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FAQs

Sensory Development

GF FAQ Image Sensory Development

What is meant by ‘window of opportunity’?

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We know that babies are born with an ingrained preference for sweet and salty. However, the start of complementary feeding is a very sensitive and malleable period in an infant’s development. With the right exposure and experiences to a wide variety of healthy foods, he can and will develop lifelong healthy food preferences. Unfortunately, this also means that if an infant’s first exposures are limited to sugary processed foods, these can also enhance a lifelong preference to these foods. It is therefore important for caregivers to capitalize on this window of opportunity to introduce a wide variety of healthy nutritious foods and build healthy preferences. [4, 11, 14, 42, 50, 86] A spoonful is all that is required as this is about exposure to different tastes, not nutrition or to satisfy hunger (that is the role of milk in this early phase). [5, 13] The focus is very much on taste experiences and building the foundations for healthy preferences. 

It is also a huge advantage that by the time that solids do play an important role for nutritional requirements [14] (somewhere between 6 and 7 months), he has a good grasp and preference for these foods. If all he has been exposed to up until this point is sweet fruit and infant cereal you are more likely going to struggle to transition to healthier, more nutrient-dense alternatives. 

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How do I go about offering baby those first foods?

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Be prepared. Starting solids is messy, it rarely goes as straightforward as parents would hope, and you can guarantee there will be bumps along the way! That said, it can also be a rewarding experience and a journey you can enjoy together as a family. 

Step 1: Choose a time of day free of stress, when he is not overly hungry or tired. [21]

Step 2: Ensure he is sitting correctly: Upright, not slumped forward, off to one side or too far back. You may need to place some extra support around him, e.g. rolled-up towels or cushions. A footrest can also provide extra stability. If his legs don’t quite reach the footrest you can tape an old shoebox to the footrest in the interim. Also check the tray height. It should be sitting below his breastbone so his elbows can sit on the tray without being hunched. Again, you might need to sit him on a folded towel to lift him up a bit. 

Step 3: Stimulate the senses. Eating is a sensory experience. In fact, without being aware, our digestion process starts long before the food touches our stomachs. Watching food being prepared, its smell and feel, and the anticipation of eating, all stimulate a response that signals the release of digestive juices (saliva), thus preparing the body for receiving food. So involve him in this process. Even if the food comes in a packet, talk about it—the smell, the color, its yummy goodness, where it comes from—and when possible have some in its physical form. Show him what a whole carrot looks like. And don’t forget to eat some yourself, smile, and describe it encouragingly. 

Step 4: Choose a spoon. Ensure the spoon is small enough to fit in his mouth and flat enough that his lips can be used to suck off the puree. There are plenty of baby spoons on the market, so you might have to try a couple to find one that works for him.

Step 5: If he is getting agitated trying to sit up or use the spoon, stop there for the day. Remember, this is a learning experience for him and keeping it a positive and enjoyable one will pay dividends later! So if at any stage in the process the wheels come off, it is important not to show frustration but to praise him, and yourself, for getting this far and try again tomorrow. His emotional wellbeing [10] is equally important in his sensory journey as the food itself.

Step 6: Start small. Offer half a teaspoon of puree on the end of the spoon. Putting too much on the spoon in the initial stages can be frightening for him and difficult for him to swallow. Keep in mind that this is a sensory journey of tastes and experiences, not about nutrition. Don’t be tempted to scrape the top of the spoon on his upper lip. This encourages the tongue-thrust reflex (pushing food out) rather than sucking food to the back of the mouth. This is an important skill to learn to progress onto accepting different textures. If he struggles with this concept of sucking off a spoon right away you can try placing a little on a clean finger and offering him that first. 

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How do I ensure baby's emotional needs are being met?

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Trying something new is a challenge, even something as simple as eating. Like anything else new in their world, they will be looking to you for guidance and emotional support. They need to feel comfortable, familiar, and safe, in order to accept the new challenge and make it a happy experience. Therefore: 

  • The atmosphere throughout his sensory journey of moving to solids is essential to feeling secure and confident to try new things.[91] Setting up positive healthy relationships with food can never start too early. If he associates food with stress and frustration, this not only has an impact on what he eats now but also into the future. These formative stages set the foundations for healthy relationships and preferences for life. 
  • Eat with him. Eating is a social experience, and for babies this is no different. It offers them a sense of connectedness and belonging. Eventually you will be able to integrate him into the family meal, but for now, sit down with him, preferably at eye level, and share a meal with him. [92] Your social interactions with him during mealtimes all contribute to future acceptances of various flavors and textures. So keep it stress-free, positive and as enjoyable as possible, take his lead [36], and offer plenty of praise!
  • Choose a time/day/week when you are both free from further challenges or disruptions, e.g. starting a new day care, outings, visitors, disruptions to sleep patterns. [2]
  • Choose a time of day when you both are well rested and have plenty of time to enjoy these new experiences, i.e. don’t be in a rush.
  • Choose a time of day when he is not overly hungry. In these early stages they do not yet associate solids with satisfying hunger. Rather, look at this as another form of play and exploration. [44] 
  • Don’t make a fuss. If it didn’t go as well as you anticipated, such as he didn’t want a bar of it, got distracted or upset, that’s OK and all completely normal! Riding a bike with no training wheels was the same, right? The most important thing is to not make a fuss and try again some other time. 
  • Get messy! He will spit most of these first foods out. He will want to try and grab the spoon or hold onto his own. He will want to play with his food. Eating involves touch, sight, smell, and even sound. [44] Engaging these senses is a critical part of learning to eat, learning about food, and even triggering the digestive process. Start this learning process early. Try offering the real deal alongside the puree you are offering. For example, if offering a carrot puree, have a whole carrot for him to hold. 

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What does a baby need from solids to optimize growth and development?

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By 6 to 7 months, his nutritional needs can no longer be filled by milk alone and the inclusion of nutrient-dense foods [23] are a must. It becomes hugely apparent that capitalizing on the window between 5 and 6 months [5] to prime his palate with a wide variety of healthy savoury flavors pays dividends. To be able to hit the ground running at 6 to 7 months with him already accepting these nutritious foods will ensure his nutrient needs to optimize growth and development are met. Adequate nutrition to optimize growth and development will not come from apple puree and infant cereal [11]! Although milk remains an important component of his diet, so do nutrient-rich foods, high in iron [24] and zinc, and balanced in good sources of fats [51], proteins [26], and carbohydrates [27].

  • Vegetables [11] Vegetables are the most amazing wholefood group. They are packed full of essential nutrients, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and even some fat, and provide the perfect slow release of energy. Instilling a preference for these powerhouses is one of the most fantastic gifts you can give to your child in terms of future health and wellbeing. 
  • Iron-rich foods [24] Infants are born with enough iron stores to see them through the first 6 months of life. Then, due to their rapid growth and development and very high iron requirements (a 6- to 24-month-old has a greater iron requirement per kilogram of body weight than any other time in their life), they must start receiving good sources of readily available iron from the foods they eat. Sufficient dietary iron is required to ensure proper weight gain, appetite, energy levels, a healthy immune system, and is essential for optimizing cognitive and behavioural development. Unfortunately, not all iron sources are created equally. The best sources of iron are the natural ones, in particular meat, eggs, and pulses. Although infant cereals claim to be good sources of iron, in reality, it is poorly absorbed. 
  • Fats [51] Babies need fat! Not only is it an important energy source, but it is also essential for optimal brain development, building strong immune systems, and the absorption of important fat-soluble vitamins. Yet, the sad fact is, most infant diets consist of watery cereals and fruit purees, which are very high in carbohydrates and devoid of any fat at all. So don’t be afraid of giving him healthy fat (fats that haven’t been artificially made or altered). It is, and should be their primary fuel source and is vital for metabolic health, now, and the future.
  • Good sources of proteins and carbohydrates [26, 27] Although both essential for overall health, they must be in balance. A diet too high in protein has shown a tendency for a more rapid weight gain (and propensity to obesity), and a diet too reliant on carbohydrates as the dominant energy source can be nutrient poor, especially if they are highly refined or over-processed.

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Can my baby eat what the family eats?

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You only need to look around the world to see the wide variety of foods infants learn to eat as a normal part of the family diet. The difference between children who eat hot spicy foods and those who are happy to eat sour or bitter foods is repetitive exposure throughout the first 1000 days. Therefore, if you have traditional cultural foods that your family commonly eats, early repetitive exposure is the key. However, it’s important all that family foods fall within the nutrient guidelines [19] of low in sugar, salt, and saturated fats, and that you have no concerns with allergies [44] before introducing them.

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Should I give baby fruit?

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We encourage a vegetables-first approach [35], then fruit and sweeter vegetables can also be introduced. Variation is the key to extend your baby’s palate to a wider range of taste experiences. Even though fruits are deemed as healthy and should be included in our diet, most still contain high amounts of sugar, in the form of fructose. It may be considered ‘healthier’ than highly refined sources, but at the end of the day, sweet is sweet, regardless of its source! Evolution has primed us with an innate preference for sweet, however, research has shown we can train healthy eating preferences toward a range of flavor profiles, including bitter and sour [13]. We just need to provide our children with plenty of opportunities to do so [20, 21]. 

So, vegetables first, vegetables in repetition, and vegetables in a wide variety, with small amounts of fruit dispersed throughout. While it’s easy to offer the familiar banana and apple, try to also include sour fruits such as tart plums and tart apples.

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How and when should I start introducing textures?

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Learning to eat a wide variety of textures is another crucial step in the transition to solid foods. Surprisingly, this introduction can occur much sooner than caregivers think. However, driven largely by the fear of infant choking, and caregivers not knowing what is normal gagging, the progress toward solids can be impeded. Add to this the sometimes false and confusing messages from puree products aimed at the older infant (8 to 9+ months) packaged in a convenient pouch, it’s no wonder parents reach for the easy option.

In actual fact, most babies are able to tolerate gradually thicker purees and then onto soft lumps within 1 to 2 weeks of starting solids. Again, every baby is different so follow their lead on this. Once he is tolerating the runny puree well, gradually make it less runny and more viscous. Watch for signs that he is able to move the food around in his mouth and/or starting to make chewing motions, especially if you give him a piece of finger food. You can offer well-cooked, very smooshy (easily squashed between your thumb and forefinger) finger foods such as pumpkin and sweet potato early on, providing you always watch for choking hazards and signs [41]. Not only will this engage the senses and increase eye and hand coordination, but babies also get the benefits of different textures, which will expand his tolerance for increasingly lumpier textures. 

It is important not to delay the introduction of appropriate textures as this can interfere with the development of essential chewing and oral motor skills. What’s more, studies have also shown that if the introduction of textures and soft lumpy foods are delayed beyond 9 months, it can increase food fussiness [43, 82]. The studies indicated that these children tended to have greater feeding difficulties, increased chances of food phobias, and overall lower consumption of fruit and vegetables through the toddler years and even as 7-year-olds [47]. Prolonging the introduction of textures can also attribute to overeating as it is more difficult to pay attention to responsive feeding when food is rapidly swallowed (especially if eaten directly from a pouch and not off a spoon).

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