When and How to Wean your Baby
To start with, I have to say I am a novice, my baby hasn't started weaning yet at the time this article is written! But I have spoken to many medical professionals, parents who have weaned or will start weaning soon, and read many books on subject. So, what I present here is based on this information, in a collective concise fashion.
WHAT IS WEANING?
This is when a baby moves from drinking solely milk (formula or breast) to eating solid food. It lays the foundation for baby to be able to eat solid food by helping baby understand the grasping of food (via hand or spoon), swallowing and chewing processes.
WHEN DO YOU WEAN YOUR BABY?
This is the controversial bit. Different influencers and advisors have different opinions ranging from:
- Baby sits up steadily unassisted
- Baby has good hand-eye coordination
- Baby grabs and is interested in food
- Baby puts everything they grasp into their mouth
- Baby eats and swallows food when offered and does not push food out of their mouth
- Baby wakes up in the middle of the night for extra feeds
- Baby sucks fist
- Baby is able to chew even if he/she has no teeth
- Baby shows interest in wanting to join in on mealtimes
Baby has to be able to sit up first to support digestion of their food before you start weaning. This is a MUST! This is usually at the 26 week or 6 month mark. Then there might be a combination of some or all other mentioned factors. For baby-led weaning, hand-eye co-ordination is also mandatory.
Premature babies are advised to wean earlier than 6 months due to potential delays developmental. Please speak to your general practitioner about this as baby led weaning is not a suitable option for these babies.
Weaning should never be started before 17 weeks as a babies digestive system is still underdeveloped and will not be able to cope with anything beyond milk.
WHAT HAPPENS WITH MILK FEEDS?
Babies must be exclusively breast or formula milk fed for the first 6 months in order to get the right nutrients. The milk feed drops once weaning is established to around 500 - 600 ml per day. Milk feeding must continue for the first whole year.
WHAT METHOD IS BEST FOR WEANING?
There are two methods for weaning:
- Baby-led weaning: Baby grasps and controls food via their hands. Whole foods are used here as a start (not pureed) and baby feeds him or herself. With this method, babies are exposed to food textures at an earlier age. Advocates of this method say that it encourages social eating with the family as baby can be offered the vegetables and proteins you eat, for instance, devoid of sugar and salt. A suggested pro of this method is that baby will be less fussy as they are exposed to a wider variety of food textures and tastes quite early.
- Spoon-led weaning: Pureed foods are first given to baby via a spoon. Baby learns to how to use a spoon to feed him/herself. Purees served via spoon serve an advantage if baby is weaned before 6 months of age (premature baby). It also is a good bridge between milk and solid foods. Additionally, its an easy way to monitor how much your baby is eating. The Department of Health for the UK and EU, World Heath Organisation and British Dietetic Association all recommend giving baby pureed or well-mashed foods at the beginning of weaning along with soft finger foods. If you baby rejects baby-led weaning and finds whole or lumpy food difficult to eat, spoon-led weaning is a good option to try.
The method you choose is dependant on your babies development, preferences and if your baby is premature. Another option is to mix up both methods depending the food you want to introduce and the stage of weaning. Just go with what works for your baby and is easier to adopt.
WHY SHOULD BABY BE WEANED AT 6 MONTHS?
Babies have a reserve of iron when they are born which is lost around this time. Hence it is essential to ensure baby has a sufficient amount of protein via meat or fish, when weaned. Protein is best introduced in a pureed format as tougher foods will be more difficult for baby to eat in their earlier weaning days.
WHAT DO I NEED TO START WEANING?
These are the basics that you need:
- A comfortable high chair with a tray for baby. Food can be served directly on tray to avoid mess.
- A safe place where baby is stabilised
- An area where baby is able to drop food (this will happen a lot apparently!). It's advisable to get a wipeable mat for this area.
- A wipeable food bib
These are optional items to get:
- A non-breakable plate and spoon (if not using the tray and/or baby led weaning approach for eating)
- Masher or Food Processor. Some electronic ones are available if you are short on time and want to bulk prepare and freeze foods.
Mealtime should be a fun experience. Even if you cannot have every meal with baby, try to have a few to make the experience more wholesome as a family.
WHAT FOODS DO YOU START YOUR BABY ON?
Again, different healthcare professionals and influencers recommend different foods as the first food based on crushed rice in milk, non-root vegetables, root vegetables or oats. Protein is also extremely important as described before.
The key is to start baby on foods that have a low sugar content. Fruit is usually the last food to be added due to its sugar content.
Baby's first foods for a baby-led weaning approach should be soft (but not mushy) and easy to swallow. Fresh cooked vegetables, healthy carbohydrates and fresh fruit work best.
It is advisable not to use any salt or sugar in preparation of babies food prior to 1 year of age. Check the labels of any pre-made foods. Use unsaturated or monounstaurated fats, such as sunflower, soya, corn, soy, rapeseed and olive), for cooking.
IS THERE ANY PREPARATION I NEED TO START WEANING?
It's advisable, but not mandatory, to do a first aid course as choking is a worry. This is why it's extremely important to ensure baby is weaned only when they are ready and not before.
It's also important to be able to different between gagging and choking. Gagging is an involuntary reflex that will push out the food it is too large for the throat so is a safety mechanism that prevents choking. This reflex is triggered towards the front of the tongue in babies. Babies usually appear to cough and spit food with this.
Choking occurs when the airway is completely blocked and is a medical emergency. Baby is usually silent when this happens. This is when first aid training is key to help dislodge any food from the airway and to help baby cough to clear the blockage.
Babies tend to store food in their mouth so check that your baby has swallowed the food.
Avoid any whole small foods that baby might find hard to chew and choke on such as whole grapes, cherry tomatoes, nuts, stoned fruit, and bony fish.
HOW MUCH FOOD CAN I GIVE?
Gradually increase the amount of food as you wean and reduce the milk only as the food intake increases. Feeding purees and whole foods mean that you have some control over how much baby eats so might help in helping guide the food intake.
ARE THERE ANY RECIPES I CAN FOLLOW?
Annabel Karmel is a popular influencer in this space and has many apps and books available. Natalie Peal is another new entrant in the space who has apps and books available to help the weaning process.
Wish me luck when I start and Happy Weaning Days to you!
Annabel Karmel's Baby-Led Weaning Recipe Book, Heidi Murkoff's What to Expect in the First Year Book and the Cow and Gate 5-step weaning website (https://www.cowandgate.co.uk/five-step-weaning-plan/how-to-start-weaning)