When to start weaning
Health experts agree that you should start weaning your baby at six months and the NHS says: “Introducing your baby to solid foods, sometimes called complementary feeding or weaning, should start when your baby is around six months old.” The World Health Organization also suggests six months as the best age to start weaning.
For the first six months, breast or formula milk gives your baby the nutrition they need. Breastfeeding also gives your child protection against infections and illness. The NHS now advise that all breastfed babies should be given a daily supplement of vitamin D (8.5 to 10mcg). If your baby is formula-fed and they are having more than 500ml a day, they don’t need a supplement.
Why should I wean my baby at six months?
By this age, your baby has developed well enough to be able to eat and swallow first foods, whether it’s purées or soft food. They can move food around inside their mouth and rather than their tongue sticking forwards, as it does while sucking milk, they can start to use it to push food to the back of the mouth to be swallowed. Babies can also start to feed themselves at this age, so if you choose baby-led weaning, this is the ideal time.
Importantly, your baby’s digestive system is developed enough at this age to be able to break down and digest their food.
Though many parents ask, can you start weaning at four months, you should follow health guidelines to wait until that important six-month stage. Babies are more likely to develop an allergy to food as their digestive system is still too immature to cope with food at this age. There is also a greater risk of choking.
It’s also not a great idea to wait longer than six months to start weaning your baby, as the iron stores your baby was born with will deplete by then and you must top them up with foods rich in iron. Your baby may also miss important milestones such as moving from purées to lumpier textures and may become fussy eaters.
Note: if your baby was premature, seek advice on the best time to start weaning from your Health Visitor.
Signs your baby is ready to start weaning
There are several very strong clues you can look for to be sure that your baby is ready for weaning
- They can sit up well and hold up their head steadily
- They are able to swallow food, rather than spitting it out
- They are able to bring objects to their mouth and coordinate hands, mouth and eyes
Bear in mind that all babies are different, so some develop more quickly than others. Milk should remain the main component of your baby’s diet at this age and it’s all about introducing different flavours and textures.
How to wean a baby
Now you can start to introduce first foods to your baby. Sit your baby up in a highchair, cover clothing with a protective bib and choose some baby plates and bowls to serve their food in. Ideally, feed your baby when the rest of the family is eating – babies love to mimic and to feel included. If you’re spoon feeding, offer your baby a spoon to hold to encourage self-feeding. At first, they may have only a couple of spoonfuls of food – remember that your baby’s stomach is about the same size as their fist, so it won’t hold a lot!
Offer your baby food when they are alert and happy – not too hungry that they are miserable but not so full from a milk feed that they won’t be interested.
What food and first tastes should you give your baby?
Start with fruit and vegetables, cooked to be soft and either puréed for spoon feeding or cut into fist-sized chunks if you want to try baby-led weaning. Offer baby cereal mixed with some of your baby’s usual milk too (but don’t add it the bottle as this can increase the risk of your baby choking). Gradually, you can start to add meat, fish or vegan protein (such as tofu) to the menu. As your baby gets used to the foods you offer, add different flavours, one at a time at first, then combining two or three together. Next, you can leave some little lumps in the food or offer crunchier textures so that they get used to this important change. Eventually, by a year, your baby should be eating more or less the same as you, without the added sugar or salt of course! Keep offering different tastes even if your baby rejects it – it can take several tries before your little one accepts a new flavour.
Foods to avoid when weaning
There are some things you should not give your baby; you should not add salt or sugar and should avoid processed foods, those containing saturated fats and you should not offer fizzy drinks (especially any with caffeine in them like cola). Never offer honey under one year, which as the NHS explains, can occasionally contain ‘bacteria that can produce toxins in a baby's intestines, leading to infant botulism, which is a very serious illness.’ Don’t give them whole nuts or grapes, due to the choking risk. Cheese and milk should be pasteurised, eggs should not be raw and should be Lion marked and some oily fish should be avoided (shark swordfish, marlin) as it’s high in mercury. They should never have raw or lightly cooked shellfish.
There’s a host of information available about this exciting stage of your baby’s development that it can feel overwhelming. You’ll find more information around food allergies on the NHS website and recipe inspiration on their Start4Life YouTube channel.
As exciting a stage that it is, it’s also understandable that some parents can feel anxious about going down a baby-led weaning route, with the choking and allergic reaction risks that it may bring. For peace of mind and reassurance, it can be helpful to attend a first aid course especially for new parents. Apply for an online course with The Red Cross or download the NHS Baby and Child First Aid app.