The advice on how to wean your baby on to solids has changed quite a bit over the last few years. Parents are now advised by the Department of Health to exclusively breastfeed or formula feed their babies for the first 6 months of life before starting weaning and introducing them to solid foods. Once weaning begins babies need to progress through the stages rapidly in order to ensure optimum nutrition for growth and development.
There is so much information available on how to wean your baby, from the Internet, books, grandparents and well-meaning friends who’ve ‘been there and done that.’ Its no wonder that it can begin to feel a little daunting for parents as you start to navigate your way through the minefield of information.
Below are my answers to the most common questions I’m asked at the start of weaning:
When should I start?
Most babies are ready for solid foods at around 6 months (or 26 weeks) of age. However it’s not uncommon for some babies to be ready earlier. Solid food should never be given before 17 weeks of age though because your babies digestive system is not mature enough to cope with it and it can cause gastro bleeding. In reality very few babies are developmentally ready for solids this early. Incidentally the most common reason for introducing solids early is reflux - but guess what - it doesn't work - the thought process is that thicker foods will weigh down heavier and your baby is less likely to be sick. There is no evidence for it and it really shouldn't be advised to treat reflux despite many health care professionals suggesting it.
Your baby is ready for solids when they are 'developmentally ready' but what does this really mean? There are key things to look out for: You can download my guide here to check to see if your baby is ready.
Which foods should I give?
I often read on social media sites reassuring comments from other Mum’s stating “not to worry about what your baby is eating because milk is still their main form of nutrition” and i've even seen the phrase 'food is fun until they're one.' This concerns me, as by 6 months of age breast or formula milk alone is no longer enough. Babies’ nutrient requirements are drastically higher in the first year of life than at any other time because of rapid growth and development and so their weaning diet needs to be highly nutritious. In reality that means high fat, high protein, low fibre and only small portions of fruit and vegetables…quite the opposite of adult healthy eating!
In addition, at around 6 months, the stores of iron that babies are born with start to run out. Breast milk doesn’t contain much iron and formula has it added but its poorly absorbed in your baby's body. Thus iron rich foods twice a day - every day - need to be given. Good sources of iron for babies are lentils, beef, dark poultry meat, oily fish, fortified breakfast cereals and dried fruits (these will need to be softened and pureed at the start of weaning). Read my blog on the most critical nutrients required for weaning here. Its the most popular one on my site!
Also babies have tiny tummies so they fill up quite quickly which means that by 9-10 months they need snacks and nutritious drinks in between each meal, and before then they will still be having milk feeds. All together, this means that their food needs to be as nutritionally packed as possible. Use full fat versions of everything, cook with oil, use butter or spreads and avoid low fat, diet or too many high fibre or wholegrain options.
Are there foods to avoid?
Too much salt is bad for your baby's kidneys and its best avoided. During weaning babies need just 1g salt per day - thats less than a quarter of a teaspoon, and unfortunately many everyday foods are naturally high in salt. Its best to avoid processed foods such as processed meats, crisps, savoury snacks smoked meats and fish, sauces such as ketchup and mayonnaise, soups, stocks, gravy, ready meals, pizza's, quiches and jar or packet sauces aimed at adults.
Foods such as bread, cheese, olives, breakfast cereals and marmite are also sources of salt but they also contain other nutrients that are useful during weaning, so do include these but just be mindful not to over rely on them.
It goes without saying but never add salt to your babies food and avoid it in cooking wherever possible.
Sugar itself is quite safe - provides energy in the form of carbohydrate - but not much else and so isn't a useful nutrient during weaning - sometimes sugar is referred to as 'empty calories'. Moreover your baby has a natural preference for sweet foods (its an evolutionary trait) and if encouraged can lead to a rejection of other foods. Research tells us that if fruits are given over vegetables during weaning, a child will grow up to prefer fruit and reject vegetables as they grow older. Too much sugar in childhood is linked with being overweight and obesity and poor health consequences.
Honey is a high risk food and may contain traces of the food poisoning bacteria botulism, which is why the recommendation is to avoid it till your baby is over 1. By her first birthday her immune system is more mature and she is more likely to be able to fight any possible food poisoning infection.
4. Unpasteurised dairy foods
Most dairy foods you buy will be paesturised but there is a movement towards 'raw' versions of these which are unsuitable for babies. Again this is due to the high risk of pathogenic food poisoning bacteria that may be present. Pasteurization involves heating dairy foods up to a high temperature then chilling them down again. This heat treatment kills the pathogenic bacteria.
5. Additives and e-numbers
Flavours, sweeteners, colours, preservatives, emulsifiers etc are all given an E number (e.g. E111) when added to a food product. Many of these are artificially produced and can cause adverse effects in sensitive children (remember hyperactive children and blue smarties?) Babies bodies are tiny and don't need these chemicals. They are mostly found in processed foods, packets and jars aimed at children or adults. Vitamin C however is listed as E300 - E304 and vitamin E E307 - E309, these are sometimes added to foods and are quite safe.
Baby-led weaning or purees?
My answer to this is its entirely personal choice, there is no right or wrong. Go with what works for you, your baby, your family and fits in with your circumstances. Before 6 months most babies aren’t developmentally ready for BLW as they need to be able to sit upright, hold their head unsupported, grab the food in their fist and be able to direct it into their mouths.
I actually recommend a mixture of both, in my experience not many babies last till 26 weeks, so beginning weaning with well mashed or pureed foods at the start then introducing soft finger foods and family meals at 6 months offers the best advantage. Be sensible though, a 6 month old shouldn’t be gnawing on a chicken leg (believe me I’ve seen this!) but strips of the dark meat from chicken is ideal once they’re mouths can deal with textures other than milk.
A recent research study showed that by 12 months of age both baby led weaners and traditional weaners consumed nutritionally equally balanced diets.
Both have their advantages and disadvantage but in reality I don’t think it really matters too much.
If you’ve found this post useful and want to know more about your baby’s nutrition and growth during their first year of life, I host an Online Weaning Masterclass. To find out more or sign up click here for my Courses page.