Starting your baby on solids? Here are three new things I tell parents to do

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Follow me at @drClaire

All pediatricians have certain “speeches” they can do in their sleep — like the safe sleep speech, the potty-training speech, the healthy diet speech, or the speeches for managing fever, common colds, or vomiting and diarrhea. But research over the past few years has changed one of those speeches: the speech about starting solid foods.

I still say the same things about waiting until at least age 4 months to start (closer to 6 months is likely better, especially if baby is getting breast milk), and about not starting two new foods at a time (so as to know the culprit should baby get constipated or a rash). But now, there are three big changes to what I will say:

  1. Don’t give rice cereal. Rice cereal used to be my go-to starting food. It’s mild and babies usually like it, and you can add breast milk or formula until you get to a consistency that works well for babies new to the concept of food on a spoon. But then the Consumer Products Safety Commission came out with a report raising concern about the amount of arsenic that may be in rice and rice products (the rice plant is very good at pulling arsenic out of the soil, where it is often found because of arsenic-containing pesticide use). Arsenic can cause all sorts of problems, including an increased risk of cancer. The report said that babies who get two servings of rice cereal a day could double their cancer risk over a lifetime. Given that there are other kinds of cereal (like oatmeal), there is simply no reason to take that risk.
  2. Do give peanut products. This is a real turn-around. For years, we told parents not to give peanut butter or any peanut products until children were two or three years old, for fear of causing an allergic reaction. It turns out that we had it entirely backwards; a recent study showed that giving peanut products early can actually prevent peanut allergy. Of course, parents should talk to their baby’s doctor before giving peanut products if there is a family history of peanut allergy or if their baby might be at higher risk of food allergies for another reason (like having bad eczema or other allergic symptoms). You should also never give whole peanuts or chunky peanut butter. But some smooth peanut butter on a cracker, or foods that contain peanut, should be one of baby’s early foods.
  3. Make fish part of your child’s diet. And your whole family’s diet, too. I never used to talk about fish as a first food, but now I do. It’s full of important nutrients — and a study from Sweden showed that children who ate fish during infancy cut their risk of allergies by 25%. The researchers followed the babies in the study until they were 12 years old, and that reduction in risk was still there — with just two fish meals a month! We do worry about the level of mercury in fish, but two servings a week is fine, especially if you stick to fish that tends to be lower in mercury, such as tilapia, catfish, or cod.

Those are the three things I make sure all families do now. There is one other thing I tell families to at least consider:

  • Skip the spoon and let baby feed himself. In baby-led weaning, parents and caregivers wait until the baby can hold food and feed himself (of course, it’s really important not to give anything the baby could choke on, and to closely supervise all meals and snacks). Doing things this way has three advantages: It puts off feeding until the baby is really ready (as opposed to when the parents are ready). It puts the baby in charge of how much he eats (a study from New Zealand found that this kind of feeding decreased the risk of obesity). It also brings baby to the table and encourages family meals, and family meals are good for the health, development, and behavior of children as they grow.

Every baby and every family is different, and there are lots of circumstances that might change your pediatrician’s advice for your child. Be sure to talk to your doctor to get the best advice for you.


  1. JDK

    The dose makes the poison – Paracelsus
    For a good bit of context, you should search “arsenic in rice” at the Genetic Literacy website. Yes, there is arsenic in rice but the levels are less of a concern than Consumer Reports imply. Most North Americans don’t eat enough rice to matter and I know we didn’t feed our baby rice cereal twice a day, every day.
    Also, what does it mean to double cancer risk? From 2% to 4%? Is it even meaningful? Hard to tell but easy to cause worry.

  2. CB

    I’m really mad that years ago I gave my kids rice cereal as a first food and held off on peanut butter and now one has an allergy! So tired of “dos and don’ts” …should have just listened to my mom instead of medical advice It changes constantly and it’s so frustrating

  3. Olha Parker

    I absolutely agree with peanut products, the same is with pets: if there’s one in a family, baby, when grows up, has no allergy to them. And many prets are afraid of allergies and don’t let their babies contact with pets. And self-feeding is also useful, it’s interesting for kids to learn the structure of food. Thank you for these helpful tips. I reshared.

  4. Amelia Roster

    Great set of enlightening tips for parents with babies or those who are expecting babies.

  5. TeddyCan

    I do support not giving rice cereal for its arsenic related bad effects which is not good for a baby at all. You can boil fresh vegetables, then grind it in a grinder and add some butter. Your baby will surely like it. You can also give yogurt.

  6. Evans Ketchisman

    I now no when I’m to give my child cow milk and what is good for my child also