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Baby weaning

Weaning is the process of gradually introducing solid foods to your baby in order to meet their growing nutritional needs.

What does weaning involve?

Weaning normally begins with you introducing solid foods into your baby's diet alongside the usual milk feeds. You can gradually introduce your baby to minced or mashed foods and foods that need to be chewed. Of course, you may continue to breast or bottle-feed your baby alongside solid foods for as long as it's comfortable for you and your baby.

When to start weaning

The Department of Health advises parents to start the weaning process at around six months. For the first few months of life, your baby will receive all the nutrition and energy his or her body needs from breast or formula milk.

However, once babies are six months old, they may not get all the calories, iron and other nutrients they need from milk alone, or may require increasingly large or frequent feeds to do so.

Also around this time, your baby loses the tongue-thrust reflex which means that when you touch his/her tongue, he/she reacts by pushing his/her tongue forwards. When this reflex disappears, your baby is able to use his/her tongue to transfer food from the front to the back of the mouth. It's also about now that your baby will start to get teeth, hold his/her head up well and sit up better unsupported, all of which makes eating easier.

So six months is a good time to introduce and then gradually increase the amount of solid foods you give your baby. Introducing solid foods earlier than four months isn't recommended, as your baby may not be able to digest the food properly. If your baby was born prematurely, ask your health visitor for advice about when to start.

How to know when your baby is ready for weaning

Don't rush into weaning as a result of pressure from parents or friends, but be guided by the following signals from your baby:

  • being unsatisfied after a full milk feed
  • demanding increasing and more frequent milk feeds
  • weight gain slowing or levelling out without a period of illness to explain why
  • after a period of sleeping through the night, your baby begins waking because he/she is hungry

You may also notice your baby showing interest in your food and attempting to put things in his/her mouth.

If you are unsure or concerned about when your baby is ready to begin weaning, talk to your health visitor.

Getting started

There is no right way to introduce your baby to solid foods. When you see the signs that your baby is ready, you can begin giving your baby his/her first tastes of food. These tastes are more a learning experience and shouldn't replace any milk feeds.

Choose a time that is convenient and when you are both relaxed. Try giving your baby three or four small teaspoonfuls of food part way through or after a breast or bottle-feed. Don't be surprised if your baby doesn't seem to know what to do with the food and it comes straight back out. Your baby doesn't know how to swallow food at first, but with luck some of the food will slide down your baby's throat.

As your baby is used to the bland taste of milk, it's often advisable to start weaning your baby with a bland texture and a similar taste. A favourite is baby rice, which is ground rice with added vitamins and minerals. You can mix the rice with breast or formula milk, or boiled then cooled water.

You can also give your baby small amounts of puréed fruit and vegetables, such as cooked apple or pear, carrot or potato. It's a good idea to introduce one food at a time so that you can tell if your baby reacts adversely, although this is rarely a problem with first cereals and vegetables. If your baby seems to tolerate food well, you can mix baby rice with, for example, apple or carrot purée. Offer your baby savoury foods as well as sweet at this stage, so he/she gets used to both. Always check that warm foods are not too hot before giving them.

Don't force food on your baby. It's quite normal for babies to eat four or five teaspoonfuls on one occasion and very little the next.

If your baby is reluctant to start with spoon-feeding, try gently rubbing a clean finger with a small amount of food on it over your baby's lips instead. Otherwise you may need to try again another day, or wait until he/she can hold a spoon.

Next steps

Once your baby has become used to the tastes of different foods, you can gradually increase the amount you give your baby and introduce the food more often and earlier in a feed. Your baby will also need a drink during and after their food. This can be milk (breast or formula), boiled and cooled water, or possibly diluted fruit juice and preferably given from a baby cup with a spout and two handles.

Over time, your baby's demand for milk will probably reduce and you can breast or bottle-feed your baby less frequently.

From six to nine months, your baby will probably want to feed him or herself. Although your baby will need to eat more often than you do, he/she will gradually come to eat the same variety and textures of foods that you eat. He/she should eat foods from all four main food groups:

  • bread, other cereals and potatoes
  • meat, fish and alternatives
  • milk and dairy foods
  • fruit and vegetables

Your baby's meals might therefore include: mashed potato, pureed meat, white fish, pasta, minced or mashed green vegetables, as well as pieces of fruit such as banana and apple. The Department of Health recommends including "finger foods" (such as soft sandwiches, lightly toasted bread or rice cakes) in your baby's diet as soon as your baby is ready to do so.

By 12 months, solid foods will be the main part of what your baby eats, with breast or formula milk making up the balance.

When preparing foods for your baby, avoid adding additional flavours such as salt and sugar as babies can't cope with excess salt or sugar in food and don't need it.

Always store, handle and prepare food hygienically to prevent germs and infection.

Foods you shouldn't give to your baby

There are foods that you are advised not to give to your baby for the first six to eight months, as they have been known to upset a baby or cause an allergic reaction. These include:

  • nuts and seeds
  • shellfish
  • exotic or citrus fruits
  • eggs and egg products such as custard
  • cow's milk
  • foods which contain gluten
  • soft and unpasteurised cheeses

Dealing with difficulties

Meal times should be a relaxing and pleasant experience. One of the main causes of difficulties is weaning your baby too early. Always be prepared to continue breast or bottle-feeding if your baby refuses any solid foods. It's also quite common for your baby's likes and dislikes to change abruptly.

Sometimes, your baby may become uncooperative or turn away from food. This may be a one-off because he/she doesn't like the taste of the food or he/she has eaten enough. Pressuring your baby to eat will only mean he/she develops an unhappy association with mealtimes and food, which will take a great deal of time and effort to reverse. So if there is a problem, relax and try again a few days later.

However, if you have persistent difficulties, it could be the beginning of a battle of wills. This can become increasingly severe as your child senses your frustration. If you find yourself in this situation, try stopping giving your baby solid foods or go back to bland foods and remove the heightened tension before you try again.

Putting your baby in situations where he/she will see other children of his/her age eating solid foods may help. If not, he/she is likely to tire of milk and bland foods quite quickly and will probably be happy to accept tasty finger foods before taking to solid meals again.

Most difficulties with weaning can be resolved by patience, understanding and a lot of positive encouragement. Your health visitor will normally be able to offer you new ideas and techniques to deal with occasional difficulties. If the problem persists and begins to affect the healthy development of your baby, then arrange to see your doctor. He or she will be able to examine your baby to exclude possible medical causes and give you further advice.

Further information

Parentline Plus

Sources

  • Weaning. The Department of Health. www.dh.gov.uk, accessed 6 January 2007
  • Childhood and maternal undernutrition (lack of breastfeeding). World Health Organisation. www.who.int, accessed 6 January 2007
  • Healthy Eating: A Whole Diet Approach. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, accessed 6 January 2007

Related topics

Healthy eating