Introducing solid foods into your baby’s diet might be an eagerly anticipated milestone, but it can be a source of worry for new parents. The Department of Health advises giving solid foods to babies at around six months. The main reasons behind the official guidance are:
- Many babies are not ready to physically cope with food and swallow correctly
- The digestive system is still maturing so there is a risk of allergies and infections
- Early introduction of solids is associated with an increased percentage of body fat, which can lead to childhood obesity.
However, recent studies have challenged official guidelines by indicating that waiting until six months actually increases the risk of allergies and anaemia, caused by the iron stores your baby was born with running out.
What if your baby is ready to wean before six months?
Every baby is unique and grows at his own pace. If your baby wakes up regularly at night and is not settled by extra breastmilk or formula feeds, you might well wonder if they are ready to wean. Your little one might be already able to sit up, watching avidly when you are eating, making chewing motions or even trying to snatch food from your hands. Solid food should never be introduced before four months (17 weeks), but these cues indicate your child is ready for solids.
It’s best to seek advice before having a go at weaning your baby before six months. Your first port of call should be your doctor or health visitor, especially if there is a history of allergies in your family or if your baby was premature. The Department of Health advises avoiding wheat-based foods and other foods containing gluten (like bread, rusks and some cereals), eggs, fish, liver, shellfish and unpasteurised cheeses until six months.
If you’re planning to try baby-led weaning rather than feeding your baby purees, you’ll need to wait until six months. Before this, your baby is unlikely to be able to feed himself or successfully chew pieces of solid food.
Safe foods for early weaning
Solids should be introduced gradually, as your baby’s nutritional needs are still being met by breastmilk or formula. It’s best to start with a few teaspoons of baby rice or pureed fruit or vegetable, mixed with your baby’s usual milk to form a runny consistency.
Health professionals recommend repeating a food for a few days to rule out a reaction and get your baby used to new flavours and textures. And it’s best to start with vegetables rather than fruit to discourage a sweet tooth. If you want to feed your baby baby rice or other cereal, use breastmilk or formula to mix it with.
Popular purees include mashed carrots, sweet potatoes and squashes. Good starter fruits are apples and pears. Once your baby is taking purees happily, you can introduce iron-rich foods such as spinach, pulses and fortified baby foods. Red meat is also a good source of iron, but should be introduced at around six to seven months. Wheat, dairy, eggs, citrus, strawberries and kiwis should be introduced later if there is a family history of allergies.
If your baby is not taking to solids, talk to your health visitor. You might have to slow things down, stick to small amounts or wait a few more weeks. Don’t be daunted if your baby refuses to eat a particular food, but instead try again another day – what he spits out today could become a favourite tomorrow.
If you are breastfeeding, there’s no need to stop when you start weaning. However, if you wish to stop, you need to replace breastmilk feeds with formula, as cow’s milk is not suitable as a milk drink until your baby is one year old.
Foods to avoid when weaning
Some foods are not suitable for young babies and toddlers. For instance, whole nuts are a choking hazard, so they shouldn’t been given to under fives. Lightly cooked eggs, shellfish and unpasteurised cheeses are best avoided because they can lead to tummy upsets and food poisoning. And honey shouldn’t be given to babies under one year of age because it contains spores of a bacterium called Clostridium Botulinum, which can harm young babies.