Your weaning questions answered

Baby weaning

As with every part of parenting, there is a lot of conflicting information out there about weaning. HiPP Organic weaning expert, registered dietician and nutritionist Helen Gardiner, answers Mumsnetters' queries on everything from food allergies to fussy eaters to baby-led weaning. Read the advice below

“I read that you should avoid certain foods to prevent allergy in future, but also that introducing them early can help prevent allergy, I'm confused as to what to do for the best. What is the most up to date opinion about this?”

The current advice from the Department of Health is that when you start introducing solids, you should introduce the foods that most commonly trigger allergic reactions one at a time so that you can spot any reaction. These foods are milk, eggs, wheat (and other cereals that contain gluten such as rye and barley), nuts, seeds, fish and shellfish. They recommend that none of these foods should be introduced before six months.

There is no evidence, however, to support delaying introduction of these foods after six months. A recent statement by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and Committee on Toxicity concluded that the deliberate exclusion of peanut or hen’s egg beyond six to twelve months of age may increase the risk of allergy to these foods. They also stated that there was insufficient data to demonstrate that the introduction of peanut or hen’s egg into the infant diet between four and six months of age reduced the risk of developing food allergy to any greater extent than introduction from around six months.

To increase the chance that a food will be well tolerated, you should make sure your baby is well at the time of introduction, i.e. not when they have a temperature, just had a vaccination, or have a cough or a cold.

“Is there a point with weaning where you need to persist even if they are resisting? When do you know you've gone too far or started too soon?”

At the beginning weaning is more about introducing new tastes, so don’t panic if your baby isn’t too keen on eating solids at first. It could well be that this reluctance is due to your baby not being ready yet, so stop and try again when they’re a little bit older.

If a taste is refused, don’t panic, just withdraw it and try again another day. It can take up to 10-15 exposures before a baby will accept a new taste so perseverance is key. The important thing is not to force them to eat a new food – weaning should be a positive experience and not one that causes worry or distress for either you or your baby.

“Are there any foods that should definitely be avoided during weaning/those first few months of moving onto food?”

If you have started weaning your baby at around six months, there are very few foods that you need to avoid. But do read the answer above about introducing potentially allergenic food.

It is good to introduce your baby to as wide a range of different tastes and textures as soon as you can. However, there are a few foods you should avoid, namely foods that are high in sugar or salt, artificial additives, honey, unpasteurised milk or cheeses, and raw or undercooked meat, fish or eggs.

It's also best to limit high-fibre foods until the age of two, because they fill tiny tummies up too fast and keep your baby from getting enough calories to fuel their rapidly growing body. Whenever possible you should choose full-fat dairy products instead of reduced-fat versions as they provide valuable energy and vitamins which your baby needs.

To reduce the risk of choking you should avoid giving foods such as whole nuts or other hard foods such as whole grapes until your baby has mastered chewing.

“What are the best foods to give my baby during weaning?”

Your baby's first foods should be easy to digest and if you have started weaning before the age of six months then they should also be free from the common allergens, such as egg, fish, peanuts and gluten-containing cereals. Good foods to give at first are vegetables, like carrot, parsnip, sweet potato or cauliflower, or fruits such as banana, cooked apple or pear. You can also try a baby cereal mixed with your baby's milk. As your baby progresses and gets used to eating foods, they can have soft cooked meat such as chicken, fish (check very carefully for any bones), pasta, noodles, toast, pieces of chapatti, lentils, rice and mashed hard-boiled eggs. They can also have full-fat dairy products such as yoghurt, fromage frais or custard.

The most important thing is to provide as much variety of taste and textures as possible throughout the weaning process.

“My eight month old gags and refuses to swallow whenever he eats anything with lumps. How can I help him move on to textured food?”

Some babies are slower at accepting lumpy foods than others but it is important to keep offering these new textures at this age. Try giving foods with a mashed texture instead of smooth purees to start with, then gradually you can introduce some small soft lumps into this mashed food – some small pieces of soft cooked vegetables, pasta or rice perhaps – increasing the proportion of lumps as your baby accepts these new textures.

You can also offer some ‘finger foods’ alongside these foods to encourage chewing e.g. crusts of bread, soft pieces of fruit or vegetables, cooked fish or hard-boiled egg.

Babies have a ‘gag reflex’ which means they may cough food back up into the mouth for more chewing. This is normal so don’t panic. Your baby may take a bit of time to get used to lumps but they will soon get used to these foods and manage them better. But remember that it is important that a responsible person is always with your baby when they are eating to make sure they do not choke, and make sure that the lumps you are offering are not too large or hard for them to cope with e.g. whole nuts, whole grapes or cherry tomatoes.

“Should the food be seasoned before we give it to our child or should we keep it as plain as possible?”

The aim of weaning is to introduce as many different tastes as possible. Studies have shown that this can reduce the risk of fussiness later on. Although babies might prefer to eat more bland foods at the start, you can begin to introduce more strongly flavoured foods quite soon, using herbs and a small amount of mild spices if these are ingredients you usually use in family foods. You should not, however, add any salt to your baby’s foods as a seasoning since your baby’s kidneys are immature and can’t tolerate too much salt. The recommended intake of salt from all sources (milk and foods) for babies younger than one year of age is less than 1g per day, increasing to 2g per day for one to three-year-olds. You should also avoid giving your baby ready-made foods that are not made specifically for babies, such as breakfast cereals or adult convenience foods, because they can also be high in salt.

“How can I balance my anxiety around ensuring my baby gets the appropriate nutrients and sustenance with doing baby-led weaning?”

Babies still rely heavily on their milk to provide most of their nutritional requirements in the first few months of weaning so don’t worry if the amount of food they are eating is quite small at the start of their weaning experience. However, it is important that you make sure that your baby is getting a wide range of different foods to make sure they are getting sufficient energy and nutrients as weaning progresses. One nutrient you should pay particular attention to is iron as it is a nutrient that babies might be at risk of being deficient in. One scientific study did find an association between baby-led weaning diets and a low intake of iron containing foods [Cameron et al 2013] so this is something to be aware of. You should make sure you include iron-containing foods such as meat, poultry, beans, pulses, green leafy vegetables or fortified foods in the weaning diet.

“Can you give a first-time mum advice and tips on the best ways to approach weaning?”

Once you have seen the signs that your baby is ready to start weaning, here are a few tips to set the right mood for your baby's first encounters with the wonderful world of food.

  • Start at home or in a familiar environment, and choose a time when your baby is alert and peckish, but not starving.
  • Give your baby their usual milk feed first, before any solids (once your baby is used to being fed with a spoon you’ll be able to give the solids first and the milk after).
  • Use a clean spoon to put a small amount of home-prepared or commercial baby food into a bowl.
  • Warm the food (if applicable) by floating in a hot-water bath or microwaving for just a few seconds.
  • Put a bib on your baby.
  • Stir the food well (especially if you've warmed it in a microwave) and test to make sure it's lukewarm before offering it to your baby.
  • Offer just the tip of the spoon to begin with – once your baby gets the idea you can slowly increase the amount given.
  • Start by offering just a couple of spoonfuls once a day, and build up to offering food twice, then three times a day, over the next few weeks.
  • Take your time, smile and connect with your baby. Remember, there's no rush! If your baby's clearly not interested, that's fine – just pack everything away and try again another day.

For some more advice you might like to look at the HiPP or NHS websites for information, or have a chat with your health visitor.

Baby being weaned

“The advice about weaning changes so regularly. We understand that it is best to wait until baby is six months old in order to give the stomach time to develop properly but doesn't this vary on the size of baby? And if the baby is premature should we wait even longer?”

Of course every baby is different, but at around six months of age should be the right time to start weaning for the majority of babies. It is important that you look out for all the following signs together to show that a baby is ready for solids -

  • They can stay in a sitting position and hold their head steady.
  • They can co-ordinate their eyes, hands and mouth so that they can look at the food, pick it up and put it in their mouth, all by themselves.
  • They can swallow food. Babies who aren’t ready will push their food back out, so they get more round their face than they do in their mouths.

If you are in any doubt about whether your baby is ready is not, you should discuss this with your health visitor. Some babies may need to be weaned before six months of age to ensure their growth and development is optimised, but your health visitor should be able to help you decide if the time is right.

For premature babies, the standard advice is to start weaning when your baby is between five and eight months old (from their birth date, not their corrected age). This is a bit earlier than what's usually advised for term babies, but some premature babies take a little longer to catch on to weaning, so they may benefit from starting a bit early. The most important thing is to discuss this with your GP or health visitor, who knows your baby and will be able to advise you best.

“How much of a gap should I leave between attempts to give a food that has been previously been rejected and when should I just give up?!”

If a food is rejected at first, don’t give up. It is worth remembering that it can take 10-15 exposures before a new taste is accepted. So if your baby does not accept a food to start with, don’t completely discount it and not offer it again but just keep offering it. Several research groups have observed that, among infants of weaning age, repeated exposure to a new vegetable, even one that is initially disliked, can lead to increased acceptance of that vegetable. In one study, parents who were asked to get their child to taste a previously disliked vegetable each day for 14 days reported a marked increase in liking for, and consumption of, the target vegetable.

Babies have an innate preference for sweet tastes, which is why it may be easier to get a baby to eat a fruit-based meal than some vegetables which can taste bitter. But it is possible to influence these taste preferences by offering these vegetables repeatedly throughout weaning. Although a baby might pull faces which suggests they dislike a vegetable (frowning, head shaking or wrinkling their nose, for example), research shows that by persisting and repeatedly offering that food, it will then be accepted. It may take 10-15 attempts, or more, but it is worth persevering.

“Does providing your baby with a wide range of tastes and foods make them less likely to be a fussy eater when they are older?”

Constantly introducing a new range of flavours is an exciting way to develop their senses, and there is evidence that babies who are exposed to a wide range of foods and flavours early on are less likely to become fussy eaters.

During the weaning period it is important to introduce a wide variety of flavours and textures as this leads to more ready acceptance of new foods later on. The eating behaviours of other people with the weaning baby can also have an impact on eating habits and food choices, so it is important to have good role models around.

“What healthy alternatives are there for sugar? I'm really conscious of not giving my daughter too much but there's so much in pre-prepared jars etc that's it's hard to avoid completely.”

Although babies are born with a preference for sweet foods, you should avoid adding extra sugar to any foods you feed them. Whenever possible you should rely on naturally-occurring sugars in fruits and milk to supply the sweetness in foods.

The sugar in baby food jars generally comes from these natural sources and if there is any added sugar this is added in controlled amounts. There is a move to reduce the amount of sugar in foods for babies with manufacturers removing any added sugars. However it is important to make sure your baby gets used to lots of savoury tastes and not just sweet-tasting foods, and any sweeter foods should be served in small portion sizes.

“I have a very hungry baby and I understand it's recommended to start weaning from six months. But, is it safe to start any earlier than that? And if so which foods would you recommend?”

If your baby is hungry, the first thing you should try is increasing the amount of milk offered. This means increasing the frequency of milk feeds and the volume of milk given. This means feeding your baby on demand. If your baby is still not satisfied, however, it is worth having a chat with your health visitor for advice on whether they think your baby is ready to start on solids or not. It is important that your baby is showing all the signs of being ready. If you do start weaning before the age of six months, you should only offer foods that are free from the common allergens such as cereals containing gluten, eggs, milk, fish, etc.

“What's the best way to reduce milk intake while weaning so my little one isn't too full up on milk but is still getting the amount they need?”

Obviously all babies are different and not all babies at the same age will need the same amount of milk and foods. Be guided by your baby.

At the start of weaning, you should continue to give your baby all their usual milk feeds, preferably after you have offered some tastes of foods. The quantities of food eaten at this stage are small and your baby still relies on milk to meet all their nutritional needs. However, as the amount of foods eaten increases, you can start to gradually reduce the amount of milk given without worrying about whether their nutritional requirements are being met or not.

Usually at around six to seven months, or once your baby has got used to eating solid foods at three mealtimes each day, you can try dropping one of their milk feeds (at lunchtime, say) and offer water or diluted fruit juice in a feeding beaker instead at that mealtime. Often babies show you themselves that they don’t need milk at a mealtime by gradually taking less as they start to eat more; this is a good time to drop this feed, but remember to offer another drink instead to make sure your baby doesn’t get thirsty.

Throughout weaning and up to the age of one year your baby still needs plenty of milk each day, usually with a milk feed morning and evening and other feeds in between as required. The exact amount will depend on how much solid food your baby eats and you should let your baby decide how much milk they have.

“Is it better to wean traditionally with puréed food or to do the baby-led weaning with bigger textures? Or do you recommend combining both approaches?”

There are possibly some advantages in allowing your baby to feed themselves but you should make sure you are prepared as it can get messy. However, feeding babies using the more traditional approach with a spoon gives you a bit more control over the amounts of food consumed, which you might prefer. Perhaps the best thing is to combine both approaches, allowing your baby to feed themselves some suitable foods if they seem interested in doing so, and at the same time spoon feeding them. You should look out for signs of when your baby has eaten enough, such as keeping their mouth shut, turning their head away, or being unhappy that you are offering them more food, as you do not want to overfeed them.

“My question is what foods to avoid. I give my six month old little portions of what I have after it's been through the blender, but without ingredients like salt and I avoid foods containing iron. Are there any other risky chemicals in food I should stay clear of?”

All babies should avoid eating certain foods:-

  • Due to the risk of infections, you should avoid giving soft and unpasteurised cheeses, raw or undercooked eggs, raw shellfish and honey (up until the age of one year)
  • Certain fish e.g. shark, marlin and swordfish, due to high levels of mercury
  • Whole nuts and grapes due to risk of choking

As you mentioned, you should also avoid giving your baby added salt or salty foods, and also any foods that contain lots of added sugar. It's also best to limit high-fibre foods until the age of two, because they fill tiny tummies up too fast and keep your baby from getting enough calories to fuel that rapidly growing body. Choose full-fat dairy products, too – they provide valuable energy and valuable vitamins such as vitamin A which low fat dairy products may be low in.

You mentioned that you are avoiding iron – I don’t know why you are doing this as it really isn’t necessary. In fact, iron is a very important nutrient for babies at this age. Babies are born with a store of iron, but this gradually becomes depleted by six months and then it is important to replenish the body’s iron stores to avoid iron deficiency. Iron can be obtained from meat, poultry, beans, pulses, green leafy vegetables and fortified cereals, so you should include these in your baby’s weaning diet.

“When should a baby stop having purée?”

It is important that you introduce your baby to textures other than purees from around six to seven months. Although your baby may prefer having purees at the start of weaning you should move them onto mashed and then more lumpy textures as soon as possible. Learning to chew is an important stage in your baby's development and although it can take a while for your baby to control lumps in their mouth, it is important to persevere. Learning to chew helps in the correct muscle development and use of the tongue needed for speech, and of course is also a vital step in them adapting to family-style meals.

Babies don’t need to have teeth to cope with lumpier foods. Their gums are hard and can help with breaking down these lumps. Babies may be reluctant to start with, and it is important that parents follow the signs given by their baby that they are ready to progress. Avoiding lumps and delaying the introduction of these new textures may lead to fussier eating habits later on so you should aim to introduce lumps between seven to nine months of age to optimise your baby’s development.

“My baby seems to love snacking at all times – should I allow this to carry on or try to enforce a mealtimes rule?”

Toddlers need to eat regularly as they have small stomachs and high energy/nutrient needs, but rather than constant snacking we would encourage you to nurture a routine of three meals and two snacks. You should make sure that the foods you offer at mealtimes and for snacks are healthy and nutrient-rich to make up a well-balanced diet.

You should not allow your toddler to ‘graze’ on food in between meals and snacks as if this happens they are unlikely to develop good control of food intake.

“My daughter is seven months old and every now and again I'd like to spoon feed yogurt or purée. She won't open her mouth! If we give her a spoon she waves it about throws it and still won't really open up.”

I am assuming that you have been allowing your daughter to feed herself up until now and that she enjoys this independence when feeding. If she will not allow you to spoon feed her, you shouldn’t force that and this could make mealtimes more stressful for her and for you too. Mealtimes should be a relaxed time for all. I would continue to give her foods that she can feed herself but also offer her a spoon to hold if she wants to. If you want to keep offering foods on a spoon, you should let your daughter see the foods that are in the bowl and although it can take a while for a baby to be successful at self-feeding with a spoon at the beginning, they will soon learn the necessary skills they need (it might not be a fully developed skill until around 14-15 months of age).

Want to know more? Mumsnetters share their experiences, stories and top tips from the weaning stage.