First Foods

From breast milk to formula to solids, what and when to feed your baby during the first year.

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BREASTFEEDING

Should you breastfeed? Yes. Nothing is better for your baby than breast milk. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants consume breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life. Thereafter, breast milk combined with slowly introduced solid foods is recommended through the end of the first year.

Why breast milk is so good: Studies suggest that breastfed babies may be bigger, stronger and, in some cases, smarter than their bottle-fed counterparts. That's because the nutrients in breast milk are sufficient and complete, perfectly designed for infants. Some nutritional components of breast milk that are not found in formula are especially beneficial. These include cholesterol, an important component of brain tissue and the biochemical basis for many enzymes in the body; and docosahexaenoic acid, which is important for your baby's brain function and visual and auditory development.

The long-term benefits: Breastfeeding significantly reduces a baby's risk of lower-respiratory infections, bacterial meningitis, urinary tract infections and many diseases. In fact, studies have shown that even four months of breastfeeding may lower the incidence of some childhood-onset cancers, Crohn's disease and childhood-onset diabetes.

Mother's milk also delivers passive and active antibodies to all of the diseases you've been exposed to.

What's in it for you? Benefits for mothers include a reduced risk of ovarian and breast cancer, as well as an earlier return to prepregnancy weight.

What colostrum does: Colostrum is the first breast milk that your body produces. It comes in just after the baby's birth and is especially thick and rich in proteins, antibodies, and other ingredients to nourish and protect your child in her first days outside the womb. A few days later, a mother's body begins to produce mature milk, which can sustain the baby throughout infancy.

How often you should nurse: Most doctors recommend feeding your child "on demand," or whenever she wants to be fed. A newborn's stomach is tiny, so she needs to eat every few hours. (If you have trouble breastfeeding, contact a lactation consultant; women who get help tend to breastfeed their babies longer.)

Nursing also often helps your body produce breast milk. "The breast adapts to what the baby needs and produces what the baby can take," says Ruth A. Lawrence, M.D., a pediatrician and neonatologist and director of the Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Study Center at the University of Rochester in New York.

"For some kids, that means a big feeding in the mornings and a lighter feeding later in the day, but it's different for others." Your milk supply will adapt to how much and when your baby needs it.

FORMULA

Some mothers choose to bottle feed their babies with formula in conjunction with breastfeeding, particularly as the baby begins to wean. There are two varieties of formula: formula made from cow's milk and formula made from soy protein.

Both kinds have vitamins, minerals and a fatty-acid profile similar to human milk. Formula can be purchased in three forms: ready-to-serve liquid, powdered or condensed (you'll need to add water to the latter two; follow directions exactly). Clean all bottles with hot, soapy water before using. Never heat formula in a microwave, as this heats it unevenly. Rather, place the filled bottle in a pan of water and then heat the water. Always test the temperature of the formula before giving it to your baby.

The choice not to breastfeed: Some women choose not to nurse for modesty or other reasons. Other women simply cannot, such as those who are undergoing chemotherapy or taking certain antithyroid medications or who have had breast implants that were inserted through the nipple. (Implants that are placed underneath the breast or put in through the armpit do not affect a woman's ability to nurse, however.)

Women who work outside the home or who must be away from their babies for hours and days at a time may feel unable to nurse. (Fifty-nine percent of mothers with babies under age 1 now work, nearly double that of 1976, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.) These women can help their babies reap the benefits of breast milk by pumping before and during work so the baby's caregivers always have an adequate supply. Many working moms use a combination of breastfeeding and formula feeding with success.

SOLIDS

When to start solid foods: Most pediatricians recommend supplementing a diet of breast milk with slowly introduced solid foods starting when the baby is 4 to 6 months old. But don't push your child to vary her diet before she is ready; starting her on solids too soon can increase her chances of developing food allergies. The foods most commonly associated with infant allergies include wheat, egg whites, citrus fruits and juices, and cow's milk; they are best avoided until your child reaches about 1 year of age.

Is your baby ready? Your baby is ready for something other than the breast or bottle when she holds her head up on her own and becomes extremely interested in what's on your plate. When you do start her on solids, be sure to introduce foods one at a time, and don't force her to consume more than she wants; even the most experienced 6-month-old eater may consume only three to four tablespoons per meal. Other dietary requirements should be met by breast milk and/or formula.

What foods when: Remember to introduce only one food at a time.

  • 4–6 months: Single-grain, iron-fortified infant cereals are best to start with. Rice cereal is most often recommended as a first food because it is gluten-free and less associated with allergic responses.
  • 6–8 months Continue to add strained and mashed foods, such as steamed carrots, zucchini, broccoli or green beans; and pureed fruits, such as peaches and bananas. Avoid foods with added sugars or salt; your baby may reject all other foods after getting a taste of the sweet or seasoned stuff.

    Sweet foods, such as applesauce, will usually be happily accepted, but it may take some time for your child to get used to the taste and texture of other foods, such as vegetables. Don't force your child to eat anything on the first try, but don't give up; if she resists a helping of strained squash, for example, give it a rest for a few days and then try again later.

  • 8–12 months: Try giving your baby some finely chopped table foods. All foods should be steamed and cooled, with a texture that readily dissolves in the mouth. Foods that require chewing are more likely to cause choking until the child has both the teeth and the muscular coordination to handle them.
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