OPINION | Your baby’s nutrition: Adventure awaits with complementary feeding

  • ‘Complementary feeding’ has nothing to do with free food.
  • At around six months, babies need other foods besides breastmilk. 
  • This provides them with the energy and nutrients their rapidly growing bodies require. 

If you have children of your own, you might be familiar with the term “complementary feeding”. If not, you might think it has something to do with free food.

Let me explain.

We all know that a newborn’s diet consists of breastmilk, and for the first six months of life, breastmilk is the sole source of nutrition, meeting all of an infant’s nutritional needs. And when breastfeeding is not possible, commercial “formula” milk is the only suitable replacement.

Far-reaching benefits

The most important thing babies’ bodies focus on is growing and developing, which happens very quickly. From the age of six months, there is, therefore, a demand for more energy and nutrients, which means that breastmilk or formula alone will not suffice.

Nevertheless, the benefits of breastfeeding remain far-reaching for both the mother and the baby and should be continued. Breastmilk continues to provide half of a child’s nutritional needs up to the age of one year, and then a third up to two years of age. What provides the rest of their nutrition? The answer is complementary foods.

Complementary feeding is the timely introduction of appropriate, adequate and safe foods in addition to breastmilk. When and how we choose to introduce these foods is crucial for their future health and wellbeing.

The recommended time to introduce complementary foods is around the age of six months and ideally no later than seven months. Offering foods too early or too late, can increase the risk of malnutrition.

Small, frequent portions

Your baby will start to show an interest in food, indicating readiness for complementary feeding. (The introduction of complementary foods at the appropriate time should include potentially allergenic foods to reduce the risk of allergies.) 

At six months, your baby’s stomach capacity is still very small, which means that small, frequent portions of a variety of nutrient-dense foods are key. Acceptable consistencies are soft, pureed, semi-solid and mashed foods.

During this time, the need for the mineral iron also increases. Iron-rich foods should be introduced early and be offered daily or as often as possible. It is advisable to pair these foods, especially the plant-based sources, with vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables to enhance iron absorption. Foods like tea and cow’s milk inhibit iron absorption and should not be consumed with iron-rich foods. In fact, cow’s milk should only be introduced after 12 months.

Dietary diversity should be emphasised since different foods provide different nutrients. Dark-green leafy vegetables and orange-coloured fruits and veggies should be given daily to provide Vitamin A and Vitamin C.

‘An amazing and crucial window of opportunity’

Foods that are not appropriate for infants are those that pose a choking risk or can lead to foodborne illnesses. There are also foods not metabolically appropriate for infants. Processed foods such as sugary drinks and high-sugar, high-fat or salty foods and snacks should be avoided. Such foods provide a lot of energy, but few nutrients, which can lead to malnutrition and increase the risk of obesity later in life.

Babies can self-feed with whole steamed or soft finger foods at around eight months. Respond positively to their attempts to self-feed as this helps them learn new skills and shows them that eating and mealtimes are fun. This will also expose them to new textures and flavours. As the baby gets older, increase the amount and frequency of food to ensure adequate nutrient intake. By 12 months of age, your little one’s diet should have progressed from specially prepared first foods to a diet of family foods.

Once a baby shows signs of hunger, respond to their cues by offering food. Stop feeding them when they show signs of fullness. This establishes not only a connection with you as their caregiver but also develops trust as the baby will feel that they are seen, heard and respected. It builds trust within themselves and their bodies when they can identify and respond to their hunger and fullness cues.  

Feeding your baby during their first year of life is an adventure. The introduction of complementary food is an amazing and crucial window of opportunity. Not only does this period provide your baby with nutrients to set them up for lifelong health and wellbeing, but it also establishes a healthy relationship with food.

ADSA has released a series of three short, informative videos about complementary feeding for South African parents and caregivers.  Join the ADSA dietitian team to learn more about the nutrients that babies require after six months of age; get tips on how to make complementary feeding easy for you, and for baby. Each episode also features a recipe for a simple yet nutrient-dense complementary baby meal that is quick and convenient for busy moms and caregivers.

*Michelle Zietsman is a registered dietitian and ADSA spokesperson.