Tummy Times / How to Transition Your Baby to Solid Foods 2021.03.08

How to Transition Your Baby to Solid Foods

Melanie Potlock

Sitting in a highchair requires strong muscles in baby’s trunk to activate fine muscle movements in the hands and mouth, like biting, chewing and safe swallowing.

Baby isn’t just learning to eat, he’s learning to utilize all of his senses, including knowing where his body is in space and how to use arms and hands to pick up food to bring up to his mouth. That core stability also ensures that baby can control his head movements and doesn’t tilt his head too far back or forward, increasing his chance of accidentally breathing particles of food into his lungs.

A feeding chair that supports a child’s feet, hips, back and elbows is essential, whether baby is just learning about solids or a toddler mastering more advanced foods. Kids need their feet to eat because feet provide stability for the hips and trunk. Be sure baby’s feeding chair has a footrest. At first, baby’s legs may not be long enough to bend over the edge of the feeding seat, but once they do, be sure his feet rest on something. (Try sitting in your chair and eating without letting your legs touch the chair! It’s exhausting!) The seat must also include a back rest that allows your child to sit upright with a 90-degree angle at the hips. Babies, toddlers and even preschoolers need their elbows resting on the table for added stability. It will help kids stay at the table longer, use less energy because they have a place to rest their arms. We want baby to focus on food and family mealtimes, rather than trying to keep his balance.

Provide a variety of food experiences, from taste to temperature to texture. Offer cool and warm foods, add a pinch of flavor via subtle herbs or by combining foods when cooking. Shift the texture and taste of smooth purees just a bit by stirring in nutritious baby cereal to create a subtle flavor change and slightly thicker puree that’s still easy to swallow. Purees offer baby the opportunity to learn about all kinds of food and help develop the facial muscles that are so important for strong lip closure on fingers, spoons and hand-held foods, like steamed broccoli stalks.

Cut safe-start solids into lengths about the size and width of your pinky finger. Baby’s learning to grasp steamed carrot strips utilize a raking motion to rake up and grab, then hold tight and gnaw.

Cut soft pieces of solid foods into pea-sized bites, offering several on baby’s plate. Baby will also rake up the cubes into his fist to bring up to his mouth. Yes, some will spill out, no worries! This raking motion is the beginning of baby learning to use a pincer grasp, where he uses both his index finger and thumb to hold small pieces of food.

Cut pea-sized bites into cubes. Whenever possible, cut food into tiny cubes to help develop the pincer grasp. The early version of the pincer grasp looks a bit clumsy because baby will pinch the food between his thumb and the side of his first finger, rather than the tip. The edges of the cube encourage baby to gradually refine the grip, using the tip of his forefinger for better accuracy and control.

Use plates that contain the food but know it will still be messy! Sectioned plates provide a barrier edge to help baby scoop up smaller pieces of food. Choose a plate that sticks to the table or highchair tray if possible, to offer that added stability that baby needs as he develops the fine motor skills to pick up slippery foods.

Keep an eye on your baby, but don’t panic if he gags. Gagging is a natural reflex that helps baby move pieces of food to the front of his mouth if the body senses that he’s not going to swallow safely. However, it’s not proof and sometimes it can feel a bit uncomfortable. Keeping your eye on baby ensures that if the gag doesn’t move the food, you’ll be able to intervene in case of choking. It’s essential that anyone feeding baby understand the difference between gagging and choking. Because choking typically has little to no sound, you won’t know that baby needs your help unless you’re keeping a close eye on him. Stay calm with each gag, and if he’s gagging frequently or appears uncomfortable, he may need extra help via a feeding evaluation with a professional feeding specialist.

Let him watch you. Babies are fantastic observers, taking in all that we do. He’ll watch you bite and chew and best of all, watch you smile! Be aware of your language around food, always keeping it positive. Bring a variety of foods to the table, offering samplings of softer foods from your plate.

Transitioning to solid food isn’t just about learning to chew. Mealtimes including building relationships with others at the table, whether it’s at baby’s daycare or in his own home. Even if you’re simply having a cup of tea while baby enjoys his lunch, baby learns that mealtimes are a time to connect with friends and family!

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP

International speaker on the topic of feeding babies, toddlers, and school-age kids.

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