Stages of Nutrition for Babies + Best Baby Foods - Dr. Axe

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Stages of Nutrition for Babies + Best Baby Foods


Reviewed by Michelle Levitt, MD

Nutrition for babies - Dr. Axe

According to a 2018 statement made by the American Academy of Pediatrics, “a baby’s nutritional environment during the first 1,000 days of life is critical to lifelong mental health and development.” We can all agree that feeding babies the most nutrient-dense foods from a young age is ideal, but it can be hard to navigate the varying opinions and options out there.

Doctor Michelle Levitt, who is board certified in pediatrics and obesity medicine, explains that childhood obesity and every chronic illness in children is on the rise and is originating from the foods we introduce during infancy.

Nutrition for babies starts with providing mother’s milk, which is specifically made for your baby. Then, bringing nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables into your baby’s diet will help him or her to explore the flavors and textures of these healthy foods, while promoting his or her ongoing development.

Your baby receives the nutrients you consume during pregnancy, which is why a pregnancy diet full of brain-boosting and growth-promoting foods is so important. After giving birth, your choices will impact your baby’s relationship with food for years to come. Hopefully, learning about the best foods for baby nutrition and how to begin incorporating them into your diet will help to make this process a little clearer.

What Is Baby Nutrition?

The most essential tool for the growth and development of your baby is good nutrition. Not only does the appropriate types of foods support your baby’s health, but positive feeding techniques and attitudes can also help an infant develop a healthy and optimistic attitude toward foods and themselves.

In the first year of life (and into the toddler phase), a child needs to receive adequate amounts of brain-building and growth-promoting nutrients. These nutrients include vitamins A, D, B6 and B12, plus protein, polyunsaturated fatty acids, probiotics, prebiotics, fiber, zinc, iron, iodine, folate and choline. These nutrients are found naturally in breast milk and in the foods you will introduce during your baby’s first year of life.

Formula vs. Breast Milk

Research shows that breast milk is the best source of nutrition for nearly all babies. Breast milk contains the perfect combination of bioactive agents that promote the proper function of the immune system and gastrointestinal tract. Plus, it supports brain development and promotes optimal infant growth.

One study, published in Cellular and Molecular Biology, indicates that the components present in breast milk, such as proteins that contain amino acids (including glutamine), cytokines, hormones, oligosaccharides and polyunsaturated fatty acids, can also influence the child’s feeding behavior, regulation of growth and appetite control later in life. This finding suggests that breast milk can help to protect infants against obesity and type 2 diabetes, even into their adult years.

Organizations such as the World Health Organization, American Academy of Pediatrics and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommend that infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life and breastfed in combination with starting foods from six to 12 months of life. But According to the CDC’s 2018 Breastfeeding Report Card83 percent initiated breastfeeding and only 47 percent were exclusively breastfeeding at three months.

For women who aren’t able to breastfeed or are having trouble producing enough breast milk, infant formula is meant to serve as an industrially-produced substitute. Although infant formula is meant to mimic the nutritional composition of breast milk, it actually doesn’t.

Not only is the protein content in infant formula higher, but it is typically higher in casein than whey, as compared to breastmilk.  Casein is often harder to digest and has a different nutritional profile than whey. In addition, infant formula does not contain adequate healthy fat (which is present in the form of cholesterol in breast milk). Healthy fat is crucial for brain development. And although infant formulas can contain added DHA, this is synthetically added. Omega-3 fatty acids are extremely fragile and do not survive this process. In addition, formula lacks human milk oligosaccharides, which are crucial for immune function and a healthy gut microbiome. Formula companies have been beginning to add this, but it is not naturally derived from human milk. 

It’s also important to note in the discussion of infant formula that there are a number of alternatives to cow’s milk formula on the market today. For infants with a milk allergy, there are soy-based formulas, amino acid formulas and hypoallergenic formulas that contains cow’s milk that’s extensively hydrolyzed so the proteins are easier to digest. There are also infant formulas made from the milk of different animals, including goat and lamb, although the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend goat or lamb’s milk, and soy has potential estrogen effects.

Another major difference between breast milk and formula is the presence of probiotics and prebiotics. Research shows that babies who are breast fed carry a more well-balanced and uniform population of probiotics than infants who are formula fed. And scientists believe that a healthy microbiome in infancy may have an impact on the child’s health later in life.

So, to summarize all of this information on human milk versus infant formula, breast milk is by far the best nutrition for babies because it’s made naturally by humans and is meant to provide what an infant needs to grow and develop properly. However, for women who are unable to breastfeed because of their specific circumstances, the WHO recommends seeking out human milk donors first and then infant formula as an additional option. Infant formula provides an alternative for infants who aren’t able to receive breast milk. Realizing, however, that is does not actually mimic breast milk, it’s best to choose a formula that’s organic, has a higher ratio of whey vs. casein and does not contain corn syrup or vegetable oils as a source of fat.

Stages of Nutrition for Babies

Birth to 6 Months

There are four reflexes that an infant will typically demonstrate after birth. They include the rooting reflex, suck/swallow reflex, tongue thrust reflex and gag reflex. Here’s a rundown of these reflexes and why they are important:

  • Rooting: After birth, the first reflexive response your infant will perform is reacting to objects when they touch his oral area, which includes his lips, corner of the mouth, cheek and chin. The baby, at this stage, should turn in the direction of the object and open his mouth, which allows him to locate a mother’s nipple or bottle nipple for food.
  • Suck/Swallow: Another reflex that begins right after birth is the suck/swallow reflex that allows the infant to open his mouth and suck on an object. In order to swallow, the tongue of the baby automatically moves to the back of his mouth. This reflex allows the infant to feed from a mother’s breast or a bottle.
  • Tongue Thrust: The tongue thrust reflex causes the infant’s tongue to extend out of his mouth when his lips are touching. This allows the baby to suck on the nipple or bottle so he can get food.
  • Gag: The gag reflex causes the infant to gag when an object, such as a spoon, is placed far back in his mouth. This reflex is the reason why parents have to wait before they can feed the infant foods from a spoon.

Infants from birth to six months should only receive breast milk or infant formula, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Because of their feeding reflexes, they aren’t ready for foods in any form. And the digestive tract of an infant is still developing and isn’t ready for solids until about six months of age. Some infants show signs of food readiness earlier than six months, but exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first six months of life before moving on to adding complementary foods to the diet.

How do you know if your baby is getting enough breast milk or formula for the first six months of life? Your baby should continue to gain weight, once he gains back the weight he lost in the weeks right after birth. He should also be wetting at least one to two diapers in the first few days of life and then six or more diapers. The amount of stools your baby has per day will vary from several per day in the first month of life to one, or sometimes less, per day. Stool and urine output is not as essential as how your baby is growing, so ask your pediatrician to see your baby’s growth curve (which includes a head circumference, length and weight) at every visit.

6 to 9 Months

Before an infant can move on to eating what’s called complementary foods, along with breast milk, he needs to have good head control and be able to sit up without support. Most infants reach this phase of development within four to six months of birth. Your baby must also be able to transfer food from the front of the mouth to the back of the tongue so that he can swallow foods from a spoon, and he must close his mouth around a spoon.

Once your baby has shown that he’s ready for solid, complementary foods, you will begin to introduce one new food at a time. The food should be offered alone and not in combination with other foods for at least three to four days before you move on to another food. This will help you to determine if your baby has any food allergies or sensitivities. Once the infant has tolerated one food, you can introduce more than one food at a time with the one he has already tolerated.

In this phase of eating, you can also introduce some common food allergens into your baby’s diet. New research is showing that introducing these foods earlier in life can actually help to decrease the risk of developing a food allergy. For this reason, it is suggested that your baby is exposed to small amounts of nut oil and peanut butter that’s diluted with water before he’s 12 months old. You may want to do this under the supervision of a healthcare provider, however.

Just go slow and remember that breast milk is still the most important form of nutrients for your baby at this time. The dietary fat found in breast milk is essential for a baby’s brain development and immunity, so these feedings are still extremely important, even though your baby is now having fun with solid foods too.

Here are some tips to keep in mind as you begin:

  • At first, your baby only needs about a teaspoon of puréed food per day. You will watch his hunger cues as the weeks go by and gradually increase the amount of food being offered. You can also use another approach to feeding that’s called baby-led weaning. This allows your baby to decide how much he wants to eat and exposes him to an array of table foods.
  • The more mainstream approach is to begin with pureed vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots. Dr. Levitt recommends focusing on foods that support declining iron stores. To do this, it’s important that the baby is getting heme iron, which is more bioavailable than synthetic iron, such as that found in infant cereal. Some foods that provide this kind of iron and can be offered as baby’s first foods include meat, especially organ meat (like pureed liver), egg yolks and fatty foods like avocado. Make sure your source of meat is organic and grass-fed if possible, as it has the highest nutrient density.
  • You can introduce fruits to your baby’s diet, but keep in mind that infants already have an innate predisposition for sweet, and it is up to the parents to introduce other flavors like bitter, sour and savory early on. A variety of tastes and textures are crucial to support the flavor window and prevent picky eaters later on.
  • Babies are complete naturals when it comes to eating intuitively. Parents must be careful to not put their food preferences onto their kids. Avoid introducing processed foods and watch their hunger and satiety cues closely. This is something that baby-led weaning allows for, as the baby is able to eat family foods at his own pace. 

As you feed your baby and try new foods, pay attention to his hunger cues. If he opens his mouth in between spoonfuls, that’s a good sign that he wants more. And if he closes his mouth shut and turns away when you are going in with the spoon, that’s a sign that your baby has had enough.

9 to 12 Months

Between nine and 12 months, your baby will begin to experiment with self-feeding and can chop small pieces of soft food with his teeth and gums. You may also notice him playing with the spoon during meal times, although he probably won’t be able to spoon feed himself yet, and he’ll start using his thumb and index finger to pick up small pieces of food and feed himself. At this point, you will be mixing two or more foods together, as long as your baby has tried each food alone first. The baby is still getting breast milk or formula and won’t begin drinking cow’s milk or a dairy alternative until he’s 12 months old.

By nine months, in addition to fruits and vegetables, you can be offering your baby puréed meats, pureed legumes, small amounts of cheese, small amounts of unsweetened yogurt and finger foods (like small pieces of avocado and scrambled eggs) into your baby’s diet. Eventually, within this phase of eating, your baby will be able to transition to cubes or small pieces of table foods. The focus is to incorporate nutrient-dense foods into your baby’s diet.

Some pediatricians may recommend combining ground grains with breast milk or formula in order to make your baby feel more full. Dr. Levitt, however, is completely against the introduction of grains, which includes any kind of puffs or crackers. This is because grains don’t provide the same nutrient density as fruits and vegetables. Plus, the iron found in grains aren’t as bioavailable as the iron found in animal sources.

Two foods that you want to avoid until the baby is 12 months are honey and shellfish.

12 Months and Beyond

At 12 months old, your baby has already explored most foods, and he is feeding himself by picking foods up or using a spoon. At this point, your baby can eat everything, including honey and shellfish.

He can also start drinking cow’s milk or a milk alternative of your choice. I think that coconut milk is an excellent choice because it contains lauric acid, which is also found heavily in mother’s breast milk. Some other cow’s milk alternatives that are great for children with a milk allergy or can be offered along with cow’s milk include almond milk and goat milk.

At this point in your baby’s diet, he can also drink as much water as he wants. I recommend avoiding juice for your baby. Many people ask, “Is juice healthy?” and the truth is that many juices that are marketed for children contain a ton of sugars and calories.

Baby Nutrition Chart

Birth to 6 months:

Breast milk or formula only

6–9 months:

Start at one feeding per day and then move on to two feedings.

Meats and Protein Foods —puréed animal meats and liver, egg yolk, bone broth

Vegetables —puréed sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, squash, avocado, peas, green beans

Fruits — puréed apples, pears, bananas, peaches, plums

9–12 months:

Begin three feedings a day and mix food groups. Begin serving finger foods (cut into small pieces) when your baby is ready. Continue providing breast milk or formula as well.

Meats and Protein Foods — (puréed, mashed or cut into small pieces) chicken, turkey, beef, eggs, fish (no shellfish), peanut butter (diluted with water), lentils, beans

Vegetables — (puréed, mashed or cut into small pieces) broccoli, green beans, cauliflower, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, beets, zucchini, parsnips, eggplant

Fruits — (puréed, mashed or cut into small pieces) mangoes, papaya, pineapple, nectarines, berries, kiwi, melon, figs, cherries, cranberries, grapes

Dairy — (spoon fed or cut into small pieces) kefir, unsweetened yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese

12 to 15 months:

Feed three times per day and add in snacks when baby shows hunger cues. Bring in more finger foods as baby shows readiness and offer a spoon or fork with meals.

Protein Foods — All meats, eggs, legumes

Vegetables — All vegetables

Fruits — All fruits

Dairy — All cheeses, breast milk, cow’s milk, goat milk or dairy alternative

10 Best Beginning Foods

If you walk down the baby aisle at your local grocery store, you’ll notice a ton of baby food options. From organic to non-organic foods, to foods served in plastic, in glass and in pouches, to an array of combinations — how do you know where to begin? There’s no doubt that baby nutrition can be confusing and overwhelming.

Well, I recommend you begin by making your own baby food at home and supplementing with organic foods in glass jars from the store when you need to. Remember that for the first few months of eating solids, your baby needs to receive one food at a time. Then, well-tolerated foods can be combined.

To make baby’s first foods at home, simply steam, boil or bake them until they are soft, then use a food processor or blender to purée them. If the fruit or vegetable has skin, make sure it’s peeled before you purée it. If you are doing baby-led weaning, leave the food in small sticks so your baby can grab them.

A great way to prepare and store plenty of baby food at once is to put the puree into a BPA-free ice tray and store the cubes of food in freezer-safe bags until you need them. Then, simply pop the cube in the microwave or cook it on the stove until it’s warm and soft again. This will save you a ton of time and money! Plus, you are ensuring that the foods are organic, fresh and clean.

Here’s a list of the first 10 foods (in no particular order) that you should offer your baby. Dr. Levitt suggests starting with these foods because they are rich in nutrients and will set the stage for a child’s health. Remember to serve one food at a time, for three to four days, before moving on to the next food.

  1. Organ meats and blended red meats
  2. Egg yolk
  3. Avocado
  4. Wild salmon
  5. Bone broth
  6. Kefir
  7. Sweet potatoes
  8. Squash
  9. Carrots
  10. Banana

Related: Metal in Baby Food: Study Finds 95% Contain Heavy Metals


It’s important to note that each baby is different. Some babies will take a bit longer to adapt to solids and some will catch on right away. Always pay attention to your baby’s hunger cues and reflexes to determine what stage he’s at when it comes to feeding. If you have questions about feeding your baby grains or dairy, ask your pediatrician. You should also consult your pediatrician if you suspect that your baby has a food allergy.

If your baby shows signs of an allergy after eating a specific food, such as a new skin rash, diarrhea, vomiting or blood in the stool, eliminate the food from your baby’s diet and consult your pediatrician. It is normal for your baby’s stool is change colors or texture after eating a new food, so don’t be concerned about this indicating a problem.

Final Thoughts on Nutrition for Babies

  • Nutrition for babies is extremely important for their growth and development. The first step to ensuring your baby’s health in the first months of life is exclusive breast feeding.
  • After six months of exclusive breast feeding, you can begin adding complementary foods to your baby’s diet. Starting with puréed vegetables and then fruits is ideal.
  • By nine months of age, your baby can begin receiving a combination of foods, including fruits, veggies, grains (I suggest going gluten-free at first), beans, legumes, dairy and meat.
  • Here’s the top 10 beginning foods for your baby:
    • Organ meats and blended red meats
    • Egg yolk
    • Avocado
    • Wild salmon
    • Bone broth
    • Kefir
    • Sweet potatoes
    • Squash
    • Carrots
    • Banana
  • If you are looking for more information pertaining to food for babies and introducing the most nutrient-dense foods from the beginning of life, Dr. Levitt recommends Weston A. Price’s book “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration” and “Super Nutrition for Babies” by Dr. Katherine Erlich.

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