Making the leap from breast milk or formula to solids and then eventually to table food is an exciting time. But it’s also a little confusing because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to baby food stages. While one child may happily take to pureed carrots at 6 months, another may purse their lips at anything but a breast or bottle until 8 months.
To simplify the whole process, here’s a general rule of thumb to keep in mind: Most foods are OK to give to babies in the first year, as long as they’re properly prepared. And if you’re concerned about food storage, read more from our experts on how long baby food lasts.
Here’s the quick lowdown on what to feed baby and when:
- Stage 1: Purees (4 to 6 months).
- Stage 2: Thicker consistency (6 to 9 months).
- Stage 3: Soft, chewable chunks (10 to 12 months).
“With the exception of raw or cooked honey, which shouldn’t be consumed until 12 months because of the risk of infantile botulism, babies can have any food that is texturally appropriate for their developmental feeding stage,” says Dr. Kristen Treegoob, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
In other words, it’s perfectly fine to give both a 6- and 12-month-old peas, but for the 6-month-old, they need to be pureed.
In the past, parents have been advised to start their baby with single-grain cereals, such as rice cereal, but the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now says there’s “no medical evidence that introducing solid foods in any particular order has an advantage for your baby” — nutritionally or when it comes to long-term food preferences. (So, when your Aunt Joanne tells you that your baby will be a vegetable-hater for life if you start off with applesauce, she’s wrong.)
All of this said, there is a method to the messy madness that is the three stages of baby food. In order to make things less complicated — and more delicious — we tapped top experts and veteran parents to find out everything you need to know about feeding little ones at every stage (plus, we included a handy baby food stages chart). All you have to do now is serve the food and clean the high chair!
Stage 1 (4 to 6 months): What you need to know
The fun begins! Stage 1 baby food is typically for babies who are between the ages of 4 months and 6 months. But as with all things parenting-related, it’s important to keep in mind that each baby is different, and there’s no hard and fast rule for starting solids.
“While the AAP recommends exclusively breastfeeding from birth to age 6 months, it’s important to remember that not every baby is exclusively breastfed,” says Dr. Zulma Laracuente, a pediatrician in Alexandria, Louisiana. “Also, some babies show signs of readiness to start food earlier than others. You know your baby best.”
Solids that fall under the Stage 1 category are thin and smooth in texture — not much thicker than breast milk or formula — and contain a single ingredient. If you’re making your baby’s food at home, make sure it’s blended to an almost-watery puree.
“Stage 1 baby foods should have no chunks whatsoever,” says Jenifer Thompson, registered dietician and advanced practice dietician at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. “Formula or breast milk can be added to the purees to make them thinner.”
While there’s no specific food parents need to start with, many pediatricians recommend beginning with iron-rich foods, such as iron-fortified cereals or pureed meats.
“The reason we advise introducing solids at 6 months and starting with iron-containing foods is because iron stores that were built up during pregnancy are depleting, and iron is important for infants’ brain development,” says Dr. Melanie Custer, a pediatrician at Deaconess Clinic in Evansville, Indiana.
Custer also says that babies should “absolutely not” decrease their breast milk or formula when they first start off with solids.
“Infants still should receive 24 to 32 ounces of formula or breast milk each day,” she says. “Solids at this point are more of a snack, with baby eating about 3 to 4 tablespoons once or twice a day.”
How to tell your baby is ready for Stage 1
According to Treegoob, here are the signs your baby is prepared to start Stage 1 foods:
- They’re showing an interest in what family members are eating.
- They’re learning to open their mouths for a spoon.
- They’ve outgrown the involuntary habit of pushing food and spoons out of their mouth with their tongue.
- They have steady head control.
- They have the ability to move food from a spoon to their throat and swallow without choking.
Stage 2 (6 to 9 months): What you need to know
Time to mix it up! While Stage 2 solids are still basically mush, food has a little more texture at this point, as well as a few soft chunks.
“Stage 2 baby foods are thicker in consistency than Stage 1 purees, and many of the jars you find in stores have some small mashable bits in them,” says Treegoob. “These are great for infants who have done well with Stage 1 but who are not quite ready to chew. The typical age for Stage 2 is between 6 to 9 months.”
Treegoob also notes that the 7 to 9 month time frame is also when many babies begin modifying their breast milk or formula intake.
“As long as an infant’s weight remains on track and they’re drinking enough to stay hydrated, there isn’t a reason to worry if baby is showing interest in smaller or less frequent bottle or breastfeeds,” she says. “Infants typically take in somewhere between 24 to 32 ounces a day when they’re between 6 to 9 months.”
Whether you’re making your little one’s food on your own or getting it pre-made at the store, you have a little more room to play once you hit Stage 2.
“In addition to being thicker in consistency, Stage 2 foods usually have multiple ingredients, including some spices,” says Custer. “At this point, baby is usually taking in more food than they were in Stage 1, so it’s important to make sure they’re being introduced to a wide variety of foods from different food groups.”
According to the AAP, babies should be eating about 4 ounces of solids — about one small jar of baby food — at each of their meals.
How to tell your baby is ready for Stage 2
Once your baby has consistently been eating Stage 1 foods, they’re likely ready for the next step. Here are other signs to look for, according to Thompson:
- Their oral skills are continuing to develop.
- They’re consistently taking food in and swallowing when you offer it (and not spitting it out).
Stage 3 (9 to 12 months): What you need to know
Now, the true culinary adventure begins — Stage 3 foods! While some babies will still happily have mom and dad spoon-feed them mashed food at this age, many babies will have what you’re having at this point — and they’ll do it themselves, thank you very much.
“As soon as we thought he was ready — at about 9 months — we started giving my son softer, cut-up versions of whatever we were having for dinner,” says mom of two Jennifer Reilly, of New York City. “There was more cleanup, but I actually got to sit down and eat my meal!”
Once babies hit the age range for Stage 3 foods, most have the oral and fine motor skills to self-feed.
“Between 8 to 12 months, babies develop the pincer grasp ability and should be able to pick up small pieces of finger foods with their finger and thumb and bring it to their mouth,” says Thompson.
Technically speaking, Stage 3 solids are thicker, more sophisticated versions of the baby food your little one has already been eating (think vegetable and beef pilaf or tender chicken and stars), but also, they’re not necessary for everyone.
“Stage 3 food is starting to have chunks mixed in, in order to prepare baby for table foods,” says Custer. “But some babies wind up skipping this stage altogether and go straight to soft table foods.”
While it’s perfectly fine to continue with Stage 3 foods up to your child’s first birthday, Treegoob advises letting your baby try their hand at “real food.” “Well-cooked veggies, ripe fruits, shredded meat, scrambled eggs, soft cheese and cooked pasta are all great options for babies this age,” she notes.
Between 9 months and 12 months is also when you’re likely to see a significant drop in how much breast milk or formula your baby is drinking.
“As babies continue to eat table foods, I’ve seen their breast milk or formula intake drop to as low as 16 to 20 ounces per day,” Treegoob says. “That said, some infants continue to show a heavy preference for breast milk or formula despite months of solid introduction. If you feel like your baby may be drinking excessive amounts of breast milk or formula, and they have no interest in food, I would recommend speaking with your pediatrician.”
How to tell your baby is ready for table food
Your child’s readiness to start table food will likely be more discernible than any other baby food stage. As long as they’re continuing to hone their oral skills, as well as their ability to pick food up and bring it to their mouth, you can count on them to let you know they’re ready for “big kid” food.
“My daughter looked like she was ready for pasta, eggs and basically anything we were eating shortly after she started solids,” says mom of two Julie Cortez of Brooklyn, New York. “We waited until about 8 months, when we knew she knew how to properly eat, and sure enough, she ate her whole plate on the first go! We completely skipped the Stage 3 jars of food.”
Follow these safe feeding must-knows
Even though your baby’s eating skills will continue to progress as they gain more experience, it’s important baby is always sitting upright, strapped in a high chair and never left unattended while eating. Also, make sure table food is always soft and cut into small pieces to avoid choking hazards. When first starting out with solids, be sure to wait a few days before giving them something new.
“This allows for observation for any adverse reaction or intolerance to the new food,” Thompson says.
And finally, be sure to give your baby a wide range of healthy food in order to expose them to a variety of tastes and textures — and don’t be discouraged if they don’t take to a specific food at first.
“If baby refuses a food or makes a strange face when eating, this may simply mean that it is a new food and unfamiliar to them,” Thompson says. “Try again. It may take 10 to 20 exposures of a new food before they accept it.”