Around the age of 6 months, an infant’s need for energy and nutrients starts to exceed what is provided by breast milk, and complementary foods are necessary to meet those needs. An infant of this age is also developmentally ready for other foods. This transition is referred to as complementary feeding.
If complementary foods are not introduced around the age of 6 months, or if they are given inappropriately, an infant’s growth may falter.
Ensuring that infants nutritional needs are met requires that complementary foods be:
- timely – meaning that they are introduced when the need for energy and nutrients exceeds what can be provided through exclusive breastfeeding;
- adequate – meaning that they provide sufficient energy, protein and micronutrients to meet a growing child’s nutritional needs;
- safe – meaning that they are hygienically stored and prepared, and fed with clean hands using clean utensils and not bottles and teats;
- properly fed – meaning that they are given consistent with a child’s signals of appetite and satiety, and that meal frequency and feeding are suitable for age.
Caregivers should take active care in the feeding of infants by being responsive to the child’s clues for hunger and also encouraging the child to eat.
WHO recommends that infants start receiving complementary foods at 6 months of age in addition to breast milk. Initially, they should receive complementary foods 2–3 times a day between 6–8 months and increase to 3–4 times daily between 9–11 months and 12–24 months. Additional nutritious snacks should also be offered 1–2 times per day for ages 12–24 months, as desired.
Gradually increase food consistency and variety as the infant gets older, adapting to the infant’s requirements and abilities. Infants can eat pureed, mashed and semi-solid foods beginning at 6 months. By 8 months most infants can also eat “finger foods” (snacks that can be eaten by children alone).
By 12 months, most children can eat the same types of foods as consumed by the rest of the family, while keeping in mind the need for nutrient-dense foods, including animal-sourced foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products.
Avoid foods in a form that may cause choking, such as whole grapes or raw carrots. Avoid giving drinks with low nutrient value, such as tea, coffee and sugary soft drinks. Limit the amount of juice offered, to avoid displacing more nutrient-rich foods.