Introducing Baby to Solids – Guidelines I Follow to Ensure Optimal Gut Health

In more recent years, it has been the norm to introduce baby to solids around the four month mark, however this is not something I have been practicing. I also take into account my children’s slight prematurity and other factors such as if they show interest in food, can grasp and put items into their mouths and spit it out, and most importantly whether they can sit up on their own with little to no support. My culture teaches that most babies will become developmentally and physiologically read to eat solids between 6 to 8 months. This is actually backed up by science which states that a baby’s gut matures from an open gut to a closed gut around 6 to 8 months of age. Research shows that feeding babies prior to the maturing of the small intestine may increase gas, constipation, illness, food sensitivities, and allergic reactions contradicting the idea that it is best to feed babies earlier to decrease the risks of developing food allergies. Studies also show that introducing iron-rich or iron-fortified foods prior to 6 months hinders the body’s ability to absorb iron. With iron-deficiency anemia, type 1 diabetes, childhood obesity, and food allergies on the rise, we have to wonder whether early introduction to solids is to blame. After all gut health is vital for overall well-being.

A baby’s digestive system is extremely sensitive due to its immaturity and thus it is important to offer the foods that are easy on the digestive system when introducing solids for the first time after a 6 month liquid diet of breast milk/formula. I think for the most part we are aware that salt, added sugars, cow milk, and honey should be avoided in the diet of a baby under one. In the last few years I’ve extensively researched on gut health which seems to support the fact that early introduction to food, improper food combining, and excessive eating and thus overwhelming the digestive system are to blame for many food intolerance, skin issues, autoimmune disorders, and essentially disease. In this post I’ll be sharing some guidelines I follow to ensure easy digestion, optimal absorption of nutrients, and good overall health.

1. Proper chewing of food is vital for adequate digestion. When introducing food for the first time, purees tend to be easier on the digestive system. For optimal absorption and digestion of solids offered, time feedings so that solids are fed in between breast milk/ formula feeds and not too late in the evening to avoid upset stomachs. Opt to introduce one food at a time to allow time for the digestive system to learn to digest that particular food and to have the opportunity to watch for signs of intolerance. Gas, changes in stool to constipation or diarrhea, and changes in skin (dry, rash, or flaring of eczema) can be an indication that a certain food has been introduced too soon for baby. If this happens, stop and reintroduce a couple weeks later. Avoid over-feeding and thus overwhelming the digestive system. A couple teaspoons worth of solids initially per feed is plenty for baby.

2. Grains, particularly rice, is rightly introduced as a first food in both parts of the world because it is easy to digest. Although rice is a staple in South Asian cuisine, consuming rice and rice products regularly can lead to over exposure to heavy metals, one of which is inorganic arsenic found in the water and soils rice grows in, regardless of the method of farming. Limit rice, especially brown rice which contains more arsenic than white, and opt for other whole grains such as oat, amaranth, millet, barley or quinoa.

3. When offering a grain such as oats, avoid mixing it with a fresh fruit. Fruit digests faster than oats leaving the fruit to ferment in the stomach while the grain such as oat digests. Adding stewed fruit is okay as cooked fruit and grain sits in the stomach for about the same time.

4. As a rule of thumb, choose seasonal fruits and vegetables to ensure optimal digestion. Stewed fruit is easier on the stomach. Fresh fruit, if being offered, is best served alone during the first half of the day. Choose vegetables that do not produce a lot of gas such as pumpkin, squash, carrots, spinach, beets, sweet potatoes, bottle gourd, until baby can crawl. Offer gas inducing vegetables (and legumes) such as broccoli after baby starts to crawl as the excess activity will help baby eliminate gas on his/her own or pair with appropriate spices to combat gas. Avoid nightshades (tomatoes, eggplant, red pepper, potatoes) as they are harder to digest.

5. Pair plant based sources of iron such as spinach with a source of vitamin C. A squirt of fresh lemon on your spinach curry increases the body’s ability to absorb plant based or non-heme iron. However the citric acid in lemon can irritate your baby’s stomach lining and causes rashes so it’s best to use another source of rich Vitamin C such as turmeric. On that note spinach tops the Dirty Dozen list of foods produced with the most pesticides, so this is one vegetable which you absolutely want to buy organic.

6. Certain foods should always be cooked to ensure optimal digestion. Vegetables such as tomatoes and carrots, increase in nutrients like lycopene, carotene, vitamins and minerals once cooked.  Stewing, steaming, and roasting vegetables makes them more easily digestible by the body. Some vegetables contain substances which limit the absorption of valuable nutrients. For example raw spinach contains higher levels of oxalic acid than cooked which can irritate the gut and hinder the absorption of certain minerals such as calcium. For this reason, raw spinach in smoothies should also be avoided as well.

7. Although cow’s milk should be avoided until age 1, yogurt, butter, and ghee can be healthy additions to baby’s diet as they are full of probiotics necessary for optimal gut health. Choose organic dairy made from the milk of grass-fed cows whenever possible and choose yogurt that is not too sour or dilute in water.

8. If offering cheese, choose to introduce soft cheeses over hard cheeses as they are easier to digest. Examples of soft cheeses are paneer, ricotta, cottage cheese, and Fresh Mozzarella, etc. Choose organic cheeses made from the milk of grass-fed cows. Grass-fed dairy cows consume grass as the major part of their diet whereas conventional dairy cows consume grains. Although both milk is equivalent in terms of calcium, the milk of grass-fed cows are significantly higher in healthy fats and quite a variety of anti-oxidants. Cheese is best digested on its own, however it can be combined with grains or vegetables. Do not combine cheese with fresh fruit or milk.

9. Avoid foods with yeast such as bread as they can cause bloating and gas. When introducing bread to baby opt for a bread like sourdough which contains no yeast and naturally broken down gluten for easy  digestion. Similarly avoid baked goods with baking soda or baking powder.

10. Nuts are now being introduced prior to age one with the hope that an early introduction reduces the chance of developing a nut allergy. Nuts are great source of protein, fiber, healthy fats, minerals and vitamins, particularly for vegetarians. Fortunately most tree nuts are easily digestible. Peanuts on the other hand are difficult to digest and can lead to digestive sluggishness or lethargy and should not be consumed on a regular basis. Almonds and seeds such as pumpkin and sunflower in the form of butter are best for regular consumption. To minimize the risk of choking, dilute the nut butter in water or formula prior to offering it to baby. If doing BLW, spread a thin amount on a cut slice of toast.

11. In the past egg whites were only introduced after one year however research today suggests that the entire egg can be given to baby earlier as early exposure reduces the risk of developing an egg allergy. If choosing to introduce eggs, offer them and other known allergens earlier in the day to have ample time to watch for potential allergic reactions. As a precaution wait three days before introducing another new food. Also note that according to our ancestors, eggs are not meant for consuming often as they are heat-inducing and negatively impact digestion if eaten regularly. Personally I will not be introducing eggs until 9-12 months and when I do I will start with the yolk only.

12. In Western culture it is customary to eat a light lunch and heavy dinner. In Eastern parts of the world it is customary to eat heavier lunches and lighter dinners. Meat and other high fat foods that are harder to digest, if served, should be given during the day when the digestibility is at its highest. To relieve the bowel and allow for a good night’s sleep, light, easily digestible evening meals are beneficial.

Even though much of this information may differ from what doctors and nutritionists today may advise, I believe in the age old practices of our ancestors in regards to food. Some of these guidelines such as the food combining aspects can be applied for older children as well as yourselves. If you follow me on Instagram, you would notice that I don’t always adhere to food combining rules (example my charcuterie boards that mix fresh fruit and cheese or pasta sauce with tomatoes and milk), however these foods are not served often. I try to adhere to food combining rules for the majority of our meals. As always I encourage you to do your own research and follow your instincts when it comes to your baby. In the meantime, come back to today’s Instagram post and feel free to offer your comments and perspectives as well. 

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