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When and how to start weaning your baby

Baby eating in highchair

Just when you've got your head around the art of supplying your baby with milk, along comes another feeding challenge to test your parenting mettle: getting your baby to eat 'solid' food. Most people call this messy mission “weaning” (which can get confusing because weaning can also refer to persuading your child to give up breastfeeding). Whatever you call it, we're talking about introducing your baby to food.

How can I tell if my baby is ready to start weaning?

You should start introducing your baby to solid foods when they’re around six months old. This advice is endorsed by numerous bodies, including the NHS, the World Health Organisation and the Department of Health.

Leaving solids until six months allows time for their digestive systems to develop and reduces the risk of them picking up an infection from food, as their immune systems will be stronger. Weaning early also increases your baby’s risk of developing a food allergy and can affect her growth.

Until this age, babies can get all the nutrients they need from breastmilk or formula. At six months, your baby needs the additional calories, vitamins and minerals (particularly iron) that solid foods provide, but keep breastfeeding at the same time as breast or formula milk should still be her main source of nutrition.

I waited until six months. My son had been watching me eat for a while but I wasn't taking any risks as he already had one allergy. My milk was filling enough for him so I was in no rush.

Depending on how your baby takes to weaning, solid foods will eventually start to replace some of your feeds but breastfeeding, or formula feeding, will continue to be your baby’s main source of nutrition until 12 months.

Every baby is different and some will be ready before others (it is especially important, for example, that you wait the full six months if you have a history of coeliac disease in your family). However, there are some signs to look out for which will help you know your baby is ready for weaning.

Signs that your baby is ready for solids

  • She can sit up and hold her head steady.
  • She has reached a healthy weight – usually double her birthweight.
  • She's interested in your food, looking at it and trying to grab it (annoying for you, perhaps, but a sure sign your baby is growing).
  • Her hand-eye coordination is developed so she can look at food, pick it up and put it in her mouth, without any help.
  • She can swallow food. If she can’t do this, she'll use her tongue to push the food out of her mouth which makes a mess.

Chewing her fists, waking in the night and wanting extra feeds are not signs that she is ready to start weaning; they're just signs that she’s hungry. She's probably having a growth spurt – many babies seem to go through a ravenous patch at about four months – and simply need more milk for a while.

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.

Is it ok to wean my baby before six months?

Nobody will shoot you at dawn for weaning early but you are doing your child absolutely no favours.

Best practice is to wait until six months but plenty of parents do wean before this. If you really feel your baby needs solid food earlier, and decide to go ahead, do bear in the mind that the Department of Health says babies should not have any solid foods at all before four months (17 weeks). Speak to your health visitor before you start weaning and explain why you think your baby needs solids.

How do you begin weaning?

Now that it’s bibs-on-and-splash-mats-at-the-ready time, you need to take it slowly. Initially, it doesn’t matter if your baby only wants to eat tiny amounts. It’s just about getting her used to solid foods.

Weaning is tricky, messy and occasionally frustrating – but it can also be fun, as you experiment with different flavours and textures to find out what your baby likes. Here are some pointers for successful weaning:

Time it right

Weaning can be HARD. The constant mess. My kitchen towel use is through the roof! But at some point they turn a corner. (That is, until they turn two, realise they have a choice not to eat and become fussy again!)

Choose a quiet moment when your baby is looking peckish but not absolutely ravenous or she may just lose patience with it all. This could be before, after or during a milk feed. You need to be in a calm and alert frame of mind, as the first few attempts can easily go awry.

Think small

Don’t be too ambitious – see how she gets on with one or two spoonfuls. If it ends up on the floor then never mind. There’s always tomorrow.

Keep it simple

Start with just one food at a time – root veg like carrot or sweet potato are a good place to begin. If you give something really complicated, firstly it’s a total waste of your time when she spits it on the floor, and secondly if she has a reaction to it you won’t know which ingredient triggered it.

Let him touch

Babies often want to pick up their food and there’s nothing wrong with this. It helps them familiarise themselves with food, getting a sense of its shapes and textures.

Don’t be surprised if she spits it out

It can take a while for your baby to get used to new flavours, so if necessary make her food bland by mixing in a bit of her usual milk.

They do gag for the first few days but it stops after a week or so. Anything they cannot cope with, they spit out.

Gradually let her get used to chunkier bites

As she gets used to chewing, grinding her food by moving her mouth from side to side, reduce the amount of milk you add.

Never leave her alone with food

You need to be there the whole time that your she's eating solids to make sure she doesn’t choke.

Know when to stop

If she isn’t interested in eating solids then don’t try to persuade her. One sure sign that she’s had enough is turning her head away.

Don’t worry about funny faces

Babies can contort their faces into some amazing grimaces when you try to get them to eat something they don’t like and, actually, even when they do like it. Speaking of which…

weaning baby messy food face

Have a camera ready and take photographs

Your baby’s first meal is a big moment and you’ll want mementos of her smiling with mushy carrot around her mouth.