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Understanding Baby Food Stages: A Cheat Sheet for Parents

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mother grocery shopping with baby girl in supermarket

If you're starting solids with your baby, you may have noticed jars, pouches, and packages labeled with stage or level numbers. Wondering what all of those baby food stages mean—and which one is best for your baby right now?

They're actually pretty helpful. Using a "stages" approach can help keep you on course during those first several months of feeding solids, says Parents advisor Jill Castle, R.D., author of The Smart Mom's Guide to Starting Solids. Between 6 to 12 months, your baby is rapidly changing, not only learning how to eat solids, but also expanding her range of flavors and textures. Your goal by age one is a broad and varied diet, and progressing through stages can help you do that.

When we talk about baby food stages, we're mostly referring to store-bought or homemade purees. If you're practicing baby-led weaning, a technique that means skipping spoon-feeding purees and letting babies feed themselves finger foods right from the start, most experts recommend beginning with single-ingredient foods. A few first finger foods include banana, avocado, moist and shredded meats and salmon, and pasta. (You can get more baby-led weaning advice here.)

The key is starting solids at the right time, typically around six months. Begin much earlier than that (especially before four months), and your baby may have a negative experience like choking that can influence how she feels about eating down the line, cautions Castle. Starting too late has drawbacks too, such as delayed eating skills. If you have any questions about your baby's developmental readiness to eat, talk to your pediatrician.

Stage 1 Baby Food

Best for: Babies just starting solids (around 6 months)

Advice about these first foods has changed a lot. Rice cereal was long recommended as the ideal starter food, but you can now begin with any food you'd like—from veggie and fruit purees to pureed meat.

Stage 1 Tip: Start with small spoonfuls. You can also mix purees with breastmilk or formula to create a thinner consistency when first starting. And remember that it's OK if those first bites come right back out of your baby's mouth while he's learning to swallow.

Stage 2 Baby Food

Best for: Babies 7 to 8 months who have experience with solids

Keep in mind that your baby may gag when you progress to new textures, but that doesn't mean she's choking or not ready, says Castle. "It's just something new and they need some time to adapt," she says. Start with small amounts and go slow. If your baby doesn't seem to want to advance to thicker textures, talk to your pediatrician. "They may have a delay or medical condition that should be discussed," she says.

Stage 2 Tip: Focus on flavor exploration right now. Exposing your baby to a wide variety of foods is key, as it helps build familiarity with different flavors. This can also help you weather picky eating phases that crop up during the toddler years. Research shows that babies who are fed "blends" of vegetables (squash, carrots, and green beans) are more accepting of new vegetables later on than babies fed a single vegetable, says Castle.

Stage 3 Baby Food

Best for: Babies 9 to 12 months

If your baby doesn't respond well to lumps of food on her spoon, don't worry (mine didn't either—and neither did one of Castle's!). If you haven't already, by this phase you can start incorporating all kinds of finger foods that your baby can chew as well, like small dices of avocado or tofu, O-shaped cereal, and pieces of well-cooked veggies.

Stage 3 Tip: Watch out for baby "snacks" and packaged finger foods with added sugar. You're better off skipping lots of packaged snacks in favor of a variety of finger foods from your own kitchen.

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Linda Barbara

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