The Department of Health and Social Care recommends that it’s wisest to wait until your baby’s 6 months old before giving them their first solid food.
But a fairly recent study review, published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2018, carried out in part by experts at King’s College London, has suggested that weaning your baby earlier than 6 months can help them to sleep better.
All the experts are united on one important fact, though: it’s definitely not safe to start weaning before 17 weeks.
What does the 2018 study on the early introduction of solids say?
The study looked at whether feeding certain foods to babies could stop them getting allergies, and a secondary part of the study explored whether giving babies solids before 6 months could actually help them to sleep better.
Two sets of 650 babies were looked at: one set were breastfed only up to 6 months, the other set were breastfed and given solids, including peanuts, wheat and eggs, just short of the recommended 17 weeks.
The study showed that the babies who had been introduced to solids earlier slept, on average, 2 hours more a week than those in the other group and woke 2 fewer times at night per week by the time they were 6 months old.
You can read a full report of the study on the JAMA Paediatrics website but do please note that guidelines – to wean your baby at around 6 months – haven’t changed in the UK.
What age is safe to start solids? Expert’s view
“If you think your baby is ready to wean earlier then the recommended age of 6 months,” says Dawn Kelly, an independent UK health visitor with 17 years’ experience, “speak to your health visitor or doctor about it. But never introduce solids before 17 weeks.”
And there’s no doubt lots of mums are keen to start earlier than 6 months. On our forum, for example, jodie-lou says: “I started weaning my LO at 17 weeks. I had felt under pressure to start earlier from family but wanted to wait until the advised time (6 months).
Why should you never start to wean before 4 months?
The Department of Health, NHS and health professionals all state clearly that your baby’s digestive system isn’t ready for solid food before 17 weeks.
Research suggests that weaning before 4 months may be linked to an increased chance your child will become overweight. Data from The Millennium Cohort Study (which is following 12,000 children born in 2000) found that 26% of babies given solids before 4 months were overweight at the age of 3, compared with 22% of those fed solids later on.
The same pattern was true when the children reached 5 years; 24% of those given solids before 4 months were overweight compared with 20% of those given solids after 4 months.
Dr Lucy Griffiths, who led the research team, said: “Our findings suggest a continued need to discourage premature introduction of solid foods.”
What foods should I avoid if I do start weaning before 6 months?
If you decide to wean before 6 months, the Department of Health advises against giving your baby any of the the following foods, as they may lead to illness or allergies:
- anything containing wheat or gluten (wheatflour, bread, breakfast cereals made from wheat, rusks, spaghetti or other pastas)
- nuts, including peanuts and peanut products
- fish and shellfish
- honey (should be avoided until 12 months)
- cow’s milk
- soft or unpasteurised foods
- avoid adding salt or sugar to any food for your baby.
How can you tell if it’s safe to wean your baby before 6 months?
If you know you want to wean your baby early, it’s important to be aware of when your baby’s ready – and when you need to hold off for a bit. Mum Nicola on our forum says: “We started weaning Annabel at 5 months and so far we have had a fantastic experience.
“I wanted to share that I was glad we started weaning at 5 months and didn’t wait until 6 months. She was absolutely ready.”
Obviously, it’s best to talk things through with your health visitor first. But, very broadly speaking:
It’s definitely not safe if… your baby is under 17 weeks. Or if you’re keen on doing baby-led weaning: your baby does need to be 6 months old before you start to wean this way.
It’s probably not safe if… your baby is over 17 weeks but not showing all the signs of readiness (below) – or if you have a family history of allergies or coeliac disease. You really do need to seek advice from your health visitor or GP first, if you’re still keen to get started.
It’s probably safe if… your baby is over 17 weeks, he or she is showing all the signs of readiness and you’ve got the OK from your health visitor or GP.
What are the signs of readiness for weaning?
These signs include your baby:
- having good neck and head control, and being able to sit well with support
- gaining a healthy weight since birth
- being able to reach out for objects, grab them and bring them to her mouth.
Beware of the ‘false signs’ of readiness to wean
There are some things that all babies tend to do at around about this age that are often mistaken for sure signs that it’s time to start moving on to solids. They’re not.
So, if your baby is doing any of the following, you shouldn’t dive for the weaning spoons – unless you can spot the proper signs of readiness, too:
Chewing fists. Almost all babies love stuffing things – toys, blankets, fists – in their mouth. It’s one of the ways they learn about the world around them (and drive you to oh-no-he’s-going-to-choke distraction). So, chowing down on a hand is not a sign of a yearning for a solid bite to eat.
Waking in the night. Even if your baby has always been a good sleeper and suddenly starts waking at night, it doesn’t mean it’s time to wean. Contrary to many an old wives’ tale, there’s no evidence that giving your baby solids will mean a return to sleeping through.
Wanting extra milk feeds. It’s quite normal for your baby to go through periods of growth spurts during which he or she will be particularly hungry. Giving extra milk, rather than getting out the solids, is the answer.
When do mums actually start weaning?
A lot earlier than you might expect. A MadeForMums poll of 402 mums told us that 54% start either at 4 or 5 months and only 40% wait until 6 months or more.
The full results were as follows:
Before 4 months: 6%
At 4 months: 26%
At 5 months: 28%
At 6 months: 34%
At 7 months: 6%
6 reasons you should wait to wean until 6 months
Your baby’s digestive system needs to mature. This is particularly important if your baby has a family history of allergies or coeliac disease. Research suggests that babies weaned early are more likely to suffer tummy upsets, diarrhoea and vomiting.
Your baby needs to have lost the ‘tongue-thrust’ reflex. All small babies have this reflex, which means they instinctively push out anything on their tongue, to protect against choking. Before you start weaning, this reflex needs to diminish, so your baby doesn’t instantly push the food straight back out. The reflex usually starts to fade between 4 and 6 months.
Your baby needs to have mastered new tongue skills. It’s not just about losing the push-food-out reflex; your baby also needs to learn how to push food from the front of his or her mouth to the back, and then swallow – a skill he or she will still be developing before 6 months.
Your baby need to be able to sit up – and pick up food. By 6 months, your baby is likely to be able to sit up with little or no support, and have good head and neck control, making chewing and swallowing easier. He or she should also be able to pick up foods and move them to his or her mouth.
Milk is enough. Research shows that babies can get all their nutritional needs from breast milk or formula milk for the first 6 months of their life.
Baby-led weaning shouldn’t start before 6 months. At 6 months, your baby can start baby-led weaning – BLW – an increasingly popular method of weaning where you encourage your child to feed him or herself, rather than be fed by you with a spoon, or a mix of purees and BLW. It’s not recommended to start BLW before 6 months.