Tiny babies seem be hitting milestones from the moment they are born, filling us with that heart-swelling pride which keeps us going, however many sleepless nights we endure.
But before you know it your baby will be hitting the mother of all milestones – the biggie, the one which instils excitement and fear in equal measure. The milestone when they start eating real food.
Weaning really is a whole new ball game and, as you embark upon that journey from liquids to solids with your baby, it can seem fraught with pitfalls. But take heart, just about every parent feels their way through the process and you should keep humming the mantra that applies to so many aspects of parenthood: all children are different!
When to wean
Here is the current standard advice: the World Health Organisation (WHO) advises that babies should be fed with milk (ideally, says the WHO, they should be exclusively breastfed) until they reach six months of age, at which time appropriate solids can be introduced.
Whether breast or bottle feeding, you should continue to give your baby their milk until at least the age of one, as well as their meals. Cow's milk should not be given as a drink until after 12 months (although it can be mixed with food from the age of six months).
That's the current recommendation. However, if you delve deeper into the debate about when to wean, you might come across research that suggests perhaps babies in developed countries such as ours should be weaned as early as four months.
A paediatrician called Dr Mary Fewtrell and her team said that the current WHO advice is based largely on 16 studies, seven of which were done in developing countries, where nutrition levels are poor. They argued that a different review of 33 other studies found "no compelling evidence" not to introduce UK babies to solids between the ages of four and six months.
So, when to wean? It's up to you whether you follow the WHO advice, but there is a compelling reason for prioritising breast milk or formula over solids for young babies. While a pureed carrot might be delicious and filling, it has nowhere near the nutritional density, or calorific value, of milk. Milk contains all the nutrients your baby needs in one sitting, and breast milk also contains very important antibodies which help your baby stave off infection.
When solids are introduced, babies can (not always, but quite often) progress very quickly – but their milk is so important. If you decide you want to wean your baby earlier than six months (incidentally, babies any younger than four months are unlikely to have developed the mechanism required for swallowing solids, so that's a no-no), speak to your doctor or a health visitor at your local children's centre, and they'll advise you.
If your baby was premature, they might have different requirements anyway, and your health visitor should also advise you on this.
No baby is ready to be weaned until they can hold their own head up. Look for signs that they are ready – if they can sit well in a high chair and they seem to be interested in food, maybe it is time to try. But if the food comes straight back out of their mouth every time you pop it in, they might not be physically able, so leave it for a while and try again later.
Baby led weaning or pureés?
Well, there's a question! Mothers all over the western world roll this around in their minds – there is so much information out there about why one or the other is better for babies.
For example, last year the media was chucking about the idea that spoon feeding makes babies fatter – the story was discredited by the NHS). Nevertheless, we soak it all up, wanting to do 'the best' for our child.
Here is where that mantra comes in (again). You might have decided that baby led weaning is definitely better, or that pureés are the way to go. And your baby might wholly disagree with you! I know at least two mothers this has happened to.
Let's consider the pros and cons of each. Baby led weaning refers to giving babies only finger foods which they can pick up easily and gnaw on. Squares of avocado, toast soldiers, cooked carrot batons, even pieces of meat or fish (there are myriad books and information out there for ideas).
Baby led weaning has several benefits, a major one being that you don't have to either spend time making, or spend money buying pureés.
From the age of six months, many babies can sit up and grasp food and get it to their mouths. This method of weaning offers them the chance to develop a full sensory experience with food. Give them a soft spear of broccoli and they'll squish it and bash it and explore it from top to bottom. It'll be very exciting for them, and some of it might even get in their mouth.
Some people think baby led weaning is better because it allows babies to choose both what they eat and how much – anecdotal evidence suggests babies might be less picky later, perhaps for that reason.
But there are downsides too. Firstly, wow, it's messy! Understandably so, because your baby will be exploring and playing with the food as well as eating it. Quite a lot will end up on the floor, in their ears and so on. There's no way around that.
Linked to that is the fact that it's hard to tell how much they are eating. While babies are still being given breast milk or formula, that shouldn't be to much of a worry, but in making the full transition from from milk to solids, many mothers (in my experience anyway!) do constantly think about whether their child is getting enough of this or that.
If you go down the baby-led weaning route, it's essential you ensure that the foods you give your baby are appropriate – they should be soft and large enough to grip – and you must always be with your baby when they are eating.
What about pureés? Well, an up side is that if you are feeding your baby pureés, you know how much food they are eating because you can see the empty (or half empty) dish or jar. You know what was in that purée, so you can feel confident they have had a sufficient dose of calcium, protein, vitamin C and so on.
Spoon feeding is not going to be mess free (believe me, they're still going to want to get their hands in there!) but at least the majority of it might get into their mouth. If your baby keeps wanting to grab the spoon, just get another one, and have one each.
If there is a potential downside to pureés, it could be the amount of time or money you spend on them, which brings us to the question of whether to home cook or buy jars.
Rather like if you chose not to, or couldn't manage to, breast feed, you shouldn't beat yourself up about it if you feed your baby shop-bought pureés. Many babies are weaned on jars and pouches of food and they thrive on them!
Baby food would not make it to the shelf it if was bad for babies and remember, if you're feeding your baby with pre-prepared food, you can still easily give them fresh food with minimal cooking – mash a banana with an avocado, see how that goes down.
That said, if you can home cook, then that would be brilliant, for several reasons. Firstly, nutritional content – it's just not possible for jars and pouches to retain the same nutritional values as food that has been freshly cooked and whizzed up.
There is also flavour. Fresh tends to taste more yummy, and when you are wanting your baby to fall in love with food, the nicer it tastes, the better. If you are making your own pureés, you can choose the flavour combinations and you'll be fully in control of what your baby eats.
Making your own pureés doesn't have to be massively time consuming. There are probably plenty of things you cook for yourself which could easily be whizzed up in a blender with some milk. Just don't add salt during the cooking stage.
If you're still not sure about whether baby led weaning or pureés is best for you and your baby, you could do what many, many mums do and combine the two!
How to begin
If you are going to spoon feed your baby, then start off with some good old baby rice. Yes, it is bland (it virtually has no flavour actually!), but what you're helping your baby to do is get used to the new texture.
Mixing up baby rice with some of their usual milk (to a sloppy consistency) will allow them to enjoy the flavour of what they are used to, while experiencing the strange and hopefully very interesting sensation of having some solid in their mouth. Baby rice, and baby porridge, have essential vitamins and iron in them, so they are a good start for that reason.
After the initial surprise of trying solid food, you might find that your baby suddenly gets very keen on the idea of eating – and this is the exciting part, when you can start giving them real food, watching their little face as they decide whether they like it or not!
What to give them and when
If you do wean your baby before they are six months old, then stick to giving them only baby rice, fruit and vegetables. Once they reach their six month birthday, though, almost all foods can be on the menu (there are a few exceptions, see below).
All fruit and veg is fine, as is most fish (yes, even shellfish as long as it is cooked) and meat, bread, pasta, pulses, dairy – the world is their culinary oyster!
As exciting as it all is, at the beginning, It's a good idea to introduce foods one at a time – it will help you and your baby to decipher what they like (and what they really don't, if there is anything) and it'll also mean you can easily spot if your baby is unlucky enough to have an allergy or intolerance to something.
As your baby progresses, you can start giving them full meals. If you are making pureés, use your baby's normal milk and / or the water you used to cook their vegetables, to blend the meal to a suitable consistency.
You will probably find your baby prefers smooth food for a while, but at about 9 months, start making their meals a bit more textured, gradually letting them experience lumpiness.
There are some important exclusions for your baby's diet. They should not have:
• Honey – It contains a bacteria which can give babies botulism.
• Salt – We should all watch the amount of salt we eat, and babies' kidneys can't cope with high levels of salt, so it's a good time to cut it out of cooking completely if you can.
• Swordfish, shark and marlin – They probably wouldn't feature regularly on your menu anyway, but these particular fish should be avoided because they contain high levels of mercury.
• Goat's or sheep's milk – If your baby is intolerant or allergic to cow's milk, you might give them this as an alternative, but generally it is not recommended because it is much lower in iron. Milk should only be used as an ingredient anyway (for example in mashed vegetables), rather than a drink, before your baby is one.
• Undercooked eggs – Keep your baby safe and cook their eggs well to avoid the risk of salmonella. They'll have to wait a while longer for those dipped toast soldiers.
• Whole nuts – Your baby can eat nuts from the age of six months (although speak to your GP if nut or peanut allergy runs in your family) – but whole ones carry a choking risk.
• Caffeine – They are unlikely to enjoy espresso at this age! But caffeine is a no-no because it inhibits the absorption of iron.
• Very sugary foods and drinks – Your baby is bound to be ingesting sugar through various sources, but don't give them large amounts of sugary food, which is bad for their developing teeth.
You and your baby might encounter some hiccups while weaning – most of them are nothing to worry too much about!
• Choking – It is essential that you are always with your baby when they are eating, and especially if you are going down the baby led weaning route, because there is a higher risk of choking. It's worth knowing that, as frightening as it is when your baby appears to be choking, they might well just be gagging. Babies have a powerful gag reflex (nature's way of protecting them). However, in the case of choking, you need to act fast, so read the NHS guidelines on what to do.
• Not eating – They might go through phases of it – they might start off great guns and then decide food is not really for them. It's all designed to send you doolally! Remember, your baby should still be having their milk until the age of one, so eating their meals is not the be all and end all. Persist, but don't fuss if they won't eat – they'll come to it in their own time.
• Not drinking their milk – If your baby embraces food wholeheartedly, you might worry that they are no longer drinking as much milk. Give them their milk feed before any solids, they'll take more when they are hungry. If you are worried that your baby is not drinking enough generally, just keep offering them sips of water at meal times and keep an eye on their nappy: if they are weeing regularly, if the urine is not dark in colour, they are fine.
• Constipation – When a baby first starts eating solid food, it can quite literally be a bit of a shock to the system and many a mother finds that her child, who has been happily pooping thrice daily their whole life, suddenly stops going at all. Don't panic.
First of all, try to give them some extra fruit – try apples, apricots, grapes, peaches or plums. You can also give them diluted fruit juice – some mothers swear by orange juice, others have success with prune juice. If none of this works, then pop along to your GP who will assess the situation and prescribe a suitable baby laxative if necessary. Never give babies over the counter laxatives, always see your doctor.
There is oodles of information out there about weaning, not to mention some great recipe books for meal ideas. Try these for starters:
Weaning, by Annabel Karmel, £9.99