Feeding your baby (and getting it right) is a hot topic. The most frequently asked question I get on social media is "How much food should my baby be eating?"
After all, what you feed them makes them grow, develop and flourish into the little Einsteins of the future. So it probably doesn't come as much of a surprise to hear that a common worry is around your little one eating enough food.
What do the official guidelines say?
Actually, there are no official baby food guidelines on weaning portion sizes but there are one or two useful guides. The reason that there are no official guidelines is that all babies are so very different. Some take to weaning really quickly and you can be on 3 meals a day by the end of the first week and others take tiny amounts, gradually getting there by their first birthday. Some love their milk feeds and the idea of solid food is just a bit alien to them and so it can take a while for them to accept food.
When you ask your parents, friends, Health Professionals, google etc the answers are vast, and in the first year of life what your baby does and what your friends baby does are probably both completely normal.
But what about those useful weaning guides?
Because we know the nutritional requirements of babies and how these change as they grow, and because scientists have studied roughly how much milk both breastfed and formula fed babies take at each stage, Dietitians can work out the difference and turn this information into a weaning portion size guide detailing what babies need to get from food to meet their nutritional requirements.
Before I dive in, I need to just say that all babies are different and that the nutritional requirements we have are for the 'average baby' so if yours doesn't quite fit, don't panic. As long as their growing well and gaining weight, have wet nappies lots of times a day and enough energy to play and explore then they're probably doing just fine at their own unique pace.
Have your baby weighed and measured about once a month and plot their measurements in the red book. As long as they're tracking their centile line, they're probably doing fine.
Trust your baby to eat what she needs
In addition baby's are born with an ability to self regulate their food and milk intake. As long as you provide the milk and food your baby will take what she needs and stop when her little body has had enough. The rest of the food becomes something to play with, and this is fine too (it's actually great for her sensory integration - read more here).
This innate ability to self regulate according to what her body actually needs is an amazing ability she's born with and it lasts till around age 4-5.
Appetites do fluctuate too, just like you and I and much of this depends upon what other developmental milestones your baby is mastering. She may eat more when she:
- is learning how to crawl, stand and walk
- is having a rapid growth spurt
- when she learns a new skill
- the food on offer is low in nutrients
She may eat less when she:
- is teething
- when the food on offer is nutrient rich
- feeling poorly
- hasn't had enough sleep
- its hot weather or cold weather
- being encouraged to eat when she doesn't want to
Can I use the portion sizes for 6 month old babies or from when I start weaning?
No. At the start of weaning babies tend to eat very little. At this point it isn't really about nutrition, weaning is about getting them used to the taste and texture of something other than milk. We want you to offer lots of different tastes and textures so that your little one experiences all kinds of flavours but don't worry about quantities.
At 6.5 months, use the next couple of weeks to build them up to three meals (or eating occasions) per day and from 7 months you can start to implement my portion size guide so that by 9 months weaning is really well established.
Are snack portion sizes included in the guide?
No, and the reason for this is that we don't want babies having snacks till around 10 months or so. This is because milk is still so important in terms of providing nutrition and snacking can displace it. Ideally, your routine should include a milk feed mid-morning and mid-afternoon in between her meals and so her milk is the 'snack'.
How to use the portion size guide
While having portion size guidelines can be a helpful rule of thumb to know how much to serve, don't take it as gospel in terms of exactly what she should eat. I'm always going to advise you to look back across a period of time, for example, the last week or so and reflect on what your baby has eaten and how she has been, rather than worry about what she's decided to eat or not eat at that particular meal.
My guide contains portion sizes of each of the food groups, the important nutrient-rich foods to offer, but also my suggested routine for successful weaning. Consider all of this together when planning out your baby's meals. You can download it for FREE here.
What happens if she finishes all her food and seems to want more?
Then go for it, this is absolutely fine, try offering her something else and if her little body needs it she will take it and she will stop when she's full. In the main, you can't overfeed a baby providing you give balanced nutritious meals and feed her responsively which means following her cues and not tempting her to take just 'one more mouthful'.
Some babies are 'pleasers' and will continue eating, ignoring their fullness cues if they think this is what you want and will make you happy. Research has shown that by overly encouraging or tempting little ones to eat, we have inadvertently taught them to switch off their self-regulation. Not all babies are 'pleasers' but those who have temperaments lean towards pleasing will overeat if they think this is what you want them to do. If you think your baby falls into this category then you may have to limit what they eat and observe how you and other caregivers respond at mealtimes.
What happens if my baby takes far less?
Firstly check your baby's milk intake, you want to make sure that she's not so full up on milk that she has no interest in food.
Secondly having a routine is really important too. She needs to eat when she's alert, not tired and has an appetite and not too full from a recent milk feed.
Thirdly, check what you are doing at her mealtime. Are you feeding responsively? Make sure you notice her "I'm finished" cues like turning her head away, keeping her mouth firmly closed or pushing the spoon away, and don't try and feed her when she does this. It will lead to food refusal and a toddler who is a master of fussy eating!
When to be concerned?
Seek advice if your baby’s growth starts to move upwards or downwards from their centile line in their red book. Always go on at least 2 different measurements on two different dates spaced several weeks apart as babies are notoriously difficult to measure in length and a full bladder can make the difference of several hundred grams in weight!
Ask for guidance from your Health Visitor if your baby’s milk intake increases or decreases dramatically from the week before. She may be coming down with a bug.
If your baby’s food intake is nowhere near the portion sizes suggested in my guide, you might want to talk to a Registered Dietitian. It may be that she simply loves her milk feeds and just isn't learning her hunger cues.
You will also need to talk to a professional for nutritional advice if they haven’t progressed from purees onto more complex textures and finger foods because experiencing more challenging textures are crucial to help with development including learning to talk.
To find a Registered Dietitian your Health Visitor or GP can make an NHS referral, or you can find a private practice dietitian via freelancedietitians.org