-rich foods.

Do you have to adhere to breakfast/lunch/dinner conventions?

It is important to remember that babies have NO idea what a typical breakfast food is. Also, your typical breakfast foods are generally not that nutritious or iron-rich — toast/cereal/pancakes etc. Babies are often just on one meal a day when starting solids, and often that is at ‘breakfast’ or ‘morning tea time’ — so this is when we would want to offer the iron-rich foods. Dinner leftovers are our favourite as they are quick and easy for busy mornings and tend to contain more iron-rich foods!

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