If the recent discovery of glass fragments in Gerber products has parents thinking about making baby food from scratch, they may want to weigh a few guidelines before trading commercially prepared food for those pureed at home.

Strained foods prepared at home "are nutritionally equivalent to those obtained commercially," reports the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition.

"However, today, in many families with two parents working, or in other families where there's only one parent, time becomes a real commodity and the convenience of commercially available baby foods is a very real asset," says Dr. Alvin M. Maurer, chairman of the academy's committee on nutrition. But "there are some real advantages to preparing food at home."

Those who choose to make baby food from scratch may have to readjust cooking habits. Frying foods is out. Even boiling vegetables is not recommended, since "vitamin C can be destroyed and water-soluble B vitamins can be leeched out," Maurer says.

Instead, the academy's committee on nutrition suggests steaming vegetables for a few minutes, before pureeing in a food processor or blender. Some home-cooked vegetables, such as spinach, beets, turnips, carrots or collard greens, are not "good choices for feeding during early infancy," the committee says.

Dr. Gilbert Forbes of the University of Rochester School of Medicine advises waiting until a child is 3 to 5 months old before feeding these vegetables, which may contain enough nitrates to cause a condition known as methemoglobinemia, which leads to an inadequate amount of oxygen in the blood.

"Commercial foods are usually not a problem," Forbes says. "They've usually been processed to the point where some of these nitrates have been removed."

Meat, fish and poultry prepared from scratch for infants need to be well-cooked, not served rare, to minimize the risk of parasites and diseases such as trichonosis. But as long as parents don't add salt, sugar, honey, corn syrup or spices to the portions that will be given to infants, many foods cooked for other family members can simply be pureed in a blender or food processor and fed to babies.

"Canned foods which contain large amounts of salt and sugar are unsuitable for the home preparation of infant foods," reports the committee in their newly published "Pediatric Nutrition Handbook."

Regardless of whether parents chose home-prepared or commercially prepared baby food, a major decision will be when to introduce solid foods. Some 60 years ago, infants rarely were given anything but breast milk before age 1. After the 1920s, solid foods were introduced earlier and earlier for a variety of reasons, including a desire to see infants gain weight more rapidly, the wider availablity of commercially prepared solid foods and the mistaken idea that solid foods helped a child sleep through the night.

"We're returning to the old thinking," says Dr. Laurence Finberg, a member of the academy's nutrition committee. "The pendulum is swinging back."The academy recommends starting solid foods between four and six months of age. But "one of the key things to mention to parents is to make sure that the child is developmentally ready to eat solid foods," says Dr. Harry Dweck, a Valhalla, N.Y., pediatrician who also serves on the nutrition committee.

Before solid foods are introduced, a child should have enough tongue coordination to move food from the front to the back of the mouth, Dweck says. Generally, this ability does not develop until four to five months of age.

At 5 to 6 months of age, a child typically develops an ability to show a desire for food by opening his or her mouth and leaning forward. Perhaps even more important, they learn how to show that they are full or to indicate that they dislike a food by leaning back and turning away.

"Until the infant can react in this manner, feeding of solid food may represent a type of forced feeding," the academy's committee reports. If there is a question about a child's development, check with your pediatrician, the committee advises.

The Academy's "Pediatric Nutrition Handbook" and its authors offer the following advice:

*Breast-feeding versus bottle feeding. "Remember that breast is best," says Maurer. Human breast milk offers more antibodies (important for staving off infections). And in this age of staying lean, parents are "more likely to overstuff a child who is bottle feeding than one who is breast-feeding," says the committee's Dweck. "There are fewer obese children who are nursed as opposed to babies who are being bottle fed."

*Introducing new foods. When solid foods are introduced, give a single food at a time, and wait a week before introducing another food to "permit the identification of food intolerance" and allergies.

Some foods should be avoided for all young children, including: peanuts, raisins, popcorn, cut-up hot dogs and any other small foods. Infants and toddlers can easily choke or aspirate these foods into a lung and develop pneumonia.

Doctors disagree on when these foods can safely be eaten by young children, but many recommend waiting until at least age 3. "I prefer waiting until age 6," says Finberg. Parents also are warned to not give honey or corn syrup to infants less than a year old. Both sometimes contain bacterial spores that cause a serious -- and often deadly -- respiratory disease known as botulism. The digestive tracts of young children are prime breeding grounds for clostridia.

*Milk. Skim milk is an "inappropriate food" for infants and toddlers because it has too much protein and too many minerals per calorie, both of which put an extra load on a baby's kidney. The verdict on 2-percent milk is similar. Until about age 2, children need either breast milk, formula or whole milk, not skim or 2-percent.

*Vitamin supplements. These supplements are unneccessary for healthy children.

"The normal, breast-fed, full-term infant of a well-nourished mother doesn't need any specific vitamin and mineral supplements -- provided the infant gets adequate sunlight exposure to assure enough vitamin D ," says the committee. Healthy, formula-fed children also need no supplements. By age six months, some iron supplementation may be needed. But these needs are easily met by feeding iron-rich cereals.

Finally whatever food parents choose to feed their children, the academy stresses how important it is to store all foods properly to minimize the risk of spoilage. That's the reason baby food comes in small jars. They recommend preparing foods for infants on a daily basis.

Resources

The Pediatric Nutrition Handbook, written by the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition, may be purchased for $22.50 from the Academy's Publications Department, 141 Northwest Point Rd., P.O. Box 927, Elk Grove Village, Ill. 60007 or by calling 800-433-9016.