It’s a question we hear a lot. When should I introduce food to my baby? Both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the NHS are quite clear that babies can receive all the nutrients they need from breast milk or formula milk for the first six months of life, after which point solid foods can be introduced to complement a baby’s milk intake. This has been the guidance since the early 2000s and there is absolutely no indication that this advice will change.
Although this is the official guidance, food packaging states that food is suitable from four months, which can cause confusion for some mums. So if the guidance is six months, why does food packaging say four months? It all comes down to the WHO code. In the UK, we have only placed parts of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes into law. You can read more about the WHO code here. Just like the aggressive marketing of formula, baby foods are supposed to come under the same kind of scrutiny according to the WHO code. But why label your food as suitable from six months when there is no law that says you cannot label it from four months? That’s two months’ worth of sales you are going to lose. In countries where the WHO code has been fully enshrined in law it is illegal to market these foods as suitable from four months. Until we take further steps in the UK to abide by the WHO code, companies will continue to place doubt in the minds of new mums by mislabelling their products to increase their profit margins.
Back in the seventies, eighties and the early nineties, guidelines were to wean a lot earlier. Most people here were probably introduced to solids between two and four months of age. As parents, when we don’t know the answer to a question our instinct is to speak to our own parents. It’s sometimes here that we are told the age-old-line, “Well, we did it this way and you turned out just fine.” That may be the case but we didn’t know then what we know now. Research has since proven that waiting until six months is best for babies’ kidneys and digestive system. By allowing these to properly develop before introducing solids, we reduce the risks of illness and infection.
So how do we know when our baby is ready for their first solids? There are three key signs to look for in your baby to show they are ready for solid foods. It is rare for all these signs to appear together before six months of age.
Your baby is around six months old and shows all the signs of being ready for solid food? So now you need to make the decision about which method of weaning you would like to follow: Baby-Led Weaning or Traditional Weaning?
Baby-Led Weaning means just that, letting baby take the lead and feed themselves from the very start. With BLW there is no need to purée those meals or buy any jars, your baby can eat just what you eat. BLW teaches our children to chew first and then swallow, whereas with traditional weaning they learn to swallow first and then to chew later on.
If you wish to try BLW then here are a few tips to get you started:
- Think chips! Cooking and cutting food in to chip-style batons gives your baby something easy to grasp onto and control. Cooked carrot sticks that can be mushed between your fingers, cucumber batons and fingers of toast are a good starting point. As your baby gets older you will be able to cut the food into smaller pieces for them to grab, which also helps with the development of their pincer grip.
- Prepare for the mess! If you are having a roast dinner there is no reason that baby needs to miss out. Letting them explore the different textures and flavours is great for their development. It may however be worth investing in some plastic matting to pop under the high chair and protect your carpet.
- You can start with three meals a day. As your baby will be completely in control of their food intake, you can start offering them foods whenever you are eating. You may find that they don’t actually eat too much (or anything at all!) to begin with, but don’t worry – it takes time to learn a new skill.
Some people will prefer to wean traditionally. Although BLW has been around for many years now, it has only recently started gaining popularity. If you wish to take the traditional route then there are slightly different ways to introduce solids.
- Start with single-flavoured smooth purées. A smooth purée should contain no big lumps, pips, seeds or skin. You can mix the purée with breast milk, or full-fat cows milk if your child is over six months old. Research has shown that offering savoury flavours first, such as vegetables,makes children more accepting of vegetables later on. After purees, you can move on to mashed foods and introduce mixed flavours. Mashing with a fork will allow you to achieve a lumpy consistency. You can again add milk to the mashes to help achieve the consistency you desire.
- Offer finger foods with meals to allow your child to experience different textures. These can be soft so your baby is able to bite into them.
- Follow your baby’s lead. When spoon feeding your baby, sit opposite them and make eye contact. Wait for them to indicate they are ready for the next spoonful. Let them go at their own pace.
When you begin weaning, your baby is going to be introduced to a whole new world of textures and flavour. As well as experiencing this, they will also be learning new skills of chewing and swallowing. With this comes the possibility they may gag on food. It’s important we know the difference between gagging and choking. Our children have a heightened gag reflex to help prevent them from choking. Interfering with a gagging child can actually cause them to choke. A gagging child will be coughing and spluttering – making noise. They will possibly go red in the face and thrust their tongue forward as they work out how to remove the blockage. A choking child will be silent and start to turn blue. This is when you will need to help them by using first aid to remove the blockage.
Remember: if they’re loud and red, let them go ahead. If they’re silent and blue, they need help from you.
There are also certain foods that should be avoided in the early day. These include honey, whole nuts and certain fish. You can find more information on foods unsuitable for young babies here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/foods-to-avoid-baby
Grapes, or similar small round fruit, are also considered a choking hazard. If you wish to give grapes always cut them length-ways into quarters. Grapes cut in half width-ways or still whole can block a child’s throat, and with their shiny skin they can be difficult to remove.
No matter which weaning route you take, there are a few things you should remember.
- Milk before food. Milk is still a baby’s main source of nutrition for the first year, so offer milk before you offer food. It’s important to continue breast or bottle feeding responsively to ensure your baby is getting all the milk they need. You may find milk feeds reduce over time as your baby’s solid intake increases, but let your baby lead this.
- Watch the salt! Babies under 12 months should have a salt intake of less than 1g per day. You will be surprised about the salt levels in the every-day foods we take for granted. Don’t add salt to your baby’s food and avoid giving your baby food that has been cooked with salt.
- Don’t worry too much about how much your baby is eating. Milk still provides lots of calories and nutrients, so as long as you continue to feed responsively there is no need to panic if your child doesn’t seem massively interested in solid food.
- Offer water with meals. Although your child may not be particularly interested in water, it is good to introduce a cup at this age. Water will also help with the absorption of food and help prevent constipation. At six months of age it is fine to give tap water to your baby.
- Embrace the mess! No matter which way you wean, get ready to find food everywhere. Have the camera ready to capture those first carroty grins and enjoy yourself!
written by Siobhan Hagan