Food before one is just for fun. Is this true? A dietitian dishes.
“Food before one is just for fun – your baby gets all of the nutrition they need from breastmilk,” says your best friend, chiropractor or random woman in that online mom’s group
Is this common phrase true? Yes – food before one should be fun. And food after one should be fun too! But is “fun” the only reason to start solids before a year of age? Can baby meet their nutritional needs with breastmilk until then? No and No. Read on to learn why…
Why do parents wait to start solids?
All major health organizations recommend starting solids at about 6 months of age. Yet some parents may wait until 7, 8, or 9 months or beyond to start solids. Why?
Maybe the parents are terrified because their baby gagged the first time they offered him solids. Maybe the baby was offered solids a few times and wasn’t interested, so the parents gave up, thinking food wasn’t important anyways. Or the parents may think exclusively feeding breastmilk until 12 months will even benefit their baby.
If you’re choking paranoid, realize that gagging and choking are not the same things. Gagging is protective against choking and a part of learning how to eat. Check out this post for more information on offering safe finger foods to prevent choking.
If your baby isn’t taking to solids, it’s ok to take a short break. Maybe they’re too young and not ready. Especially if your baby is under 6 months or was born pre-term. But once your baby is physically ready and around 6 months old it’s very important to offer solids, whether they eat it or not. Eating is a learned skill.
Is breast milk enough for your baby until age one?
Exclusive breastfeeding is not able to meet your little one’s nutrient needs for the entire first year of life. And I am a huge breastfeeding advocate. I nursed my kids until they were all three+ years old, and I’m a board member of the Calgary Breastfeeding Matters Group.
Breast milk is super important for your baby’s nutrition and immune system before six months. And beyond! But it doesn’t contain enough calories or iron to meet growth needs and nutritional requirements alone after about 6 months…more on this below.
Why “food before one is just for fun” is a myth
Your baby needs extra calories and nutrients like iron and zinc to support rapid growth. It’s recommended to start complementary foods around 6 months old for the extra iron.
From birth to 6 months, babies survive with their stores of iron built up during pregnancy. After that, your baby’s stores from before birth start to run out. The amount of stores your baby has depends on: the mom’s blood iron levels in pregnancy, how soon the umbilical cord was clamped (the later, the better) and the baby’s gestational age at birth (the longer, the better – though I can personally say 42.5 weeks is torturous!).
Iron is essential for body and brain development, and deficiency is not uncommon.
One Canadian study tested 8 to 15-month-olds for blood iron levels. They found 33.9% had iron deficiency and 4.3% had anemia (more severe deficiency). Risks of anemia include irreversible physical and mental effects, like delayed attention and social withdrawal.
Breastmilk contains only 0.2 to 0.5mg of iron per litre. After 6 months of life, babies need about 8mg (if an omnivore) or 11mg (if just getting vegetarian sources) iron per day. So you can see why it’s important to start offering a variety of iron-rich foods around 6 months of age.
2) Oral motor skills:
Eating provides practice to improve dexterity and oral motor development. From picking food up, drinking from an open cup, and moving food around in their mouth -it all uses muscles of the fingers, tongue, jaw, cheeks and lips.
These skills develop sooner with practice. If solid foods are introduced after age 9 months, i’s harder for a child to learn how to chew and swallow. This is also why finger foods are important, and not just purees.
3) Sensory exploration:
It’s important that your child is exposed to lots of different smells, textures and tastes early on. Eating is the most difficult sensory task we do, and it involves all eight of our senses. Even if your baby doesn’t consume much, sensory exploration is valuable for “sensory desensitization” and preventing food aversion.
4) Decrease food allergy risk:
Experts used to think that delaying allergens past 12 months of age or longer protected the baby from developing allergies. Now we know the opposite is true: exposing your baby to high-risk allergenic foods early and often can prevent allergies.
Your baby won’t get these important early exposures to decrease the risk of allergy if you wait until after 12 months to introduce solids.
5) Family meals:
There are many benefits to family meals, from better nutritional intake to your child having healthier relationships and better grades! So why not start this habit young?
Your baby can join the family table to learn it’s a pleasant experience. They will learn a lot about food and how to eat from watching you eat!
6) Decrease picky eating:
There’s a theory that early exposure to different textures and flavours early decreases picky eating in those troublesome toddler years. Don’t miss that important developmental window by delaying solids too long!
What if my baby doesn’t eat? Should I be worried?
On one hand, I do like “food before one is just for fun” because it takes the pressure off of parents. If your baby isn’t eating, don’t play airplane with the spoon or force them to finish. This can result in a hatred of the table and eating and a picky eater.
Your baby might be getting in more solids than you think. Has their poop changed from that yellow breastfeeding liquid to more solid? If so, they’re eating something!
But if your baby is 9-10 months old and still not accepting solids, take them to the doctor and request an iron test. If they’re not eating iron sources, they may have low blood iron. Low iron levels can lead to low appetite, so it’s a dangerous cycle.
Or if you think your baby has physical difficulty eating, you could get a referral to a feeding therapist like an occupational therapist or speech-language pathologist specializing in infant feeding.
Even playing with the food is an important learning experience. So keep on offering the food regardless of whether they eat it. And continue to follow the division of responsibility in feeding. The more you pressure them, the more they will refuse.
Summary – Food before one is not just for fun!
Now you know solid food is important for nutrition, oral motor, sensory, and family meal experience and to decrease allergy risk and picky eating. So next time you hear this popular rhyme in that mom’s group online – send them a link to this blog!
If you’re interested in learning more about baby-led weaning, Catch my free webinar” How to get started with Baby-led Weaning” here.
Founder of First Step Nutrition | Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Jen believes raising happy, well-nourished eaters who have a healthy relationship with food doesn't have to be a battle! She is an author and speaker with 18 years of experience specializing in family nutrition and helps parents teach their kids to try new foods without yelling, tricking, or bribing.