When your baby is first starting to eat table foods it can be exciting to expose them to all of your favourite foods. Sometimes nutrition can take a backseat when it comes to feeding your baby. As a Registered Dietitian, I want to help make it easier for you to choose the most nutritious choices for your baby from the start.
During your baby's first year of life, most of their nutrition is coming from milk (breast milk or formula). Once your baby is around 6 months old and starting solid foods, their nutritional needs change and increase gradually. Their growing bodies begin to rely more on table foods and less on milk. This happens slowly and milk is still the main source of nutrition until around 12-24 months. The nutritional needs of babies don't look much different whether you are choosing to introduce solid foods with baby-led weaning, or taking a more traditional spoon-feeding route.
Is Food Before One "Just for fun"?
This catchy phrase is often used to suggest that if your baby isn't a "good" eater it isn't a problem because food is meant just for play before 12 months. Though this phrase is often used with the best intentions, it is not necessarily true.
Breast milk and formula are your baby's main source of nutrition from 6-12 months but there are many important nutrients (namely iron) that your baby gets from table food. Eating experiences from 6-12 months can impact a baby's acceptance of foods such as vegetables later on. Eating is also important for babies to learn how to handle a variety of textures. If your baby is only exposed to pureed textures and doesn't progress to lumpy textures and finger foods, this can lead to future eating challenges.
In summary, food before one is for the introduction of nutrient-dense foods with a variety of textures. But eating should always be fun, at any age.
First Foods: Important Nutrients
One of the most important nutrients to consider when choosing your baby's first foods is iron. Iron is required for making hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells that carries oxygen to the body's organs and muscles. Iron is essential for baby's growth and brain development.
Most healthy babies have adequate iron stores to last them until around 6 months old. Breast milk and formula do contain some iron, but not enough to meet a 6-12 month old's iron needs. Iron-rich foods should be offered at least once daily.
Where to find it?
There are two types of iron, heme and non-heme. Heme is the better-absorbed form of iron, found in animal foods. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods, baby cereal, and eggs.
Heme Iron Sources
Chicken liver (limit to chicken liver only, once per week, due to vitamin A content)
Non-Heme Iron sources
Iron-fortified baby cereal
Pumpkin Seed Butter (thinly spread or diluted, can be a choking hazard)
NOTE: Early introduction of fluid cow's milk (before 9 months) can result in iron deficiency. Yogurt, cheese, and recipes containing milk are appropriate but should not represent the majority of the diet for a baby less than 12 months old.
Fat is essential for babies' growth, development, and the absorption of some vitamins. High-fat sources should not be restricted for babies under 24 months. High-fat foods are important additions to a healthy diet and can help babies meet their daily calorie needs, in addition to their breast milk and formula intake. Omega-3 fats, DHA in particular, are important for baby's brain development.
Where to find it?
Try to include a source of fat at every meal for your baby. Adding oil or butter to vegetables can help to raise the calorie content. Fatty fish is the best source of omega-3, try to serve fatty fish twice per week, and eat some yourself if you are breastfeeding. Though there are plant-based sources of omega-3 fat (APA), it is difficult to achieve appropriate amounts without supplementation.
Cooking oils (olive, avocado, coconut)
Coconut (unsweetened, shredded)
Nut and seed butters (serve thinly spread or diluted, can be a choking hazard)
Fatty Fish examples:
Vitamin D is essential for healthy development and maintenance of bones and teeth.
Where to find it?
It is not possible to meet a baby's vitamin D requirements from food alone. Though vitamin D can be absorbed from the sun, infants should not be exposed to direct sunlight. The best way to meet your baby's vitamin D needs is with supplementation. Commercial formula is already fortified with vitamin D. Breastfed babies should receive a 400IU/day vitamin D supplement.
Fruits & Vegetables
It might surprise you to know that vegetables are not the most important foods, nutritionally, for babies 6-12 months old. Though vegetables are very nutritious, they lack the iron and fat that is so important for growing babies. Many of the nutrients contained in vegetables are already present in breast milk or formula. However, introducing vegetables in their whole form is important for exposure to their taste and texture.
Exposing babies to a wide variety of vegetables can help reduce picky eating and increase their acceptance of them into toddlerhood and beyond.
Most babies love fruit, it has a sweet taste like breast milk and the texture is typically soft and easy to eat. There is no reason to wait to introduce fruits after vegetables but try to focus on more frequent exposure of harder-to-like foods (strong flavoured fish, bitter vegetables) than easy-to-like fruit. Hiding the taste of vegetables with fruit, as is often done with purees, is also not recommended because it limits the exposure opportunity to whole vegetables.
One great nutrient that many fruits and vegetables contain is Vitamin C, which can help improve the absorb-ability of iron. Try to include a source of vitamin C with every iron source, especially plant-based sources of iron.
Vegetables high in Vitamin C
Bell peppers (especially red)
Fruits high in Vitamin C
How Much Should Babies Eat?
One major benefit of baby-led weaning is that it naturally allows babies to eat according to their own hunger and fullness signals. Babies intuitively know how much to eat and since their main source of nutrition is still breast milk or formula, there is absolutely no reason for adults to push a baby to eat more or less.
When first starting out (around 6 months), you only need to offer one meal a day. A few pieces of food is sufficient for baby to taste and explore. Gradually increase the number of meals your baby is offered, they will gradually reduce the quantity of milk they are drinking.
Foods to Avoid
Added sugar and salt should be limited for babies under 12 months. Focusing on whole and homemade foods over processed foods is ideal. Avoid adding salt to your baby's food while cooking and at the table. Sweeten recipes with applesauce or a mashed banana rather than sugar or maple syrup. Honey should be strictly avoided for babies under 12 months.
Building a Healthy Plate
When choosing which foods to feed your baby at mealtimes, focus on three major nutrients: iron, fat, and vitamin C (for iron absorption). Including a vegetable with at least one meal per day is also important for exposure.
For examples on building a healthy plate for your baby, download the Baby Led Weaning Meal Building Guide
Want more information?
It is my mission to arm parents with a wealth of information so you can make the best choice about feeding your family. I will continue to provide more information on this blog on the topic of baby-led weaning. If you are eager to learn more, join a baby-led weaning workshop for a comprehensive overview on baby-led weaning and everything you need to know to get started. Don't forget to follow the Nourished Nest Nutrition Instagram page for baby-led weaning tips and meal ideas.
The nutrition information contained in this resource is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician, registered dietitian, or other qualified healthcare provider with respect to any questions you may have regarding the nutritional requirements based upon a medical condition. Reliance upon any content provided in this resource is solely at your own risk. Speak with your health provider if you suspect your child may have a condition or delay that would prevent them from eating safely.