Have you heard the phrase “Food before one is just for fun!”? It’s a common idea that the food that you give to babies under 1 year old aren’t meant to meet their nutrition needs, since they’ll get all of that through breastmilk or formula. Rather, the food that we give babies who are learning to eat solids while also being breast or formula fed is just for FUN! Oh boy…
One merit that I will give to this phrase is that it certainly takes the pressure off. Many parents worry that their baby isn’t eating enough solids, or enough variety of things, to meet their needs. So yes, this cutesy little rhyme does help to alleviate some of that fear.
EXCEPT THAT ALL OF THE REST OF IT IS WRONG!
Here are 5 reasons that food before one is NOT just for fun:
Risk of nutrient deficiencies
Yes, breastmilk and/or formula should provide the bulk of baby’s nutrition before age 1. But complementary solid foods are needed to round out their diet. Although they may not eat a LOT of food before one year, the foods that are offered should help to offset potential deficiencies and ensure that baby is getting everything they need. In particular, iron deficiency is a major concern with infants, as they have very high iron requirements from age 6-12 months (11mg/day). That’s a higher requirement than an adult male (8mg). Until about 24 months, children experience very rapid growth requiring increased iron, but often do not consume adequate amounts of high iron foods, making this age group the highest risk for iron deficiency anemia of any other age group. An estimated 3.5-10.5% of children in Canada are iron deficient, making this one of the most prevalent nutrient deficiencies. Babies are born with a store of iron (thanks to placental blood) that keeps them running until about 6 months of age. After that, the tank starts to empty. It is important to prioritize iron rich foods for infants after 6 months of age to ensure that they take in enough iron to support their rapid growth and reduce risk of iron deficiency.
Other vitamins and nutrients are also important for infant’s growth and development. B12 deficiency is common in vegetarian and vegan babies and moms, and should be supplemented to promote protein utilization and baby’s growth. Omega 3 fatty acids, specifically DHA and EPA, are very important for baby’s brain, eye, and nervous system development. These can be passed through breastmilk if mom is taking a DHA/EPA supplement and/or eating fatty fish regularly. Providing fatty fish, DHA eggs, and/or a DHA/EPA supplement for baby encourages them to get enough of this important nutrient.
Eating solid foods helps with development of motor and oral skills
Baby has been used to only one texture to get their food in (liquid), but different textures require different muscles and oral motor skills. And, if you feed with baby led weaning, baby will need to learn to use their gross and fine motor skills to get food from the tray to their mouth. These skills take time and practice to develop, and your baby needs to practice them in order to learn to bite, chew, lick, and suck. The actions of the mouth to eat are similar to the muscle movements needed for speech, therefore, introducing solid foods and providing a variety of textures may help with speech development as well. In terms of gross and fine motor skills, some believe that feeding by baby led weaning may help babies to develop their pincer grasp and other motor skills more quickly than those that are spoon-fed, since they are able to practice this skill more frequently and with more textures.
Variety is the spice of life, and may help develop food preferences/palates.
From the time babies start solids around 6 months until they are about 10-12 months old, babies should be introduced to a wide variety of foods. I often see parents stuck in a rut of offering only the same foods over and over because it’s what the child seems to like best. This will only serve to bite you in the butt later, as catering only to the tastes that your child shows a preference to and not offering that wide variety of flavours, textures and tastes might lead to pickier eating, and infants/toddlers (/older kids) who are unwilling to accept new tastes or textures. Offer your baby a variety of foods, and a variety of cooking methods, spices and seasonings. Some babies even love spicy food! Just go easy on the salt, otherwise, other spices, herbs, and flavourings (like lemon or lime juice, garlic, ginger, etc) are great choices to add variety to your baby-safe dishes.
Babies can learn social norms around eating, become involved in the family unit.
Babies learn best by watching the people around them. I often recommend to bring babies to the table (in their high chair) before they are even ready to start solid foods just to get them accustomed to this important family ritual and be part of the family unit (if they are not ready for solid foods yet, give them a toy or baby-safe spoon to play with while you eat). They will observe the social norms around eating, watch your behaviours and learn how to be part of the family. By not allowing her the opportunity to sit with the family, or feeding her separately from you/other family members, you are denying her this rich learning experience about her family’s norms.
Earlier introduction may reduce food allergy risk.
A recent position statement from the Canadian Pediatric Society recommends earlier introduction of high risk allergen foods for babies, as early as 4 months for babies with high risk of developing an allergy, or ~6 months for those without increased risk. Early and frequent introduction is key for reducing the risk of developing a food allergy. Delaying solid foods, or avoiding giving babies a wide variety of foods including high risk allergen foods, can actually have the opposite effect and INCREASE their food allergy risk.
Now having said all of that, food before one is ALSO for fun. It’s for a lot of other very valid reasons, but it should still be fun for you and your baby. How can you make it safe, healthy, encourage oral motor development and social skills, AND make it fun?
- Focus on quality, not quantity. Baby should still getting adequate nutrition from breastmilk/formula, but needs additional nutrients from solids (see above, plus the socialization, oral motor skills development, etc!). So, don’t stress too much about the quantity they’re eating or how often they’re eating. Milk feeds should stay about the same for the first few months of solid foods, many babies start to decrease around 9-10 months and are often down to about 2-4 milk feeds per day by age 1 year (or, switch entirely to whole cow’s milk by this age). If milk feeds decrease earlier, back off of the solids a bit to ensure that they are indeed getting adequate nutrition from milk, and focus on those high risk nutrients at mealtimes to ensure that they ARE getting everything they need. The quantity that your baby eats at each meal, and in each day, will vary wildly for all kinds of reasons (see “Top 5 reasons your kid isn’t eating”). If baby is still getting adequate milk feeds, and is meeting developmental milestones and following their growth curve, the quantity of food is generally nothing to worry about!
- Give a variety of foods. Lots of colours, textures, safe shapes and sizes. Make it exciting and fun for them to learn and experience new things!
- Try new foods yourself. Most parents would agree that we want our kids to grow up enjoying healthy foods, maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle, and not being overly picky about their veggies. So model the behaviours that you want to instill in your child! Demonstrate that you also eat a wide variety of foods, a rainbow of colours, and are willing to try new foods without making a “yuck” face. You might discover some new foods you didn’t know you liked, or try new recipes and flavours.
Food before one is for a lot of reasons, including fun. While generally the amount that they actually eat isn’t something to stress over, there are very important reasons to introduce solids when baby is showing signs of readiness and focus on key nutrients while STILL having fun!