Weaning babies onto solids
Just when you're beginning to get your head around the not-always-obvious art of supplying your baby with milk, along comes another feeding challenge to test your parenting mettle: getting your baby onto 'solid' food.
Most people call this messy little mission weaning (which can get confusing because other people think weaning is persuading your child to give up the breast or bottle, which is related but not exactly the same).
But, whatever you call it, we're talking introducing your baby to 'proper' food.
When to start weaning your baby
So when's the right time to start weaning? And what exactly do you do when it is?
The official guidelines are actually pretty clear: you should wait to introduce solid foods until your baby is six months (26 weeks) old - whether he is breastfed or formula-fed (or both).
The trouble is, these guidelines are relatively new (2001/2003) and many of the people you may be relying upon for advice - your mum, your sister, your friend, your parenting-book 'expert', even (whisper it) your health visitor - may not have come across them or, even if they have, may still be in thrall to some of the more widespread or old-fashioned beliefs about weaning. This can make the whole 'when to wean' issue rather trickier and more confusing than you'd think.
To help you out, here's your at-a-glance guide to the things that really matter when it comes to weaning - and the things that don't - gleaned from Mumsnetters who've sluiced the carrot puree off the walls before you.
Why six months?
Until 2003, parents were advised to wean between four and six months. This was changed to six months after worldwide research (endorsed by numerous health bodies, including the World Health Organisation and the Department of Health) showed, if you wean before six months:
- There's a very real chance your baby's digestive system and kidneys won't be developed enough to cope safely with solid food
- Your baby may absorb fewer nutrients from breastmilk (if he's breastfed)
- There is no positive health benefit for your baby
- Your baby's risk of developing infections and allergies - and going on to have digestive problems and obesity in later life - can increase
Another - very attractive - reason for waiting till six months is that the whole darn process is a heck of a lot quicker and easier. At this age, your baby is very likely to be able to sit in a highchair, take food easily from a spoon and/or pick up and hold food to feed herself.
Because of this - and because you can offer him a wide range of foods straightaway - you can move very quickly onto a good, varied diet. If you start earlier than six months, you will go have to go much more slowly and carefully and the type of foods you can offer your baby will be quite restricted.
- Salt. Your baby's kidneys won't be developed enough to cope with salt. Don't add it to your baby's food (or your own, if you're eating the same meal) and be careful to avoid foods that could contain a lot of salt (stock cubes, crisps, bacon, smoked meats and so on) and double-check the ingredients on readymade foods that aren't specifically for babies, such as breakfast cereals.
- Sugar. Adding sugar to the food or drinks you give your baby could lead to tooth decay.
- Honey. Some honey can contain a type of bacteria which can produce toxins in your baby's intestines and cause infant botulism, a very serious illness.
- Nuts. Whole nuts of any kind are unsuitable for children under the age of five because of the risk of choking. Products containing peanuts are safe for most children but, if there is a history of conditions such as asthma, eczema or hay fever in the family, foods containing peanuts are best avoided until the age of three.
- Shark, swordfish, marlin (because of potentially dangerous levels of mercury), shellfish (because of the risk of food poisoning).
- Cow's milk. As a drink. It's fine to use as part of the cooking process once your baby is six months.
- Anything high-fibre, low-fat or low-calorie. Baby don't need 'diet' foods and having too much fibre can stop them absorbing enough iron and calcium.
Why doesn't everyone wait till six months?
Despite the official advice, nearly half of all babies in the UK are weaned before four months - and one in 10 has their first taste of solids at six to eight weeks. There are probably all sorts of reasons for this but some of the most common are:
- Label confusion
Go into any supermarket and you'll see jars of baby food with 'suitable from four months' written on the label. Kind of leads you to conclude that four months is the right time to start, doesn't it? Manufacturers are free to label baby food in this way because the relevant European Union Directive allows them to (although some governments and many agencies are working to change this).
- The it-didnt-do-my-kids-any-harm argument
Which you'll hear from all and sundry, old and young. And maybe it didn't, but who can tell? The point about the new guidelines is that they're based, in no small part, on research into adult outcomes of early weaning.
"I weaned my son at 16 weeks. I don't feel guilty about it because I knew no better at the time. But I wouldn't do it now because I respect the research and I understand that it's worth more than the well-meant but uninformed opinion of my grandma, her mate and the postman." Snaf
- The official 'get out' clause
The Department of Health guidelines and weaning booklets do include advice for parents who wean early. It's there because 'mothers who are unable to or choose not to follow recommendations should be supported to optimise their infants' nutrition'.
Roughly translated, that means it's there because there are certain foods that babies under six months should not be given and those parents who don't heed the official advice need to know what they are.
The guidelines also state (for those parents who might be tempted to wean extremely early) that no baby should be started on solids before the age of four months (17 weeks). This, of course, is not the same as recommending you start your baby on solids at 17 weeks.
- Peer pressure
It can be rather weird to be the only one hanging on till 26 weeks when every other mother in the neighbourhood seems to be busy spooning purees into their baby's mouth.
Especially if they're suggesting that, by not being on solids, your child is falling behind in some way (which isn't true, of course).
"I waited till six months and so did one of my friends. But everyone else I know started at 17 weeks and implied that my daughter was a bit 'slow' for not eating a roast dinner at five months. Thank God for the reassurance I got on Mumsnet!" TarkaLiotta
- The 'it's only for babies in the developing world' myth
Actually, of the 20 studies the World Health Organisation reviewed when considering its six-month recommendation, slightly more were conducted in developed countries (11 studies compared to the developing countries' nine). As hunkermunker says: "This is such a red herring: gut maturity isn't geographic."
- The magic sleep 'solution'
Perhaps the biggest - and most-trotted-out - weaning myth is that starting solids will help your baby sleep through the night. Or that solids are the magic solution if your previously good sleeper starts waking again in the night. If, through your sleep-deprived haze, you think that sounds too good to be true, you're right: it is.
"There is no evidence that the introduction of solids is linked with sleeping through - in fact, the evidence we do have shows it makes no difference. Any apparent coincidence is just that: a coincidence. To use the perfectly developmentally normal behavior of waking in the night as a 'sign' for the need of solids is to mislead people." tiktok
- The fussy eating mistake
Defenders of early weaning often insist there's research showing that babies weaned at six months turn out to be fussy eaters. In actual fact, the latest research shows no difference in appetite or food acceptance between babies weaned at four months and babies weaned at six months.
- The 'but my baby's different' line
Many parents who wean before six months do so because they genuinely believe their baby is ready for solid food and, therefore, the guidelines don't apply to them. If this is how you feel, it's worth talking to your health visitor or GP before you break out the weaning spoons.
It's also worth checking that the reasons you think your baby is ready for weaning are properly valid ones - it's amazing how many commonly accepted reasons are actually now regarded as outdated or wrong. These include:
- Showing all the signs of readiness
There are some real outward signs that your baby's gut may be mature enough to tolerate solid food but there are also some 'unreal' ones and you'll hear other people bandy them about with supreme (but misplaced) confidence. 'Signs' to take with a huge pinch of salt include doubling of birthweight, increased hunger, increased night waking and watching with fascination when you eat.
"Watching you eat is not a sign. If your baby was watching you smoke a cigarette, you wouldn't give him one, would you?" StarlightMcKenzie
The readiness signs that actually matter include being able to sit up unaided, being able to reach and grab (and put things in his mouth) and the loss of the tongue-thrust reflex (small babies instinctively use their tongues to push objects out of their mouth; until this reflex fades, you're not going to have much luck putting a spoonful of food in there).
- Increased hunger
If your previously settled baby's suddenly become ravenously hungry, it's not a sign he's ready for weaning (though plenty of people will tell you it is). The most likely explanation is that he's having a growth spurt - many babies seem to go through a hugely ravenously patch at about four months - and simply needs more milk for a while (more milk in his bottle if you're formula-feeding; more frequent feeds if you're breastfeeding).
Introducing solids at this point won't do anything for her hunger: a couple of teaspoons of carrot puree are never going to be as satisfyingly calorific as several extra glugs of milk.
- Weight issues
Your baby's readiness to absorb solids has nothing to do with his weight. A big baby isn't necessarily going to need solids sooner than a smaller baby because - bigger appetite and bigger body or not - the development of his digestive system is governed by age, rather than weight
"This is a very old-fashioned idea. Weight has little to do with the ability of the body to metabolise foods other than milk." tiktok
And a smaller baby isn't going to get bigger just because you start him on solids (unless he was born prematurely - and even then only sometimes).
"Weaning won't help with weight gain as the first tastes of solid food aren't big enough to make a difference, and milk has far more calories than the solids will." WigWamBam
You may be feeling that at some point soon there has to be a 'but'. Here goes. But all babies are different and so early weaning may (just may) be OK for some. You need to be as sure as you can be that your baby's one of them. If you're in any doubt, then it's safest to wait until six months.
- Premature babies: The Department of Health weaning guidelines are for term babies and do not apply to babies who were born prematurely. Experts at special care baby charity Bliss recommend that babies who were born prematurely should be weaned between the ages of five and seven months (calculating from your baby's birthdate, not his corrected-age date).Very occasionally, a premature baby may benefit from weaning before five months but this should be discussed with your healthcare team first.
- Babies with feeding problems: If your baby has particular feeding problems, such as reflux, or a medical condition that makes feeding difficult, the health professionals you see will sometimes - but not always - advise weaning before six months.
Still not sure? The when-to-wean question in a Mumsnet nutshell:
"I don't think anyone will shoot you at dawn for weaning early but you are doing your child absolutely no favours - and are, potentially, based on research over the last decade, increasing his risk of developing some serious conditions in later life." Twiglett
What you need to get (or maybe not) before you start
Gearing up for weaning is kind of a mini rerun of gearing up for a new baby: you can rush out and buy loads of spanking new (and inevitably complicated-to-assemble) equipment, or you can borrow/beg a few essentials from friends and see how you go.
But, whatever your whims and/or wallet dimensions, you will need to make sure you have something for your baby to sit on, as in a highchair or a booster seat that clips onto an ordinary chair to lift your baby up within reach of the table. (If your child can't sit without support, you could use a bouncy chair or car seat until he can, but remember that sitting unaided is one of the signs of being ready to wean, so do be sure you're not starting too early).
Highchairs come in all shapes and sizes, but far more important than whether or not it complements your kitchen decor is whether it can fold away (if you need it to), comes with a tray (if you want it to) and is easy to clean. For in-depth advice and recommendations, why not take a look at our Mumsnet Best highchairs in the reviews section?
"Don't underestimate the value of something that's easy to wipe clean. Highchairs get gunked. Food gets ground in them several times a day every day - that's a lot of scrubbing and scooping out of nooks and crannies." LadyLaGore
You'll also need:
- Something to feed him with (optional). As in small, soft spoons (although if you're trying baby-led weaning, you can skip merrily past the weaning spoon shelves). You'll need at least two spoons: one to feed with and one for your baby to grab and wave about.
- Something to protect her clothes. As in a bib. Several of them. Preferably with long sleeves for maximum splat deflection.
- Something to protect the floor. As in a 'mess mat', an old sheet or shower curtain or some sheets of newspaper.
- Something for you to use to make his food the right size/texture to eat. As in a blender or a sieve, if you intend to spoon-feed. Don't spend too much (unless you actually need a blender anyway) because the zap-everything-into-a-puree stage (if you even do it) is generally pretty short.
- Something for you to put his food on. As in a plastic bowl/plate (must be hurl-on-the-floor-proof) or, if you're trying baby-led weaning, even just the tray of the highchair. Never put any food in your baby's bottle: this could make him choke and is very bad for his teeth.
What you need to decide before you start
Let's talk about the method behind the mouthfuls. When it comes to delivering those very first tastes of food to their infant-shaped destination, you have two main approaches to choose from: the spoon-led way and the baby-led way.
- Spoon-led weaning is exactly that: you lead the way by spooning (pureed/mashed) food into your baby's mouth. You gradually move onto thicker, lumpier food until your baby is happy eating what you're eating (with perhaps the odd really chewy bit chopped up). You also offer finger foods to encourage your baby to learn to feed himself.
- Baby-led weaning is, by contrast, a spooning-free zone: it's all about putting baby-fist-sized chunks of food in front of your baby and letting him get on with it. Because, at six months, that's what your baby is developmentally equipped to do. The (smeared around the highchair) icing on the cake is that, by putting your baby in charge of what he eats, the whole weaning process turns into a rather jolly voyage of discovery, setting up all sorts of nice associations between food and fun.
Spoon-led weaning's for you if...
- You like order and (some semblance of) control. Spoon feeding is a less messy approach (although it's never going to be exactly pristine). It also offers you a timetable of progression, from purees to mashed food to lumpier portions.
- You'd prefer to do this like most people do it. The majority of parents at least start weaning this way.
- You're weaning earlier than six months. Younger babies generally don't have the ability (or the motivation) to feed themselves. (Do be sure you've taken advice about weaning early before you start - and remember there are some foods you must avoid before six months.)
Baby-led weaning's for you if...
- You don't mind mess. Because there will be loads of it.
- Your baby objects to being fed with a spoon. And some do - violently.
- You don't see the point of puree.
- You like the idea of your baby discovering food for himself. And are prepared to let him have fun playing with it before/as/after he eats it.
- You're laid back about 'progress'. Allowing your baby to eat what he chooses can mean he'll take longer than a spoon-fed baby to move on to three meals a day and, even then, he might not eat much at some meals.
- You don't mind people thinking you're a bit of a hippy. Baby-led weaning is becoming more mainstream but it's still seen as 'alternative' by many people (health visitors included).
- You want lots of Mumsnet back-up. If you have a baby-led weaning question, you can bet your last carrot stick you'll find the answer on our weaning Talk forum.
Or, of course, you can always mix-and-match both approaches...
"I did a mixture of both with my daughter and it worked well. She had cereal or toast for breakfast, finger food at lunch which she fed herself and then puree in the evening." FiveGoMadInDorset
What you need to know before you start
Before you let the solids show begin, it's wise to have a little think about how the very first performance might go, You'll certainly increase the chances of rave reviews from your baby if you:
- Time it right. Choose a quiet time when your baby's probably a bit peckish but not frantically hungry. And you're feeling calm and collected.
- Think small. One or two spoonfuls (or mouthfuls) is all you're aiming for to begin with. If your baby's just not interested, leave it and try again another day.
- Don't be put off by funny faces. Babies can pull the most amazing grimaces at new tastes and flavors - even if they actually really like them.
- Stay with him. Never leave a baby alone when he's eating: you need to be there to make sure he doesn't choke (unlikely but not impossible).
- Milk's still the main thing. Starting solids is not a cue to start dropping feeds. For a considerable time to come (and at least until he's established on three decent meals a day), your baby still needs to get most of his daily nutrients and calories from breast or formula milk.
- Have a camera ready. To catch those first gummy, carroty smiles!
- Know when to stop. If your baby turns her head away from your spoon or loses interest in the food on her tray, it's time to call it a day.
OK, bibs on and splat-mats at the ready: let's (finally) get on with some actual food-into-mouth action.
What to dish up: Whatever your approach of choice, good first foods are gently cooked vegetables (carrot, parsnip, potato, cauliflower) or fruit (melon, banana, avocado, pear).
Spoon-feeders could also try plain natural yoghurt (but not before six months) or plain baby rice mixed with your baby's usual milk. This last option has the advantage of tasting reassuringly familiar, but the collective Mumsnet opinion about it is rather withering: "Forget the baby rice: it is like wallpaper paste. Go straight for carrot!"
How to dish it up: If you've decide to wield a weaning spoon, you'll need to blend or mash the food first to quite a smooth consistency. Think yoghurt or milkshake.
"Pour the extra puree into ice-cube trays, then transfer the cubes to a freezer bags. Now you've lots of 'meals' from not very much effort." Harrysmum
For baby-led nosh, cut veg into chip-shaped batons or divide into baby-fist-sized florets, and cut firm but ripe fruit into wedges big enough for your baby to grab. Put them on your baby's highchair tray and resist the urge to interfere any more.
"As a first food, most people steam carrots, cut up cucumbers, make toast fingers or crinkle-cut bits of mango but there's no reason whatsoever why your baby can't have a pile of spaghetti bolognese or mashed potato to dig into if that's what the rest of the family are having." Aitch
If you're spoon-feeding, Allow a couple of weeks for your baby to get used to the idea of taking a few different-tasting foods from this round plastic thing you keep waving in front of his mouth. Then you can gradually increase the amount you give and the number of times you offer it each day.
Aim for three 'meals' a day by eight to nine months. You should also start leaving the food a little lumpier now and introducing new tastes, such as fruits and veg you haven't tried yet and (assuming your baby's over six months) well-minced meat or fish, cooked and mashed lentils, (thoroughly cooked) eggs, rice, porridge, cheese and chopped pasta.
And now's also the time to bring on the finger foods, if you haven't already. Offer your baby sticks of food he can hold in his fist and suck/gum down on.
"Finger foods my son loved - and still does - include strips of toast, cheese, avocado, cooked carrot, banana, sweet potato (roasted in oven), rice cakes, and fish/chicken goujons." Sunshineymummy
For baby-led weaners, it's simply a question of keeping on offering the veg and fruit and, as your baby gets the hang of the whole gumming down/swallowing thing, gradually introducing more frequent meals and a wider variety of foods, including meat, fish, bread and dairy products.
Do rein in your expectations, though. As one Mumsnetter puts it: "Your baby may not eat anything much to begin with. He'll probably just squish it all about. But, once he discovers that his new 'toys' taste nice, things will start to take off."
Even so, it won't be long before you're amazed at what your baby is able to cope with...
"You can just plonk cottage pie or fish pie in front of him. Or a roast - potato, Yorkshire, big strip of thick meat and all - and let him gum at it. I treasure the memory of my son, aged 6.5 months, having steak, chip and salad with us in a pub. The looks he got! It took him 45 minutes to finish his chunk of steak. He chewed and sucked and gummed it till all that was left was a grey bit of connective tissue." cmotdibbler
Don't let people get you paranoid about gagging (often used as an argument against baby-led weaning). It's not the same as choking and, in fact, babies are more likely to choke on runny foods than something more solid.
"They do gag for the first few days but it stops that after a week or so. Anything they cannot cope with, they spit out." Scorpio1
A word of warning for anyone starting before six months
If you decide to wean before six months (having understood the official guidelines and taken advice), you must:
- Avoid all the following until your baby reaches six months: foods containing gluten (wheatflour, bread, breakfast cereals made from wheat, rusks, spaghetti or other pastas); eggs; fish and shellfish; citrus fruits, including citrus fruit juices; anything made with cow's milk (yoghurt, fromage frais, cheese). This is in addition to all the other foods to avoid in the first year.
- Puree all food very smoothly until your baby's six months old.
- Sterilise all your feeding spoons and bowls until your baby is six months old.
Is it OK to use jars?
Ready-made baby food (in packets, tins, vacuum-packed tubs or frozen cubes, as well as jars) can be a lifesaver if you're a spoon-feeder and find yourself away from home and blenderless - or actually still at home and motivationless. (If you're a baby-led weaner, of course, being blenderless is never a problem - and you'd have to be spectacularly motivationless not to be able to find something on your own plate to chuck your baby's way.)
There are of course those who look down their noses at any baby food that hasn't been lovingly hand-grown, hand-picked, hand-peeled and hand-cooked but, back in the real world, many of us are only too grateful to know there's a way to avoid spending yet another evening in with a steamer, a sieve and a sweet potato.
"Sometimes, real life gets in the way of being a domestic weaning goddess. So I think aiming for homemade as often as possible but being realistic enough to realise that there are days when a jar is needed (for your sanity) is the best approach. Don't make yourself feel guilty - you've got years and years of that ahead of you!" satine
But, just like adult ready meals, ready-made baby food is never quite as tasty and wholesome (or wallet-friendly) as the real home-cooked thing. And it's generally sweet and ultra-smooth, too - great for L-plate weaners, perhaps, but not so ideal for older babies who should be weaning to a lumpier, more flavoursome kind of vibe.
"The bad thing about using a lot of jars, in my experience, is that, because they bear little resemblance to real food, your baby might then refuse real food. To a jar-fed baby, real food can seem too lumpy and too full of flavour. So, personally, I avoid using them too much - but there's nothing at all wrong with them here and there." Tinkjohn
And on to bigger mouthfuls
NHS Choices says that by around eight to nine months, your baby should be eating three meals a day and sampling a wide variety of different foods.
If you're still mainly spoon-feeding, you shouldn't need to do much more than roughly mash the food up with a fork first; by nine months, you should really only be chopping or pulsing up the bigger lumps.
Whatever approach you're using, you can also now take advantage of your baby's fast-developing pincer grip (the ability to bring her thumb and first finger together to pick stuff up) to offer her smaller finger foods, such as raisins, berries, peas and halved cherry tomatoes or grapes. Or something altogether squishier...
"Mine loved to pick up individual baked beans." Escape From
At some point between nine months and a year (probably a lot sooner if you're baby-led weaning), you should find that your baby is eating more or less the same food as you - with daily portions of starchy foods, fruit and veg, dairy foods, and meat, fish, egg or pulses (see our sample menu to get an idea of the kind of thing you're aiming for). Which means you have officially 'introduced solids'. Hurrah.
What about milk?
Breast or formula milk is still a key part of your baby's diet while he's starting solids. This is not the time to start cutting out milk feeds. Only when your baby's on three good meals a day should you begin to think about reducing the amount of milk he has, And even then, it's wise to try to follow your baby's appetite and go at your baby's pace - let him decide how much milk he wants each day.
Your baby should still be having breastmilk on demand or 500-600ml of infant formula a day until the age of one. After his first birthday, you can replace formula (or breastmilk) with cow's milk but you can (and some would say should) continue to breastfeed for as long as you want.
And other drinks?
Apart from milk, the best choice of drink for your baby is water. Other drinks tend to contain sugar and/or fizz (both of which damage developing teeth). If your baby won't drink water and you want to give her fruit juice, dilute it well with water first and always serve it in a cup, not a bottle.
Introducing a cup
The earlier you get your baby used to drinking from a cup, the easier your life is going to be later on. Remember: at some point, you're going to have to wean your baby off the breast or bottle (for more about that, see our breastfeeding or bottlefeeding feature) and if she's already a dab hand with a cup by then, you've something else to put his milk in and one less thing to worry about.
"My daughter is now six months and I have given her a beaker to hold (she's keen to hold things herself). She chews it and occasionally gets drinks of water from it, which delights her no end!" nailpolish
There are no end of cups and beakers on the market but many Mumsnetters think the best sort to start with is a cheapie, free-flow one with a hard spout and handles. You'll probably need to help your baby at first by gently tipping the cup - and then promptly taking it away when he splutters in surprise.
Offer the cup at every solid meal and he'll gradually start to get the hang of it (though you both may get a little damp around the edges in the process).
"We started with a soft spout which didn't require sucking. I would help him hold it and tip the water gently into his mouth until he got the idea. He now has one with a hard spout which requires him to suck the water out, meaning that it doesn't spill everywhere when he flings it about." Saacsmum
|Weeks one and two||Veg/ fruit/ yoghurt*||1-2 a day||Puree/ mash well||Yes (no change)|
|Weeks three and four||Veg/ fruit/ meat*/ fish*/ cereals*/ cheese*||1-2 a day||Lumpy puree/ finger foods||Yes (no change)|
|From six months||Wide variety||2-3 a day||Mashed with fork/finger foods||Yes (can reduce amount)|
|From nine months||Family food||3 a day||Chopped or pulsed/finger foods||Yes (can reduce amount)|
* Not before six months **Not applicable for baby-led weaning (obviously)
Nosh at nine months: a sample menu
Most nine-month-olds should be capable of (and excited about) chomping their way through this little lot in a day (milk feeds not included).
The spoon-free crew will do better with 'pick-uppable' cereal shapes soaked in milk and may prefer a few cubes of cheese to the otherwise inevitable fromage frais facepack but, that apart, will manage just fine with their fingers.
- Breakfast: Breakfast cereal with formula, breast or cow's milk
- Lunch: Mini sandwiches (tuna/chopped chicken/cheese) or pasta shapes with tomato sauce; melon chunks
- Supper: Well-minced meat/fish fingers with mash and broccoli or veg risotto; yoghurt or fromage frais