Babies’ digestive systems were designed to be exclusively breastfed the first 6 months of life. (The American Academy of Pediatrics and WHO both recommend exclusive breastfeeding until about 6mo of age unless medically indicated.) Some babies mature faster than others and can start on food a little earlier but by 6 months almost all of them should be ready to digest foods other than milk. Other signs of readiness are sitting up unassisted (otherwise baby can’t swallow properly), ability to grab something and place it in their mouth, willingness to chew, and interest in participating in mealtime. Once all criteria are met baby is ready for starting solids. Giving baby solid food once they start grabbing at things or eating more frequently are not signs of readiness. Some babies can grab long before they can sit up on their own or show any other signs of readiness. A breastfed baby who suddenly nurses more frequently or drinks more expressed milk and is thriving and happy after their feeding is not in need of supplementation either.
Rice cereal with iron fortification – this is a popular one in western culture and commonly started before 6 months. However, until babies are over one year of age they do not make enough of the enzyme amylase to digest grains. Biologically, they also do not need additional iron at this time. All mammals milk does not contain iron but does contain lactoferrin which binds random floating iron particles. Iron interferes with zinc absorption (needed for mental development) and pathogens feed on it. Naturally low iron levels in newborns protect him from infections. Once a baby is ready for solids, naturally iron rich food sources are meat and eggs. Grains don't offer any nutrients necessary for growth but sweet potatoes, fish, bananas, carrots, and cheese do. However, an exception is plain long grain white rice which contains glutamine. Glutamine helps heal the gut lining making organic white rice cereals gentle on babies stomachs.
When to introduce solids - Many babies are ready for solids by 6months but some might not be until later. For the first 12 months of a breastfed baby’s life, his primary nutrition is from breast milk. Also, continuing to breastfeed while introducing new foods in this period of time helps populate baby’s intestines with necessary enzymes and bacteria to digest the new substances. Until a baby is eating regularly and nursing less, food is more for exploration than nutrition until baby is over a year old.
Baby-led weaning – Not a very well known or popular approach to starting solids in western culture. This actually leads to less choking, less pickiness, and appreciation of baby’s fullness self regulation – a natural extension of breastfeeding. Spoon feeding babies mush before they are ready to feed themselves bypasses their natural tongue-thrust reflux and can lead to choking, doesn’t allow for self-regulation (unless you wait for them to bring your finger or spoon towards their mouth), and doesn’t let them experience different textures of food. Babies allowed to feed themselves learn what food is earlier and are less likely to choke on non food items as they have experience maneuvering food from the front to the back of their mouths and know what it tastes like and what the texture is. They are also less likely to be picky eaters since they are eating what they want, as much as they want, on their own free will. Babies will tend to gravitate towards flavors they are familiar with. For example, garlic flavoring even shows up in amniotic fluid! Bland mush may not be as well received as something seasoned and flavorful that the baby is used to through your diet during pregnancy and via breastmilk.
What to feed baby? Once baby is ready for solids you can feed them anything that is soft enough and non-chokable with the exception of honey. Honey should never be given to babies under 12 months since the spores in the honey can cause food poisoning. However, caution should be used with every new food to see if it agrees with baby especailly if allergies run in the family. Signs to look for would be: redness around the butt during bowel movements or a rash around the mouth. Introduced again later on, baby might be able to handle them better if they aren't truly allergic to them. Chokable foods that should be avoided until baby is eating solids well are: nuts, seeds, popcorn kernels, hard beans, hard candy, raw carrots, raw apples, whole grapes, unripe pears, stringy foods, and meat chunks. Meat is a great source of nutrition for a young baby and it can be given shredded to avoid choking.
For iron needs and rice cereal:
For baby led weaning: