Bon Appetit!

“Starting solids” is one of the bigger milestones during your baby’s first year. After months of only breast- or bottle-feeding your little one, the day will finally arrive when you pop her into a high chair and introduce her to an exciting new world of mashed bananas and pureed sweet potatoes.

The transition to solid foods can be both fun and frustrating. Some days you’ll be inspired, whipping up well-balanced offerings that are graciously accepted by your baby. Other days you’ll be exhausted, cracking open yet another puréed food pouch you once vowed you’d never buy. Whether you steam and purée everything yourself or buy jars by the case, or if you eschew the idea of “baby food” altogether in favor of baby-led weaning, there are numerous approaches to the introduction of solid foods. (And there’s not room to talk about them all here; see the resources sidebar for more information.) 

I was not particularly revolutionary when it came to introducing my daughter Lydia to solid foods. The handout from my pediatrician suggested that six months was a good time to start.

I started her out with some mashed-up banana, and she seemed vaguely interested. In the weeks that followed I offered her different foods—puréed sweet potatoes, green beans, carrots—and generally followed the “four-day rule” (waiting four days to introduce a new food to check for food sensitivities). She would eat a little, but in general she just didn’t seem very excited about solid foods.

“I don’t really like these guidelines about how long to breastfeed or when to start solid foods, because they don’t take into account the cues provided by the baby,” says Ellyn Satter, registered dietician, family therapist and author of Child of Mine, one of the leading books about infant feeding and childhood nutrition. “Some babies are ready for solid foods at four or five months—others aren’t until seven or eight.”

So it seemed to be with Lydia, who didn’t really “hit her stride” with solid foods until around eight months or so. And with all the focus I found myself placing on what she was eating (“Why does she like bananas so much? How can I get her to start liking kale?”), it was easy to lose track of why we were offering her these new foods in the first place.

“The reason for introducing solid food is developmental, not nutritional,” says Satter. “What’s important is the learning that’s taking place.” In other words, the baby is learning about the physical and social worlds of eating—for example, sitting down at the table with others, picking up pieces of food, and holding a spoon.

Despite my familiarity with Satter’s philosophy, I sometimes found myself getting a bit worked up about how much (or how little) Lydia was eating—almost as if her food consumption was somehow a reflection of the quality of my parenting.

Divide and conquer

“Feeding demands a division of responsibility,” says Satter. The “Division of Responsibility” philosophy holds that the caregiver is responsible for the when, the where, and the what when it comes to food. In other words, you can control the food options your baby has, and the time and place of feeding. Your baby’s responsibility is the eating—that is, your baby decides how much he eats. This approach is a departure from the idea of portion control and requires that you trust your baby’s ability to eat when he’s hungry and to stop when he’s full.  

In my case, in the early days of solid foods Lydia was generally getting full after just a few bites. I didn’t push the issue, putting the food away and taking her out of her chair. But secretly, part of me wanted her to get a little more psyched about “real” food. 

“It’s important not to get caught up in an agenda about feeding,” says Satter, citing parents who are obsessed with getting their babies to like certain foods or to stick to strict eating schedules. “This breeds conflict.”

And indeed, this seems to play out in real life. Out at a restaurant one weekend, I witnessed a frazzled mother trying to entice her toddler son with “just one more bite” of soup. Tight-lipped he refused. She pressed on with the spoon, until the whole thing devolved into a vale of tears.

Maybe it’s just because I have a fear of conflict, but I like the Division of Responsibility philosophy. What a relief to simply focus on providing good food in a pleasant atmosphere without the pressure to force-feed a certain amount of broccoli or to “join the clean plate club.”

Shannon Keough lives in Minneapolis with her husband, 
Nick, and daughter, Lydia. Send questions or comments