Adventure awaits with complementary feeding! Are you and your little one ready?

If you have children of your own, you might be familiar with the term complementary feeding. If not, you are properly leaning towards thinking that it means giving out free food. Well, that is not exactly it…

Many of us know that a newborn’s diet consists of breastmilk. For the first six months of life, breastmilk is the sole source of nutrition and meets all of the nutritional needs of a young infant. When breastfeeding is not possible, commercial formula milk is the only suitable replacement.

As young babies get older, the most important thing their little bodies are focusing on is growing and developing at a rapid pace. To achieve this, there is a strong demand for additional energy and nutrients from the age of six months. Due to these increased nutritional needs, breastmilk/formula milk alone will not suffice.  Nevertheless, the benefits of breastfeeding remain far-reaching for both the mother and the baby and should not stop. Breastmilk continues to provide half of a child’s nutritional needs up until the age of one year, and up to a third until two years old. What provides the rest of their nutrition? Complementary foods of course!

Complementary feeding is the process of timely introduction of appropriate, adequate and safe foods in addition to breastmilk. What and how we choose to introduce foods is a pre-requisite for their future health and well-being!

When will I know if my baby is ready to start complementary feeding?

Giving completely food too early, before four months, or too late, after seven months, is very risky and can increase the risk of malnutrition. The timely introduction of complementary foods is around the age of six months. Your baby will start showing signs of readiness such as:

  • Good head control as baby can lift their head for some time and turn his/her head to and away from food.
  • Sits up with minimal support in a highchair.
  • Can suck, chew and swallow mashed or pureed foods and not push it out with their tongue.
  • Shows interest in food by watching how you bring food to your mouth. They also start opening their mouths and lean forward. Grasping for spoons and food and getting excited when food is presented also shows interest.
  • You may notice that the period between milk feeds become shorter as the baby is not completely satisfied with only milk feeds any longer.  

Appropriate first foods

At six months old, your baby’s stomach capacity is still very small. Due to rapid growth and development, small and frequent portions of a variety of nutrient-dense foods are key! Acceptable consistencies to start with include pureed, semi-solid and mashed foods.

During this time, the need for the mineral iron also increases. The complementary foods we start to offer our baby provides almost all of their iron needs. Iron-rich foods should be introduced early and be offered daily or as often as possible. This includes iron-fortified infant cereal mixed with breast milk or formula, and well-cooked and mashed meat, poultry, liver, fish, eggs, beans, peas, lentils or tofu. It is advisable to pair these foods, especially plant-based sources of iron, with vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables as it will enhance the absorption of iron. Foods like milk and tea inhibit the absorption of iron and should not be consumed with iron-rich foods. Cows milk should only be introduced after one year as young babies cannot digest milk properly which can lead it iron-deficiency.

Dietary diversity should be emphasized as different foods provide different nutrients. Dark green leafy vegetables and orange-coloured fruits and veggies should be given daily for Vitamin A and Vitamin C. Vegetables and fruits can be cooked or steamed and then mashed. Hard fruits can be grated and mixed into porridge or other well-cooked grains or starches. Peanut butter should be smooth and thinned out with breastmilk, and mixed into meals.

Foods that are not appropriate for infants are those that pose a choking risk such as gum, hard candy, nuts, popcorn, raw and hard fruits and vegetables, whole beans, peas, grapes, blueberries or cherries.

There are also foods not metabolically appropriate for infants. Processed foods such as sugary drinks and high-sugar, high-fat salty foods and snacks should be avoided as they displace breast milk and nutrient-rich foods. They also provide loads of energy, but little or no nutrients, which can lead to malnutrition and increase the incidence of overweight and obesity later in life.

Because the kidneys of an infant are still developing during the first 12 months, they are not able to handle much salt. As most foods naturally contain some amount of sodium, no additional salt or salty foods should be offered to infants. When using tinned beans or lentils, ensure that you have rinsed them and drained them thoroughly to eliminate the excess sodium found in the brine water. In general, processed foods and snacks tend to have high sodium contents in addition to high fat and or sugar content. Processed meats and protein powders should also be avoided.

Foods that are also a no-no are those that pose a risk for foodborne illnesses. This includes unpasteurized milk, milk products and juices, honey, raw sprouts and raw or undercooked meat, poultry, liver, fish, and eggs. This also brings us to the topic of proper hygienic practices. Keeping kitchen surfaces, appliances and utensils clean and free from food waste or spills is important. Frozen food should be thawed out in the fridge overnight and never in the sun. No food, raw or cooked, should be left standing at room temperature for more than 4 hours as this encourages harmful bacterial growth. Rinse fruits and vegetables well and separate chopping boards and knives used for meat and vegetables. Lastly, always ensure that clean and safe water is used when preparing food.

Babies can self-feed with whole steamed or soft finger foods at around 8 months. Respond positively to their attempts to self-feed as this helps them with new skills and shows them that eating and mealtimes are fun. As the baby gets older, increase the amount of food and frequency of foods to ensure adequate nutrient intake. By 12 months of age, the infant’s diet should expand from specially prepared first foods to a diet of family food. and a variety thereof, exposing them to new textures and flavours to prevent long-term feeding problems.  

Once a baby shows signs of hunger, respond to their cues with a variety of nutrient-dense foods of different textures and flavours. Stop feeding them and offering food when they show signs of fullness. This establishes trust with the caregiver as the baby’s needs are being seen, heard and respected. It also builds trust within themselves and their bodies because can listen and respond to their hunger and fullness cues, helping them flourish in their natural ability to be little intuitive eaters! 

Feeding your baby during their first year of life is most definitely an adventure! The introduction of complementary food is an amazing and crucial window of opportunity to not only provide your baby with nutrients to set them up for lifelong health and wellbeing, but also for them to establish a healthy relationship with food.

This article was originally written for Health24, also by Michelle Zietsman, and can be found here: