So Which Is Best: Weaning Before Or At Six Months?

31/01/2012 19:41 | Updated 22 May 2015
So which is best: weaning before or at six months?Rex Features

"Mothers are being warned that breastfeeding exclusively for six months may not be best for their babies and could put them at risk of allergies, food aversion and even obesity, according to researchers," announced the chirpy radio news reader this morning, momentarily distracting me and almost ending the school run in disaster.

As a mum who flouted government guidelines and weaned my obviously-starving second son at four months, much against the advice of my health visitor, I nearly fist-pumped the air, which isn't to be recommended whilst driving.

New research from University College London's Institute of Child Health (ICH) seems to contradict current UK guidelines which state that babies should be fed only breastmilk for the first six months of life. The research team said exclusive breastfeeding for six months is a good guideline for developing countries, where babies are at higher risk of infection, but warned that following the guideline in the UK could cause adverse health conditions in babies including allergies. Putting off solids until six months could even make babies less inclined to try new tastes: "Bitter tastes, in particular, may be important in the later acceptance of green leafy vegetables, which may potentially affect later food preferences with influence on health outcomes such as obesity", said the team.

In other words all those mums who obligingly breastfed exclusively for six months - believing they were doing the best for their babies - might have inadvertently been increasing their children's risk of developing allergies, and turning them into fussy eaters too. It's news that won't be received well by many mums, I'd wager.

"For crying out loud," said mum of one Lynley when I mentioned the new research. "Allergies were a big concern for me. My father-in-law had more than 60 allergies - even cinnamon! Asthma and eczema are on both sides of our family. My husband has a terrible dust allergy. I read up everything I could and it was clear that not introducing solids until six months old was best to avoid allergies. Now they are saying the opposite?!!! It is just mind boggling, really. What are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to know what is best? And I really fought with my son - he made it clear he wanted solids and he most certainly did not want breastmilk any more when he was five months. Those last few weeks were a real fight. Now I am left wondering if I did it all for nothing, and would he have continued breastfeeding happily for longer if I'd been able to mix it with solids earlier on? My dream of continuing to breastfeed until he was at least one with a morning, evening or both feeds was totally shattered!"

When my second child (now a strapping four year old) was a baby I risked the wrath of my health visitor and flouted the advice issued by my health centre to delay weaning until he was at least six months old. It's not something I did lightly.

At birth my son weighed an eye-watering 9lbs 9oz and could eat for England, Ireland and Scotland combined. One lovely benefit of having a bigger baby was that he slept through the night immediately, presumably because he could stomach a bigger than average feed which kept him going for longer.

But by the time he was three months old nothing, and I mean nothing, could fill this boy up. He could indulge in mammoth day-long feeding sessions and then cry all night because the after hours milk bar was forced to close for business, having been quite literally sucked dry.

On top of that I developed gallstones and existed on a fat-free and highly restricted diet to minimise the attacks of stomach pain. It wasn't exactly the ideal diet for boosting milk production.

Eventually I realised I couldn't keep doggedly keep exclusively breastfeeding my son for six months. Something had to give, I admitted, when I found myself hooked up to a supply of morphine in A&E at 3am with my starving baby screaming beside me. (Hospital staff couldn't answer when I asked if morphine was safe for a breastfeeding mum.)

By then my son was four months old and I was reluctant to switch to formula, having struggled through feeding against the odds for the first few months of his life. And having exclusively breastfed my first baby for six months and continued to feed until he weaned himself at 9 months, I was wracked with guilt at the prospect of depriving my second child in comparison.

So when a friend mentioned that government guidelines had advocated introducing solids at four months when her children were babies (not so long ago), I decided to ask my health visitor for her views on starting solids early.

Let's just say it wasn't a conversation that lasted very long and for the next few weeks I studiously avoided the clinic as my son wolfed down bowlfuls of baby rice as if each one might be the last meal he ever had.

For me, this new research is a comfort because it confirms what I suspected, which was that my baby was well-ready for solids at four months. I feel vindicated about my decision to wean early, whereas until now I've felt only guilty.

Mum-of-four Barbara Taylor shares that sentiment: "Oh I absolutely groaned with despair when I heard this. I felt so guilty that I introduced solids slightly earlier than 6 months will all of my kids... to hear that the advice might be wrong does my head in!

"They keep changing their minds anyway - when my eldest was small the advice was to introduce solids at 4 months. I think as a parent you have to just go with your gut instincts. I think that it is worse when you are a first time parent and have no idea what you are doing - you go with whatever the 'experts' say. So glad that I'm not having any more babies!"

More importantly, this research underlines my strongest conviction about motherhood, which is that our instincts are invariably more trustworthy than any advice we're handed from on high, no matter how well-meaning.

GP and mum of two Pippa says: "From my understanding it was a WHO report initially that put the six month mark out there, which had little to do with allergy development and more to do with infant mortality.

"Worldwide they are probably correct that exclusive breast feeding is healthier than offering alternatives which may have been made with water that is not clean or in unsanitary conditions. Most European countries didn't take up or recommend the WHO guidelines, the UK was in a minority. I think women have been very confused by the guidelines, for example many bottle feeding or mixed feeding mums don't wean their children onto solids until six months because they assume it was a blanket recommendation, which it never was. The evidence on allergies was certainly patchy at best. I think WHO guidance is hugely valuable though it can't always be extrapolated to all countries and it gets leapt on by certain bandwagons and portrayed as the only way to raise one's child."

Mum of one Cathryn Scott isn't convinced by the new research, and says: "The fact that people involved in this study have been previously funded by baby food companies tells me everything I need to know about their 'findings'."

I love this comment left on a newspaper's website in response to the new research:

"Dear New Mothers,

Just muddle through as best you can. Weigh up any advice but be aware it'll be contradicted down the line. Just give it your best shot; breast or bottle, it's no one else's business. Most important of all, if you're knackered and wondering if you can manage being a mother at all then for God's sake avoid reading the outpourings of zealous mothers with a set and rigid opinion about what is best based on their own situation - they'll just make you feel bad. Don't worry you're probably doing fine."

Amen to that.

What do you think? What was the advice at the time you had your baby or babies?

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