Your baby will take all he needs to grow, develop and stay healthy in his milk feed – breast or baby formula – for the first few months of life.Then comes the first of those important and exciting steps towards family meals…here’s how to begin!
When to start
You are the best judge of when it’s time to wean, and you don’t have to set a deadline unless you and your child are ready to do so. However, the Department of Health now recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months (26 weeks). If you feel your baby needs to start solids before this, do talk to your health visitor.
It is important that you don’t start before four months because your baby may not be able to digest foods properly. At best, this means the extra food is ‘wasted nutrition’ because the body can’t handle it. At worst, it could trigger a digestive problem or food intolerance. It may also mean that your baby doesn’t get enough of the essential nutrients he needs from milk. If the food is digested (or partly digested) it may satisfy the baby’s hunger, and he will take in less breast milk or formula milk.
Research from a major project in Dundee has shown that babies fed foods other than milk before 15 weeks have an increased risk of wheeze and respiratory infection in childhood, and they have an increased level of body fat.
It is important to introduce foods by six months because at about this time a baby’s own iron stores may start to become depleted, so he begins to need extra nutrients and calories from food sources other than milk.
There are a very few exceptions. A baby of more than three months who fails to thrive, despite interventions to make breastfeeding more effective or to increase the amount of formula, may need other foods to grow properly.
A baby of over six months who is breastfed unrestrictedly and who rejects other foods may get enough iron from breast milk and enough calories to stay healthy, though this is likely to mean frequent feeding. Breast milk is low in iron compared to formula milks, but the iron is very easily metabolised by the baby.
A formula fed baby who rejects other foods will need large volumes of milk to get the calories he needs after six months. However, you should give your baby the chance to ‘come round’ to eating by offering him a tiny taste of food with every milk feed.
Premature babies are usually ready for first foods about four to six months after they were due. So if your baby was born two months early, he will be ready for first foods when he is six to eight months old.
Talk to your health visitor if you have any worries about when to begin offering your baby his first tastes of solid foods. Remember that this is a very different stage to true weaning, which involves gradually removing milk feeds from the diet, and this stage will not come until your baby is around one year old or more.
Is your baby ready?
Watch for signs of your baby’s readiness for other foods.
- Is he showing interest in what you are eating if you have a snack when he’s on your lap, or if he’s with you at the meal table?
- Is he showing an interest in exploring things with his mouth?
- Does he seem to be unsatisfied after his usual milk feed, yet resists being put on the breast again, or rejects more formula?
- Has his weight gain levelled out? It is normal for weight gain to slow down after the first three months, but sometimes a baby stops gaining weight completely. This may be because he has been ill, but if your baby is well it may indicate that he is ready to try some other foods.
Discuss your baby’s readiness with your health visitor. The tendency is to rush into giving other foods. We seem to long to get our babies onto the next stage, and we have an idea, too, that giving foods will help our babies sleep through the night – though there is no convincing evidence that this is the case.
Statistics show the majority of babies are already taking first foods at four months, and a good proportion are given them at three months. Health experts are concerned about this, and wish to encourage parents to wait until their baby is at least four months old and preferably six as recommended by the WHO.
If your baby doesn’t seem interested in other foods, or if you offer them and he seems puzzled, or turns his head away, or cries, or spits the food out – even if you try again very gently and encouragingly – then give him another few days. It is not worth fighting over!
Remember, there is no rush to get your baby eating more food. In the beginning, first tastes are more of a learning experience than a nutritional one. Some babies are naturally more cautious than others with these new experiences, and just come round to enjoying them later. They may simply dislike being spoonfed, and only really take to new foods when they can hold a spoon or pick up foods themselves. That’s when finger foods can make a difference.
Finally, don’t be tempted to add baby rice or cereal to your baby’s bottle to ‘help him sleep through the night’. It will not help him sleep, and it may actually wake him by giving him wind!
How to start
There are no hard and fast rules about when in the day your baby should start with his first tastes.
Some experts suggest that you should offer first foods in the morning, or after a milk feed, or before. But there’s no real evidence that in the long term it makes any difference. Each time has its advantages and disadvantages, so you can feel fine about doing what’s most convenient for you and your family.
In the very early days, it’s best not to aim to replace your baby’s milk feed – breast or bottle – with anything else, so it makes sense to offer other foods after your baby has finished his milk, though not if he’s dozed off, of course! It’s fine to offer the tastes halfway through, though, if you find it easier.
It may also be a good idea to pick a time which fits in with your usual family mealtimes, or the time when you would normally have a snack. Make eating sociable from the start, so your baby learns to look forward to meals as a time when he can join in with the rest of the family. Hold him on your lap at first, or sit him in his usual baby seat. By about six months old he may be comfortable in a high chair.
Give foods once a day at first, and only offer a couple of teaspoons. You can build up from there, following your baby’s lead. He may have problems at first getting food off the spoon. So far he has only had to cope with milk, and so first foods need to be almost as liquid as his milk feeds.
Use a small plastic spoon and place tiny amounts in his mouth. You will find you are ‘depositing’ the food in his mouth by tipping the spoon in, against his upper lip. That’s alright – but put too much in and it will simply fall out of his mouth down his chin! You, and he, will get better and more skilled very quickly, and your baby will be less likely to push the food out with his tongue when he really meant to scoop it in.
If your baby doesn’t finish the dish or jar of food, don’t save the remains. The saliva on the spoon will have deposited enzymes on the remaining food, which will start to break down. If you want to keep some, spoon out what you need into a separate container with a clean spoon before you start, then carefully cover the remaining food, or reseal the jar if you are using manufactured food, and store in the fridge for up to 48 hours. Don’t reheat baby food.
What to give him
First foods from 4-6 months old. Many babies in the UK start off with bought baby rice, which is ground rice with some added vitamins and minerals. It has a bland taste which most babies seem to like and can be mixed with boiled, cooled water, formula milk or breast milk. Babies should not be given cow’s milk at this stage.
You could also start by pureeing some of the foods below with some baby rice, or try them by themselves. Steam or lightly boil the vegetables first:
- soft pear
- eating apple
- potato or parsnip
- sweet potato
- green peas
- mashed ripe banana
- mashed ripe avocado
It’s usually best to offer one taste at a time. It will help you to identify the culprit if your baby has a reaction to a new food, such as a rash or a tummy ache.
Stick to fruits, vegetables and baby rice for babies aged between four and six months.
Home made baby foods
It’s easy to make your own baby foods by cooking and pureeing food. Babies only need very small amounts to begin with, but you can freeze teaspoons of puree in ice cube trays and just defrost enough for one meal at a time. Remember to:
- Peel the skin from fruit and vegetables
- Steam or cook in a little boiling water to keep as many vitamins as possible
- Bake potatoes and eating apples in their skins and then scoop out the cooked flesh for the puree
- Don’t add salt (it makes babies thirsty and may cause dehydration) and pepper
- Push the cooked food through a sieve or blend in a small blender
- Mix the food with some of the cooking water or some breast or formula milk to get a smooth texture
- As he gets used to ‘solids’ you can gradually make the puree less runny and then mash instead of sieve the food
Manufactured baby foods
Bought baby foods are easy to prepare and use, are generally nutritious and are particularly handy when you are visiting or travelling. Manufacturers are careful not to include any harmful additives or sweeteners which might cause problems for your baby. You can also buy organic baby foods or vegetarian foods, which are now widely available.
If you decide to use shop-bought baby foods, do try to give some home cooked foods too.