One of the top things that parents search for when their sweet little newborn starts to get older is “When do I start offering baby food?”, closely followed by “How do I know if my baby is ready for solids?”. Understanding all of the signs that you need to look for as parents is crucial to beginning solids at the right time for your baby. That’s key here, because there really is no magic age, or just one single cue that shows you that they can now safely eat solids. It’s all about watching for the developmental signs of readiness, there are more than one, and once your baby checks off each of those boxes, they’re ready to go. This can happen at slightly different ages for each baby, but usually falls around 6 months old!
Let’s go through all of the readiness signs so you know just what to look for when starting solids with your baby. Then we’ll take a closer look at some of the specific signs that often cause a bit of confusion, and finally, we’ll bust some myths that are out there on this topic too!
If you prefer to listen, you can hear me chat about all of this here.
What are the readiness signs?
There’s so much confusion out there in terms of the readiness signs to look for when starting solids with babies. First, let’s list off everything that you need to look for, and note that your baby has to check each one of these off of the list. If you’d like to download this list to keep on-hand and check off each sign as your baby shows they have that one, you can download it here.
I also want to make sure to note that these signs are the same regardless of whether you’re starting with purees or baby led weaning. The type of food being offered doesn’t change the signs you’ll want to look for – they all have to be there, either way. I often hear people believe that if you’re starting off by only offering thin purees to your baby, you can start them earlier than if you’re beginning with finger foods. Well, that’s actually not true. These signs need to be here regardless, and as I explain each one, you’ll see why. But essentially, what we have to remember is that the signs are there to show that your baby is developmentally ready to begin (so it’s safe), the digestive system is ready for solids, and they’re going to be able to eat successfully and progress so they’re not stuck on purees for months and months.
- Baby has good head and neck control: Just 10-15 years ago, babies were often being started on solids at 3 months, and still now some people are recommending to begin at 4 months, so this was a real concern when beginning this young. Obviously we want your baby to be able to hold their head up on their own, and have control over it, if we are going to be offering food – this comes down to safety and reducing the risk of choking.
- Baby has the ability to sit in an upright position independently: This one often comes with quite a bit of confusion, and requests for clarification, so I’ll be diving into this one a bit more soon.
- Baby has the ability to reach for objects and bring them to their mouth with precision: This doesn’t have to be done with 100% accuracy, but when they pick something up they can bring it to their general mouth area and/or are able to mouth it if they try – this oral exploration is really important for beginning. This is how they are learning about different objects and eventually food. They use their tongue to map things out for fitting in their mouth, they use the sensations in their mouth to determine how hard they have to chew and how to move things around in their mouth, and so it’s a really important sign.
- Showing interest in food! This is one of those signs that people will often hear about. Parents get told to watch for their baby being interested in solid foods because that’s when it’s time to start. Well, it’s partially true. Babies will begin to show interest in what you’re eating, usually around 4 months, but that’s not the only sign you need to look for! I hear from parents all the time that they’re following their baby’s lead, and their baby showed they were interested and ready for solids, which I totally appreciate, and love that you’re wanting to follow their lead BTW – but, I do want to make sure that it’s still safe for your baby, which is what all the other signs are for too. So, while this is a good one to look for, and certainly important, it shouldn’t be used in isolation.
- Diminished tongue thrust reflex: Another one that frequently gets follow up questions, so I’m going to chat about this more later.
- The ability to close their lips around a spoon, hold food in their mouth (at least partially), and swallow. Not too much more to explain here.
So, how long does my baby need to sit independently for?
There’s no minimum time. We want them to just be able to do it long enough that they can sit up safely and eat their meal without toppling or leaning over. I often see things about a 60 second rule, or a 2 minute rule, but this isn’t based on any research. To understand how to evaluate this sign, we need to go back to the reasoning behind this rule.
For example, one reason is that it shows that your baby has the ability to chew. This usually comes hand in hand with their ability to sit upright independently. This is because their core strength is developed enough to allow their jaw, lips, and tongue to begin moving in specific ways, and eventually allows them to move independently of one another.
Another reason for wanting to reach this milestone is that babies who can hold themselves upright independently are able to eat in a safer manner. They’re able to swallow and breathe with an open airway when they’re upright vs. when they’re slouched to the side, leaning forward/backwards, or if in an assisted seating device such as a Bumbo chair (their pelvis is usually tilted in these), because in these positions their airway becomes restricted.
Finally, the last reason is because babies need that core support and ability to sit up so they can lean forward intentionally and hold themselves there, at least momentarily, while they reach for food or a spoon, pick it up with their hands, and explore it. We never want eating to be a passive experience where the baby can’t really move and we just put a spoon in their mouth. Babies need to be an active participant in this journey too!
If your baby can show that they can sit upright, independently, and hold themselves there without constantly toppling over, then it’s a good indicator that meals will be safe, and they’ve developed the core strength to have all those other skills emerge as well. If they tire out before a meal is over, you can support them by rolling up a towel and placing it on either side of their hips to help them out when needed. There’s no need to wait until they can stay upright with no support at all for the entire length of the meal. Also, they don’t need to be able to get into a sitting position themselves, you can put them there, let go, and see if they’re able to keep themselves in that position, without using their hands to support themselves in a tripod sit either.
How “diminished” should the tongue thrust reflex be?
First, let’s go over what the tongue thrust reflex is. This is an automatic reflex, you’ll notice it usually around 3-4 months of age, and it happens when you try to put something into your baby’s mouth, sometimes just from touching their lips you’ll notice the reflex. This is not the same as spitting food out, which your baby will probably do too. So, for example, if you try to place a spoon into their mouth and when the spoon touches their lips their tongue pops out to push the spoon away, that’s the tongue thrust reflex. This mechanism is in place to keep your baby safe from anything going in their mouth that shouldn’t be there, including food, and will diminish over time as your baby begins to mouth more objects, usually around 6 months of age you’ll still see it but it won’t be as prominent.
For how diminished it needs to be, basically, you don’t want food to just come back out of your baby’s mouth and you don’t want to have to wrestle with their tongue to get food in. They should be able to open their mouth wide, accept the spoon or food, and be able to wrap their lips around the food. They may spit food out in the beginning, but this is less of a reflex and more intentional. If you start feeding and notice that the reflex is still very strong, I recommend you stop, end the meal, and try again in a few days or a week to see if it has decreased at all.
What if my baby reaches for things, but not for food?
I hear this a lot from parents, that their baby can reach for objects, such as toys or teethers, but when they put them in their highchair and place some food on the tray – nothing. This is ok! Sometimes babies don’t show interest in self-feeding right away, but being able to do this with objects shows that they have the skills and ability to check this sign off the list.
What about if your baby is at high risk for allergies?
Research says that offering the top allergens to your baby early and often is key to helping prevent them from developing allergies later on in life. So for parents who have a baby that is considered high risk for certain allergies, which can happen if they have an immediate family member with a certain allergy, or have eczema, etc., these parents may be recommended to begin solids earlier than 6 months to get those exposures to allergens in as early as they can.
However, there’s no evidence that this should be all solids. Current recommendations are to exclusively breastfeed, or formula feed, until 6 months of age. There are ways to introduce allergens safely at 4 months, if required, such as mixing powders into a bottle (various options available online), or using very thin purees of those allergens. But, don’t feel as if a full sit down meal is required daily for them, or that all solids need to be introduced. It’s for the purpose of allergen exposure only, and so my recommendation would be to offer only the minimum amount needed to qualify for an exposure of that allergen, and then wait to introduce solids in full until they show all the readiness signs.
Other myths about the readiness signs
Decreased growth or losing weight:
Sometimes I hear from parents who have a baby that has slowed down their growth, or that may have even lost weight, and therefore their baby’s doctor is recommending that they start solids, even though it’s earlier than recommended and they aren’t showing all the signs. The thing with that is that when babies are first starting out on solids, they aren’t consuming very much at all. Certainly not enough to be adding a significant amount of calories to their diet.
Now, let’s just say that after a bit of experience they do begin to eat larger quantities of solids, well then that runs the risk of displacing breastmilk or formula, which we don’t want to see either. Babies’ stomachs are only so big, so if they’re filling some of that up with say, pureed squash and then missing out on some of their breastmilk or formula because of it, they’re essentially trading in something that was very nutrient dense, for something that isn’t. And it’s the nutrient dense things, like breastmilk or formula, that are going to be helping with their growth because, most likely, if you compare mL to mL there will be more calories in the milk than a thin puree like squash or something similar.
If this is something that is happening, my recommendation would be to consider formulas that are out there on the market specifically for providing extra calories, they’re properly formulated for this and will continue to give your baby balanced nutrition.
Baby is waking up at night:
I get this one a lot too! Many parents want to, or are instructed to, introduce solids early when their baby begins waking up at night to feed, and it seems like milk just isn’t enough to fill them. What I want you to remember is that, whether your baby is sleep trained or not, babies do go through sleep regressions, this is normal to have happen, and also, babies only eat to the point of fullness. One thing to consider is whether they’re getting consistent, full milk feeds throughout the day, because even if they seem to eat a lot throughout the day because they’re always “snacking” or having quick feeds, they may still consume less calories than if they had full, complete feeds, which can result in them waking up to eat.
Also, remember that even if they do begin solids, they aren’t going to be getting that much in in the beginning to make a difference calorie-wise, but if they do, it may just displace more important nutrients in their stomach, which is breastmilk/formula. And, if they get to the point that they are consuming enough solids to displace breastmilk/formula, you will then also have to consider whether they’re waking up from being overfed. It’s really difficult to over feed a baby, but if we’re offering purees on a spoon, it can be really easy to continue to offer it, and even push that spoon in, when really they were trying to say they were done a few bites ago.
Another common one, and with this one there is some truth to it. If your baby has reflux, sometimes the recommendation is to begin offering solids because they have more weight and will therefore be more likely to stay in the stomach, as opposed to being on a completely liquid diet. That is the part that has some truth, solids will be more likely to stay down as opposed to liquids. However, just because that is true doesn’t mean that it is warranted to start your baby on solids before they’re ready, or to add baby cereal to their bottle, or anything like that.
If your baby has what would be considered kind of standard reflux, it isn’t really very severe, and no cause for medical concern, then the recommendation would be to just continue to wait until they show all the readiness signs, and then begin them on solids. If your baby has more severe reflux because of a sensitive esophagus, then you need to consult with their doctor, but what they may recommend is medication, or a thickened formula. There are formulas on the market that come with extra starch in them to allow for that thickening, but that have still been balanced to ensure that all the other nutrients your baby needs are being provided as well. This is compared to offering your baby infant cereal, which may displace the properly balanced breastmilk/formula, or adding cereal to their bottle, which again affects the overall nutrients they would be receiving.
All in all, don’t rush it! There is research out there that indicates that starting solids too soon can result in digestive upset, and even an increased risk of obesity. If your doctor is suggesting that you begin earlier than 5.5-6 months, ask them why, and then ask them what evidence they have to support that suggestion. It’s not that they’re trying to cause harm of course, it’s just that there are a lot of changes always happening and it can be hard for your doctor to keep up with every change in recommendation from pediatrics to nutrition, etc. But don’t delay unnecessarily either. Food before one is important, and the timely introduction of solids is required to keep up with the timeline of development of skills and nutrition requirements. My best advice is to go off what your baby can do vs. what age they are.
Once you’re sure they’re ready to begin solids, or even if you’re not, then it’s time to enroll in my Baby Led Feeding online course! I’ll walk you through the readiness signs step-by-step, and then continue to show you from there how to safely serve your baby all foods while continuing to progress in skills and development.