If there's one phrase we see thrown around all the time that makes us cringe, it's "food before one is just for fun!" Food before 1 is so much more than just for fun! Introducing baby to solid foods can be both exciting and nerve-racking. The early months of feeding set the tone for your baby's lifelong relationship with food and are critical for shaping food preferences and ensuring baby is receiving key nutrients for growth.
We understand the intentions are good when this phrase is used. Maybe another mom is stressing about how much her baby is or isn't eating, has questions about if she's doing it "right", or is concerned about her baby's growth. So we reassure her by saying "don't worry, food before one is just for fun!" Yes, we want parents to have fun feeding their baby, and oftentimes, we work to reduce a parent's anxiety surrounding solid foods as they may perceive a problem when baby is actually on the right path to becoming a happy eater! But in the big picture, we are doing a disservice by spreading this message. Here's a few reasons why food before one is an important milestone and is more than just for fun.
A Developmental Milestone
Learning to eat food is a learned skill just like rolling over, walking and talking. It takes time. I think we often expect eating to just come naturally to babies, but there's a lot going on that needs to be practiced over time. Oral coordination, biting, chewing, swallowing, practicing pincer grasp, becoming familiar with utensils, drinking from an open cup and/or a straw. Eating is a very physical skill. On top of that, babies are also learning what foods taste like and how different flavors, temperatures and textures stimulate their senses. From a social perspective, this is also when babies begin to learn table manners, how to sit at the table and be part of a meal experience. There is so much going on during this developmental phase, so it requires a lot of patience from parents and caregivers as we really want babies and young children to go at their own pace just like we would with other developmental milestones.
Up to age 1, breastmilk and formula do supply baby with most of the nutrition they need to grow. However, there are some key nutrients such as iron and zinc that are critical for baby's development and need to be obtained from solid foods. Around 4-6 months, a baby's iron stores that were built up in utero have depleted. Breastmilk, while a source of iron, just won't be enough to ensure baby gets what he needs. This is why we recommend focusing on iron-rich foods as soon as baby is ready to start solids.
We now know that introducing babies early and often to the top food allergens may help reduce their risk of developing food allergies. This is especially important for infants at high risk for food allergies. Delaying solid food or the introduction of common allergens may lead to missing this crucial opportunity.
We like to call the first months of feeding baby (between starting solids and toddlerhood) the "honeymoon phase." It's when babies are most likely to try a wide variety of foods. Once they reach toddlerhood, children often become more selective in their eating due to having slowed growth and a lower appetite, a need for autonomy and control, and a general fear of trying unfamiliar things. We can use this honeymoon phase to expose children to a wide variety of foods, flavors, textures and temperatures. Having more exposure may help decrease selective eating in the toddler years (although not a guarantee).
The first months of feeding baby are exploratory, and we shouldn't be stressing or pressuring baby to move at a pace that doesn't feel right for them. However, we do need to be mindful about offering key nutrients, allowing for plenty of practice, and providing a relaxed, pressure-free environment that supports learning and exploration.
Red Flags to Look For
If you've started solids and you're concerned about how it's going, it never hurts to ask questions! Your pediatrician or a pediatric dietitian is a great place to start. Here are a few red flags we look for that might require some extra support from a medical professional.
Looking for More?
If you're looking for some detailed guidance on when and how to feed your little one, our Baby's 1st Bites toolkit may be a great fit for you!
We also offer one-on-one counseling for families wanting more personalized guidance or those who may have hit a speed bump on their feeding journey. You can schedule a FREE discovery call to chat with one of our pediatric dietitians about the best fit for your family!
To be really clear, please have fun feeding your baby. This is an amazing milestone that can bring so much joy to families, so enjoy it! Just keep in mind that it's not all about fun. It's our job to set our little ones up for success along their journey. With a little strategy, you can have fun and support your baby's growth, development, and lifelong relationship with food!