There is no dearth of advice for Indian mothers and fathers about the solid foods and liquid foods to feed their babies. From the mother-in-law, to the maid, to the visiting aunt, to the neighbour, everyone knows someone who fed their child something different, which of course, the baby loved. A lot of the advice that comes our way can be good. But some has no justification, based on science.
Here we offer you some tips based on current research and thinking. This can help you sift through the various options that are available.
Your newborn must start breastfeeding, preferably within an hour of birth. For the first few days after your baby is born, your body will produce a special breastmilk called "colostrum". It is thicker and yellower than normal milk. Colostrum contains nutrients, a high proportion of protein and boosts the newborn's immunity during the first two to three weeks when he is most vulnerable.
0 to 6 months
The Indian Academy of Pediatrics and the Ministry of Women and Child Development of India, strongly recommend that the mother breastfeed exclusively for the first six months1,2. Breastmilk contains all the nutrients which the baby needs to grow. These include proteins, fat, carbohydrates, sugar, water and also antibodies that protect the child. Breast milk is easier for babies to digest than any other food. Also, it gives baby a physical intimacy with the mother and allows lasting bond to grow between the two.
No other food or liquid is necessary for the baby during this period (unless your doctor advises you otherwise). There is no need for cow's milk, sugar water, honey water, fruit juices, vegetable juices, milk powder etc. to be given to the baby during this period. Breast milk contains all the nutrition and hydration required by the baby.
Some mothers do not lactate. In this case, an infant baby formula that is iron fortified is the best alternative choice. A number of formulas over the last few years have also been fortified with DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) and ARA (Arachidonic acid). ARA is also abbreviated as AA sometimes. The scientific research into the benefits of this fortification are inconclusive. However, these are compounds that are found in breast milk and are also generated during pregnancy for transmission from the mother to the baby. These acids have been shown to help in the baby's brain development and are also naturally produced by the human body from other sources3.
7th month - Starting solid foods
When your baby is six months old, she is ready to try newer foods. Breastmilk should remain the primary food up to 12 months but other foods can be added to the diet. The latter are only complementary to breast milk.
Sometimes babies have food allergies. These tips can help you isolate it.
- Introduce new foods to your baby, one at a time.
- When introducing new foods, use only one new ingredient and not multiple new ones.
- Try a food for 3 - 5 days or even a week, and then try another.
- Use new foods with one ingredient instead of multiple.
The first food to introduce to your baby can be iron-fortified rice cereal. You can mix this with water or breast milk and feed to the baby. Once your baby is used to the rice cereal, you can move on to barley and oat cereals also.
Although the Indian national guidelines on infant feeding (from the Ministry of Women and Child Development) suggest that wheat based cereal (or porridge) maybe given to the baby, medical research recommends against this because of the gluten content in wheat.
Similarly, the guidelines recommend that ghee and sugar can be added to the meal. Most medical researchers recommend that sugar, and salt (and other spices) not be added to the first foods prepared for baby. Choosing to add ghee or not is up to the parent.
Once the baby starts eating cereals, vegetables and fruits can be next on the list. Cook, blend (in a mixie) and strain the vegetables and fruits completely without lumps, so baby can easily swallow. The prepared food should have the consistency of puree.
Vegetables & fruits that can be used are:
- Sweet potatoes
Babies appear to prefer the tastes of yellow vegetables (Carrots, pumpkins etc.) and fruits (bananas, mangos etc.) better than green ones. You can try starting with these first to help baby get used to vegetables and fruits.
Over time, you can also use dal water to make the food.
8th month - Mashed foods
The baby maybe ready to move up from purees to mashed foods. Mashed foods have a slightly higher solid consistency with some lumps here and there to help baby learn to chew. Slowly transition to a more solid consistency and stop if your baby does not appear to like it. Give your baby some time to get adjusted to the more solid food.
Traditional Indian mixed foods made out of grains or flour (including wheat-based ones) can be mashed with the hand or a spoon and given to the baby. These include:
- Suji Kheer
You can also add some dairy based products like:
- Cheese (simple basic types)
Cow's milk should not be given to the baby till she is at least a year old.
This can also be the month when you introduce meat (chicken) into the baby's diet.
Natural fruit juices, coconut water, buttermilk can also be liquids you can add to the baby's diet at this time.
9th month - Finger foods
The baby is now ready to pick up some foods with her fingers and eat them. A high chair maybe useful at this time.
You can cut up some of the following foods into tiny pieces and offer it for baby to eat by himself.
- Peeled apples
Fully cooked egg yolk can also be given to the baby. Egg whites should be postponed after the first birthday due potential allergic reactions.
10th month- 12th month
After mastering eating with his fingers, the baby will try and eat foods with a spoon. This can get messy in a hurry. But let him do it as it helps his physical development and he can eat at his own pace.
During this period, your baby should be transitioned to eating what is cooked for the family, with some exceptions. While doing this be careful with the spiciness of the food you serve baby.
You will be trying to wean your baby from breastfeeding (unless you choose to feed your baby breastmilk past the first year also). Take your time doing this. Some babies do this easily while others don't. With the latter kind, don't be abrupt, instead ease them into a non-breastmilk diet.
With the right help from you, your baby can easily transition to solid foods and set herself on the path of healthy eating habits.
1. Indian Academy of Pediatrics, IAP Policy on Infant Feeding
2. Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, "National Guidelines on Infant and Young Child Feeding", 2004
3. Singh M, "Essential fatty acids, DHA and human brain", Indian J Pediatr 2005;72:239-42