When you first start solids, and up until about 18 months, babies are fairly accepting of new foods that you introduce—I call this the “honeymoon stage of feeding”—where they enthusiastically experiment with and taste anything that you put in front of them.
This is why picky eating rarely occurs during this stage and surfaces in the older-toddler or preschool years instead. Babies aren’t cut from the same cloth though—some babies accept solids better than others, and some progress at different rates. Many parents have told me that they feel as though their baby hardly ingests any of the food served, because after the meal, their baby and the highchair is covered with bits of food. I’ve been there too – many times with my three kids. In most cases, this is normal, and your baby is likely eating what he or she needs, if you are paying close attention to their cues.
What’s normal and what’s not?
It’s important to keep in mind that breast milk and/or formula still provides the majority of baby’s nutrition up until about nine months (solids only provide about one fifth of baby's nutrition up until this point, and then just under half of baby's nutrition from nine to eleven months), which means that although important to introduce a wide variety of foods early on (and certain key nutrients), these first few months are largely for experimenting, playing with and learning about food!
Know that it’s normal for babies to reject food at first (even within the first couple of weeks), and that it’s important to keep re-introducing foods (without pressuring). If your baby continues to reject most foods into the seventh or eighth month, however (whether pureed and offered by spoon, or soft finger foods), it may be time to seek professional help from a Pediatric Dietitian or feeding expert to see whether there are oral-motor or sensory issues present.
Could you be perpetuating the problem?
If a baby has trouble with solids, you may start to pressure your baby mealtime (without even realizing it), spoon-feeding in a way that doesn’t support baby’s natural feeding cues (e.g. putting a spoonful of food into baby’s mouth when he isn’t ready or willing to take it). On the other hand, parents may take food away too quickly—before baby is finished—if they aren’t feeding in a “responsive” way (on baby's cue) or are rushing through to get to the next task, or if they’re worried that their baby is overeating (which is almost impossible if they’re self-feeding).
If either of these non-responsive feeding strategies are used regularly, problems can escalate quickly. Any form of pressured feeding in infancy can lead not only to mistrust and anxiety when it comes eating, but it can also create picky eating issues and even cause growth and development issues such as failure to thrive.
Timing is key
It's important to make sure that you're introducing solids at the right time--not too early and not too late. There is a "sweet-spot" window of opportunity around the age of six months of age (adjusted for prematurity) that seems to be the best time to start solids (some babies are ready in their 4th or 5th month), but more importantly, you should pay attention to your baby's cues and introduce solids when he is ready.
The signs of readiness are:
- Baby can sit up independently without support
- Baby is showing interest in solid foods, perhaps grasping at or reaching out for the food that you're eating.
- Baby can turn head to indicate fullness
- Baby can grasp onto food that is placed on tray
If your baby is rejecting certain foods all together:
When presented with a new food, babies often make funny faces or, or spit it out right away. Some parents take this as “rejection” and assume that their baby doesn’t like that food.
Not the case! “Food Neophobia” is a term that was coined by Leanne Birch, a Pennsylvania State Psychology professor, to describe a fear of the new, and in this case, new food. In most cases, the reaction that babies give to a new and unfamiliar food is nowhere close to a phobia but a normal reaction to something foreign and unknown (think of when you, as an adult, are offered something foreign to eat). Although a baby may reject a new food after the first (or several) offers, with repeated (I'm talking 15-20 times) non-pressured exposure, she will eventually warm up to it and accept it. If you limit your baby’s menu to only what she loves now, she won’t have the opportunity to widen her palate.
Here are eight common reasons why your baby may not be eating solids as well as expected:
1) Baby comes to the table full:
Babies have small stomachs, so you want to make sure that you’re feeding frequently—every two hours or so, and then every two to three hours once baby reaches about 12 months. At six months, babies should still be either breast fed on demand or offered four to five bottle feeds per day. At first, you can offer solids once or twice a day, one to two teaspoons at a time (and more as baby cues for it) between breast or bottle feeds--whenever it’s most convenient for you and your baby. You can increase to three to five times (meals and then eventually snacks) per day as your baby gets older. There is no rule that you must breast or formula feed your baby prior to offering solid foods, but many parents feel more comfortable doing this. The issue with this strategy is that your baby may come to the table feeling full and therefore will not be as open to eating solid foods. When babies reject solids, parents often assume that they don’t like them or aren’t interested when really their baby is full from their breast or bottle feed. Make sure that you give your baby a bit of time before offering solids after a full breast or formula feed—an hour or so--to develop a bit of an appetite. On the other hand, you want to make sure that your baby isn’t too hungry when he or she comes to the table—fussiness may deter your baby from trying new foods. Your baby should be alert and slightly hungry when he comes to the table.
2) Baby is too tired or fussy:
If you bring your baby to the table and offer solids right before a nap or bedtime, you may find that your baby is fussy and disinterested. Make sure that you’re offering solids when your baby is alert and happy.
3) Baby prefers a different texture:
As mentioned above, some babies prefer purees over soft finger foods or vice versa. And this could change daily! Before spending hours and hours pureeing months’ worth of homemade food for your baby, do a bit of experimenting when you first introduce solids to see what your baby prefers and which method works best for you and your family as well. You may be surprised to find that your baby self-feeds like a charm. For all three of our babies, we did a combination of soft finger foods and purees, depending on the day and situation.
Some parents become concerned and even label their baby as a “picky eater” when they find that their baby all of a sudden starts rejecting the pureed veggies that she had previously devoured daily. Often, after a few unsuccessful attempts to feed the same food, well-meaning parents give up and stop offering it. Try to have an open mind and be creative with how you present foods to your baby—she may want to transition to a lumpier texture (or self-feed with finger foods) sooner than you thought!
4) Eating environment is too distracting:
If your baby is distracted by toys, music, screens, or siblings (perhaps trying to play with the baby), she may become too distracted to focus on her food. Try to create a healthy and distraction-free environment (preferably at a family table) for your baby to test and enjoy solids foods.
5) Baby feels too much pressure:
If you are uptight or anxious at mealtimes, worried about if and how much your baby is eating and perhaps hovering or focusing too much on what she is doing, she may start to feel pressured and anxious herself and eat less because of it. Mealtimes should be fun, calm and relaxed, and this starts with the parents' demeanor. Remember to smile, laugh and stay positive. Take the pressure off of yourself knowing that it is 100% up to baby whether she eats her food and how much she eats. Although you might be tempted to hover over her and analyze her every bite (or lack thereof), try to sit back and focus on your meal, every now and then turning to her with a smile as she experiments with the foods on her tray. If you choose to spoon-feed, follow her cues as to when to bring the spoon to her mouth and when to stop (and it's ok to pause and eat some food yourself too!
6) Baby isn’t permitted to “Play”:
Playing, smushing, and smearing food is totally normal and a big part of learning to accept it (even if the food doesn't actually reach your babies mouth!). Mealtimes with babies are about much more than just eating and nutrition. Babies learn so much from family meals –how to sit and eat with others, how to model after parents and older siblings, and basic social and cultural norms of eating. But they also get their first “taste” of sensory play. Because babies don’t get many other opportunities to do this (you wouldn’t let your baby play with play dough or in the sandbox, or finger paints), eating and being able to play with their food serves as a great opportunity for them (until they’re a bit older) to explore, play, feel and learn. Let your baby play!
7) Baby isn’t comfortable:
If your baby comes to the table with clothes that are too tight, a full diaper, is gassy or constipated, or in pain due to teething, you may have little luck with getting her to eat. Babies may take a solid food hiatus if they are teething, or may prefer softer textures during this time. My daughter--a finger food eater from day one—refused to eat solids when she was teething around eight or nine months. Instead of giving up, I offered her softer, cooler, more soothing foods such as yogurt, cottage cheese, apple sauce, and bananas, which she accepted much better.
8) Baby can’t grasp foods:
If you choose to feed your baby finger foods right from six months (perhaps you’ve chosen to do baby-led weaning), you may be tempted to cut your baby’s food into teeny tiny pieces so that he doesn’t choke. The thing is, babies don’t have the fine motor skills to pick up tiny pieces of food and bring them to their mouths until they are around eight or nine months old (or older). This may be why your baby isn’t eating much at mealtime, when really, he wants to! It’s important to ensure food pieces are large enough that your baby can grasp onto them, or easily stick to little wet hands (this is why Puffies are so perfect!).
Great finger foods include whole grain toast strips (with butter), skinless, boneless chicken thighs cut length-wise, or a slice of pear (peeled). I would often leave a bit of banana peel on a banana before offering it to my daughter, so that she could grip it easily. Your baby should be able to pick up his food, bring it to his mouth, and “gum” away at it. It is normal for baby to “miss” his mouth or drop his food, but as long as he can bring it to his mouth, it’s likely appropriate. It is still very important to avoid foods that pose a risk of choking for the first two years of life (or even longer), such as hard fruits and vegetables (e.g. raw carrots), stringy foods (ie. celery), nuts and seeds, whole grapes, a gob of peanut butter (I thinly spread on toast strips), and wieners and popcorn.