Expert Advice

Three core foods parents should be feeding their babies

Introducing babies to solids can be a trying time, but it’s best to give them three core foods at every meal, says nutritionist Julie Bhosale.

By Michelle Duff

What do you do when Grandma slips your baby a Tim Tam? What about when Grandad pops a bowl full of Cheezels down in front of your 10-month-old? Of all the things parents prepare for during the arrival of a new baby, how to deal with the older generation and their laissez-faire attitude to snacks is not one. But this struggle is real.

Nutritionist Julie Bhosale has seen it often enough to dedicate a section in her new book to how to politely deflect treats. These are foods that grandparents would never have fed their own kids, she laments.

Nutritionist Julie Bhosale.
Nutritionist Julie Bhosale.

“Actually have a conversation about it, because it’s better to have it then as opposed to coming home and finding they’ve given them ice cream for dinner and you blow your lid,” Bhosale says. “Work out what your non-negotiables are – but you’ve also got to give them a bit of leeway.”

For example, Bhosale’s in-laws are Indian, but she struck a deal that they would not feed her children any baby rice – a prerequisite that was culturally challenging for them. In return, she now holds her tongue when they give her two young sons a biscuit, of which she has none in the house. “It could be much worse.”

Since completing her Heart Foundation-funded PhD thesis at Auckland University of Technology in 2015, looking at childhood risk factors for heart disease and obesity, Bhosale has been building her profile. She has written two books on early childhood nutrition, hosts speaking engagements nationwide and has a big online following. On Facebook, thousands log in to watch her live Q&As about how to start babies on solid foods.

This is also the topic of her new book, The Nourished Baby. For today’s time-poor parents, who often live apart from their extended family, knowing what to feed their child can be a challenge – especially when navigating commercially produced baby foods, Bhosale says.

Take iron-fortified baby rice, for example. Farex is one of the main brands, and most baby food manufacturers will have at least one type on offer. It’s commonly accepted, including by Plunket, as being an appropriate first food for babies from six months. But Bhosale disagrees.

In essence, she says, it’s a processed product that includes grains that are not easy for babies to digest until they’re at least 12 months. When she wrote a blog explaining this, the response was overwhelming. “I knew there was a gap in knowledge, just from the response I had from people who struggle. There’s a major lack of new, evidence-based guidelines for mums.”

A newborn’s gut takes two years to mature and is the hub for digestion, immunity and metabolism. In the sterile environment of the womb, there are no bacteria. The baby’s gut is colonised in three stages: through birth, breastfeeding or formula feeding, and solids, Bhosale says. Research has shown that solid food is a major indicator of future health, including obesity and auto-immune diseases such as asthma, eczema and allergy. “It can influence energy production, insulin resistance and how sugar and fat effectively are burnt as a fuel. It is so important for long-term health.”

But as a new mum, Bhosale witnessed first-hand some of the factors that influence parents when it comes to feeding their child. This includes the idea that babies should be started on solids before the World Health Organization’s recommendation of six months. Many parents are told – often by relatives – that babies will “sleep through the night” if they start solids earlier. But there’s no research to back this up, Bhosale says.

“They’re not ready and it’s not needed, and if your baby’s not sleeping, that’s not going to fix it. It’s not a solids problem, but that’s what everyone suggests. In fact, a baby’s not necessarily going to sleep through the night at four months, no matter what.

“But when you’re in that early time period, you’re very vulnerable. It’s like a form of sleep deprivation. For months, you don’t think straight, you’re exhausted. You’ll try anything.”

Bhosale is also highly critical of the billion-dollar baby food industry, which she says is marketing developmentally unsuitable food to vulnerable parents. “There is a need for baby food, without question, but it’s the quality that’s the problem. I’m seeing chocolate and sugary custard that is barely food at all advertised for babies as young as four months.”

However, parents often reason with her that it’s fine to give their baby the occasional treat. Bhosale’s point is simple: it’s actually not. “We’re not talking about a toddler, we’re not talking about a 10-year-old, we’re talking about a baby and this is their first food.”

So what should parents be offering? Bhosale says there are three core foods that babies need at every meal: vegetables; a high iron source such as meat, tofu, or spinach; and a good source of dietary fats. The newest research shows even saturated fats – such as butter, skin on chicken, coconut milk, the fatty parts of meat, ghee and olive oil – hold high nutritional value for babies. “The truth is 40-50% of breast milk is fat, and there’s no reason that ratio should change when you introduce complementary foods.”

Many of the parents she sees are wary of introducing meat, unaware it is a source of one of the most easily absorbed forms of iron and of fat and B vitamins. “It should be introduced really quickly” – including for breakfast. “Babies don’t know any different. Breakfast has a social connotation. It’s made up.”

But, she stresses, there’s no need to be perfect. “In those first six months, you’ve just got this golden window where babies are so willing to try foods and you have to capitalise on that. It’s about opening their palate up to all those foods and populating their gut with good bacteria, which will then stimulate their metabolism. Then, when they’re toddlers, it’s not the high sugar foods that they’re craving. That’s my next book, by the way.”

Via New Zealand Listener