Weaning your baby onto solid food is an exciting and rewarding milestone - for parents and baby alike.
Having watched you enjoying food every day for the past few months, with increasing curiosity, your baby can finally get in on the action and find out what this mealtime fun is all about.
Meanwhile, as parents, you get the unadulterated pleasure of watching your baby's face crease up – with delight, bafflement or deep suspicion – as she explores this strange new world of flavour and texture.
But while 'first tastes' might be up there with 'first steps' and 'first words' in the baby-milestones league, unlike other milestones, you're the one leading the charge. As a result, the prospect of weaning can seem pretty daunting – not to mention confusing.
But while it might seem like there's a lot to take on board, weaning is largely an instinctive process, and one that should be guided by your baby.
So forget stressing about exact quantities, strict timelines and slavish schedules. Positivity, patience and a little advanced preparation are all you need to make this a fun and exciting time in yours and your baby's life.
Is your baby ready to begin solids?
Current Department of Health guidelines recommend that babies are not introduced to solid food until six months. Research suggests babies need nothing but breast milk or infant formula for the first six months of their life, according to the NHS Choices website.
But an increasing number of women are now choosing to wean their babies earlier than this – and there is conflicting evidence that shows weaning as early as 17 weeks can be beneficial for some babies.
The truth is, all babies are different. For instance, bigger babies are often more hungry and may require weaning earlier than smaller babies. But you shouldn't feel pressured to wean your baby earlier just because everyone else seems to be doing it.
Neither should you wait longer than six months, as by this point, breast and formula milk alone will not be able to provide the required quantities of nutrients.
"Iron is the nutrient that is the most critical at this age," says Judy More, paediatric dietician, founder of the Child Nutrition consultancy and author of Stress-Free Weaning.
"The stores of iron that were built up in your baby's body before birth will have fallen to low levels by the time he is around six months old. Breast milk is too low in iron to provide enough now."
To establish when the time is right to introduce your baby to solids, look out for these telltale signs.
4 signs your baby is ready for weaning:
1. Sitting up and supporting and controlling his head
2. Putting objects in his mouth
3. Watching you intently while you eat!
4. An insatiable demand for milk
What about milk feeds?
The start of the weaning process is all about introducing tastes and textures, so the bulk of your baby's nutrition will continue to come from milk.
It is recommended that your baby drinks a minimum of 600ml (20oz) of breast milk or formula for the first 12 months, at which point cows' milk can be introduced.
It is also advisable to introduce a sippy-cup of water at mealtimes. This will help your baby to swallow her food and will also teach her the important skill of drinking from a cup.
How long will weaning take?
You can expect the process – from first spoonfuls of smooth purées to three-meals-a-day, including lumpy textures and soft finger foods – to take around a month.
Although it was previously thought that you should wait three days between each new taste, it is no longer deemed necessary. In fact, experts suggest it pays to introduce new flavours as quickly as possible, to help establish a broad palate.
But while it is fine to introduce new flavours on consecutive days, you shouldn't rush things. Let your baby be your guide. Remember this is a new experience for them and there is a lot for them to take on board. Patience is key.
"Your baby needs time and practice to learn a lot of new skills during the first few meals," says Judy. "He needs to learn to take food off the spoon and to use his tongue to push the food to the back of his mouth where he can swallow it. Some babies learn quickly; others take longer."
What you'll need...
- Feeding spoons
- Plastic bowls
- Tubs for storing food in the fridge and freezer
- Ice cube trays for freezing food
- Saucepan and steamer
- A hand blender of food processor
- Freezer bags with labels
First foods should be soft and smooth, so as many vegetables and some fruits are too hard for hand-mashing, you will be spending quite a lot of your time blitzing away with a hand blender or food processor.
The most time and cost-effective way to do this is to buy your food in bulk and blend it in batches, using your ice cube trays to freeze it in portion-sized cubes. Once frozen you can decant the cubes into labelled freezer bags.
Vegetables should be steamed or boiled until soft, and 'hard' fruits such as apples and pears should be poached, before puréeing. Soft fruits such as mangos and peaches can be mashed or puréed without cooking, but make sure they are soft and ripe. Bananas, which should also be ripe, can simply be mashed with a fork.
What NOT to feed your baby
Starting with baby rice, vegetables, fruit and cereal and progressing to meat fish and dairy, your baby can eat a wide variety of foods from when you begin. But there are a few exceptions – here they are:
Honey: This contains bacteria that can lead to botulism in infants under one year.
Salt: Babies' kidneys can't cope with high levels of salt.
Undercooked eggs: For the same reason you couldn't eat them when you were pregnant, undercooked eggs can lead to salmonella.
Whole nuts: This is because they are a choking hazard, not because of allergy risk. That said, if there is a history of nut allergies in your family, you should have your baby tested before feeding them anything with traces of nuts.
Sugar: The only sugar you baby should eating at this stage is the natural sugars found in fruit. Too much sugar can cause tooth decay.
Baby led weaning v purées
Baby-led weaning (BLW) is an increasingly popular alternative to traditional spoon-feeding. Its major selling point for you is that it does away with the need for all that tiresome puréeing.
Instead, your baby moves straight onto finger foods, such as batons of avocado or cooked carrots or even toast soldiers. Rather than being fed by you, he is presented with the food and left to take control.
The idea behind it is that it gives your baby the opportunity to explore a full sensory experience with food and learn to self-feed. She can hold, prod, squish and shake the food before cramming it into her mouth – or not as the case may be.
Aside from it being incredibly messy, which is half the fun, the biggest criticism levelled against baby-led weaning is that it's difficult to tell how much food your baby is getting (half of it is likely to end up on the floor).
In any circumstances, baby-led weaning should not be done until your baby is at least six months old.
Judy suggests doing a mixture of traditional and baby-led weaning, by introducing finger foods, alongside purées as the weaning progresses. "That way your baby will learn the important skill of feeding with a spoon as well as self-feeding."
Constipation: With all these changes going on in their tiny little bellies, a few side effects are to be expected. Constipation is common during the early stages of weaning. Diluted prune juice can work wonders. Failing that, seek advice from your GP.
Choking: Yes, it's every mother's worst weaning nightmare. This is very unlikely to happen. Babies have a strong gag reflex, to help protect them from choking. But in the unlikely event they do start choking, make sure you're armed with the NHS advice on what to do.
Go with the flow
By now, you should be feeling pretty well prepared. The most important thing to remember is that this should be a wonderful experience for baby and you, so remove the pressure from yourself and your baby, let nature take its course – and enjoy!
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