By Kathryn Peck / Medically reviewed by Dr. Samantha Ball, DO
For parents of infants, having them dig into their first solid food is a big milestone. You count down the weeks to the recommended 6-month mark in your head, research high chairs, spoons and other mealtime accessories, and of course, plan which food would ultimately be the first one to try.
Everyone knows bananas, apples, prunes and pears are great starter purees, as are iron-fortified cereals. But what about the foods that cause a parent unease ahead of time? What about those allergy-producing foods like eggs, milk, and peanuts?
Everyone knows bananas, apples, prunes and pears are great starter purees, as are iron-fortified cereals. But what about the foods that cause a parent unease ahead of time?
The most common food allergens are cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, tree nuts, fish/shellfish and wheat (gluten), all of which, according to the FDA, account for nearly 90% of all food allergies in the U.S. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that avoiding common allergy-producing foods may actually increase the likelihood that your child will develop an allergy, and together with The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, they now recommend introducing all allergenic and non-allergenic foods between 4 and 6 months of age (if cleared developmentally by their pediatrician).
Truth be told? Introducing these foods to your baby, allergenic and non-allergenic, can make a parent nervous – very nervous.
Here’s a basic guide to some of those nerve-wracking foods you’ll come across.
Cow’s milk is an excellent source of protein, calcium, and calories for children. Experts recommend waiting until age 1 to introduce cow’s milk to a child’s diet. Before age 1, a baby needs vitamins and nutrients that cow’s milk doesn’t offer, like iron, and it isn’t compatible with a baby’s new and developing digestive system. So other mild products like yogurts and cheese are okay for children after the 4- to 6-month milestone.
Once you’re ready to introduce cow’s milk, experts recommend pasteurized milk that is Vitamin D fortified. Start by replacing just one feeding per day with a sippy cup of milk. If your baby doesn’t like it, mix half cow’s milk and half breast milk or formula. Slowly lower the ratio over time.
If your baby is allergic to cow’s milk, milk alternatives include soy, almond, or oat milk.
Eggs are an excellent source of protein for little ones. According to experts, babies can start eating eggs at 6 months. Statistics say that only 2 percent of babies have egg allergies and that most will outgrow them at some point. But it’s still nerve-wracking to present your baby with eggs.
To start, try scrambled eggs or pieces of hard-boiled eggs. They’re soft, easy to eat, and a great starter for finger foods, too.
Peanuts are an important source of iron, zinc, protein, choline, and fatty acids for babies, but the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology recommends introducing peanut butter to a baby between 6 and 8 months of age and only after other solid foods have been fed to them safely, without any allergy symptoms.
When you’re ready for this step, start with peanut butter as opposed to actual peanuts, which may be a choking hazard. The thickness of peanut butter can also be dealt with by adding warm water to it or adding a bit of peanut butter to a fruit or veggie puree. Try blending 2 tsp. of peanut butter with 2 to 3 tbsp. of foods like infant cereal, applesauce, or yogurt (if dairy is okay).
It’s also worth noting that if a child has severe eczema or an egg allergy, they should be evaluated before trying peanuts.
Soy is high in proteins, iron, and a variety of vitamins for babies, although soy formula isn’t recommended. According to 2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines, soy proteins should be introduced to little ones in a solid form around 4 to 6 months of age. But, similarly to cow's milk, they caution against offering soy milk as a beverage until your child is 12 months old.
Try protein-packed tofu and edamame for starters. Plus, they are great options for self-feeding.
Fish is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, and experts recommend introducing this to babies as a puree between 4 and 6 months. Two items of note: the American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents not to serve raw or undercooked fish due to possible bacteria or viruses that can make a child ill; and children shouldn’t eat more than 12 ounces of fish a week due to concerns about traces of mercury in fish or shellfish.
With so many species of fish available, it’s tough to know where to start. Flaked salmon can be a nice finger food for starters (or mashed with sweet potato), or try making crab cakes or tilapia cakes.
Tree nuts (i.e. almonds, cashews or walnuts) contain lots of healthy fatty acids, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and protein, but note that whole nuts make present a choking hazard for babies, so it’s best to start with nut butters mixed into yogurt, oatmeal, etc. And similar to the guidelines for peanuts, unless your baby has a history of eczema or other food allergies, they can try nuts shortly as early as 4 to 6 months of age, after they start solids.
Babies between ages 4 and 6 months can be introduced to wheat or other gluten-containing grains, and they’re often a baby’s first food in the form of infant cereal. Single-grain baby cereals (i.e. rice and oats) are typically introduced first.
Wheat (gluten) can be introduced as finger foods in teething biscuits, puffs and crackers that contain wheat.
3 Tips for Introducing New Foods
- Introduce new foods one at a time.
- Introduce new foods when your baby is healthy – not when he has a cold, fever, or other illness.
- Introduce new foods at home, which will allow you to better monitor for a reaction without the noise and commotion of being in a restaurant.
It’s likely that you’ll notice a reaction within minutes of your baby trying a new food, but it’s recommended to set aside 2 hours after the first taste of food to monitor for an allergic reaction. Common allergic reactions include vomiting, upset stomach, diarrhea, wheezing, coughing, difficulty breathing, hives, swelling, and dizziness.
It’s more recently recommended that parents start with non-allergenic foods (iron fortified cereals, pureed vegetables and fruit), and once they can tolerate a good variety of these foods, move onto the allergenic foods. But pediatricians also recommend that parents have an antihistamine on hand (like Zyrtec or Benadryl) when introducing allergenic foods for the first time.
As new research uncovers new truths about these problem foods, recommendations change, so it’s always best to talk to your pediatrician before introducing any new foods.
Please note: This is for educational and informational purposes only and is not meant to substitute individual medical advice. For specific and individual advice, always talk to your doctor.
About the author: Kathryn is the owner of Bicycle Pie and mom of 4 little ones. Also a writer, editor, and former owner of one of Boston's premiere baby boutiques, she continues to write about motherhood, children's products, family life, and all other things that test our skills and patience as parents.
About the reviewer: Dr. Samantha Ball, DO, is a pediatrician, cat mom, and advocate for children’s overall health and wellness. She is continually focused on supporting families through all stages in a realistic and evidence-based way. In addition to practicing medicine in Georgia, she shares experiences and her perspectives on topics including parenting tips, mental and physical health, and how to navigate the unexpected challenges that come about when raising kids.
Photo credit: iStock.com/NataliaDeriabina