Expert Advice

What you need to know about your baby starting solids

Don't wait to give them meat and allergenic foods, an expert says.

By Karyn Henger

For the first few months of your baby's life, all he or she needs to be nourished is milk, but at around six months of age, solid foods need to be introduced - and meat should be one of your baby's first foods says Kiwi nutrition expert Dr Julie Bhosale.

Dr Bhosale believes Kiwi parents are leaving it too late to introduce their babies to meat and allergenic foods, which is putting their baby's health at risk. She has made it her mission to cut through the conflicting advice for parents around starting solids and present them with the (research-backed) facts.

She has written a book, The Nourished Baby, and has strong evidence-based views on what parents should be feeding their babies, as well as around baby-led weaning and why so many children suffer from food allergies.

We caught up with her this week:

Dr Julie Bhosale with her sons Arjun and Sahan.
Dr Julie Bhosale with her sons Arjun and Sahan.

What foods should you start your baby on?

The first foods for a baby should be vegetables - vegetables in frequency and vegetables in variety - only 20 per cent of all infants around the globe are actually starting off on vegetables.

It is also important to introduce meat straight away - so that's vegetables followed by a high-iron source.

Meat is the most easily absorbed form of iron for babies - and iron deficiency is the number one infant nutrient deficiency around the world at the moment, both in underdeveloped countries and developed countries. I strongly believe that is because iron-rich foods are not encouraged right from the start.

It’s a major concern because iron is a key nutrient that fuels a baby’s brain development and a good part of the neural connections being made in your baby’s brain happen in that first year. And of course all babies' iron stores drop off at about six months of age so they have to be replenished with those complementary foods.

Would meat be difficult for a baby's gut to process?

No. You will find that with grains and rice - babies don’t have the enzymes to digest and break down grains in full until about 10-12 months of age, and that is what causes problems in the gut, which can cause frequent waking at night.

I’ve never come across any evidence to show that meat is going to cause any digestive problems. In fact, not getting meat in is going to cause some problems, both in terms of the iron and if you're actually wanting your baby to sleep through the night. If there is a magic cure [to getting your baby to sleep through] it's getting more protein and fat into their diet that’s going to last them through the night.

What if a family practices vegetarianism?

Obviously there is the rise of a vegetarian diet for babies and the research is quite clear - yes, you can raise your baby on a vegetarian diet but it is going to take extra work and I think feeding a baby is a lot of work anyway. You have to be prepared to get the baby regularly tested for their iron levels.

Obviously there are a lot of reasons why people choose vegetarian diets and I’m not saying I’m against it. I think if you’re making that choice for your baby you have got to do it with your eyes wide open, and that’s what the research is saying as well.

You also have strong views on why so many children suffer from food allergies...

There has been an exponential rise in the presence of allergy in children - in fact one in 10 children will be diagnosed with an allergy, and the research is clear: that genetics alone is not sufficient enough to have been associated with such an exponential rise. It’s because we are withholding introducing allergenic foods.

Parents should be introducing allergenic foods straight away or as soon as possible - at around six months.

The three top allergenic foods are peanuts, eggs and fish.

If there is a severe risk of an allergy within the family then you go get tested first. And then you’re not going to introduce those foods because you’re going to kick-start that immune system response, but it’s been shown that even in the risk of allergy, even if someone in your immediate family has that allergy, infants that are not diagnosed with the allergy need to be introduced early.

There have been quite a few groundbreaking studies on this.

What about method - purees or baby-led weaning?

It’s not how you feed them, it's what you feed your baby that matters and I think that message is getting conflicted.

The positives of baby-led weaning are that it fully engages the senses for the babies which is very important. Babies get to touch and taste and experience the foods and all of these processes are involved in releasing the saliva in a baby’s mouth in order to get them ready to start eating; they also get to develop their motor skills. But you can do the same with pureed food - you just need to deal with the mess.

When you look at foods that babies need to get in, which are high-iron foods and vegetables, you are going to struggle to get those foods physically into a child at six to seven months of age just with the baby-led weaning approach.

Take the middle of the road - the research is very clear and it’s to do both a mixture of baby-led weaning and purees.

Baby-led weaning is widely accepted as being when you offer your baby a selection of soft finger foods and they feed themselves - as opposed to being spoon-fed purees.

Some babies take to starting solids better than others - why is that?

Something that doesn't often get talked about is what I call 'emotional readiness', which will be different for each baby. Learning to eat is a challenge and it’s kind of like learning to ride a bike - some kids are going to get on that bike and be off, some kids are going to struggle and take their time. Some kids are going to need a lot of positive encouragement.

Learning to eat is no different and what’s hard when you’re a first-time mum is that your baby can’t tell you 'hey this is a bit of a challenge for me today, it’s not going to go so well'.

When you’re breast or bottle-feeding they are tucked in close to you, but most babies will start solid feeding in a highchair opposite you with their feet off the ground - and that in itself is quite a change already for babies. Then you have the whole hand-eye coordination, which is regardless of whether you use a spoon or not.

And then of course there is the speed - breast or bottle feeding is very fast so going from that convenient food on tap to all of a sudden a potentially slower process of getting food in. All of that is a challenge.