Weaning is the process of gradually introducing your baby to a range of solid foods whilst continuing to give him breast milk or formula.
The Department of Health (DoH) advises that you should start weaning your baby at the age of six months. It’s recommended to exclusively breastfeed your baby up to this point, as this will help to give him a healthy start in life.
After six months, breast milk or formula milk on its own doesn’t give your baby everything he requires, particularly iron, so he needs to start eating solid food.
Have the weaning guidelines changed?
The DoH guidelines changed in 2003; increasing the starting age from four months to six months.
It’s better to wait until six months old as you reduce the risk of your baby developing an allergic reaction or intolerance to food as his immune system is more developed.
His digestive system is also more mature, and so your little one is less likely to pick up a food-related infection.
Also, at six months, your baby has greater head control and ability to sit up, which helps with digestion, and is closer to developing the muscles needed for chewing.
What about the new research saying you should wean from four months?
A review of evidence published by the British Medical Journal now suggests that babies who are weaned between four and six months may actually help to prevent allergies and nutrient deficiencies. The researchers emphasise that despite their recommendations that weaning should take place from four months, the most important thing is to be guided by your baby and his signs of readiness, and that babies should, if possible, be exclusively breastfed until four months. The Department of Health has yet to revise its guidelines based on the new report, and still recommends waiting until six months to introduce solids.
But my friends are all starting to wean…
Don’t feel in a rush to start weaning your baby on to solids, even if your friends’ babies all start before yours. All babies are different and some mature and develop more quickly than others.
What if my baby seems ready before six months?
If you feel your baby doesn’t seem to be satisfied with milk earlier than six months, try:
- Offering your baby more milk, as your baby may be simply having a growing spurt
- Asking your health visitor about trying a different type of formula milk if you’re bottle feeding
If you still feel your baby is hungry for food (and your baby is at least 17 weeks old), talk to your health visitor or GP about whether you should start moving on to solids earlier than six months.
Never start weaning your baby before he is at least 17 weeks old as this could harm his immature digestive and immune systems.
If your baby was born prematurely, check with your health visitor before starting to wean, as he may need to begin solids at a different time.
If I did start weaning a little early, should I avoid gluten?
Historically, health experts have recommended that you avoid giving your baby gluten if you’re weaning before six months. This is because early exposure to gluten was linked with an increased risk of developing coelic disease.
Gluten is a wheat protein and is therefore found in bread, oats and some breakfast cereals.
However, a recent report by ESPGHAN (long name - European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition Committee on Nutrition), suggests that it’s safest to introduce small amounts of gluten, while breastfeeding, during a window between 4-7 months. Later or earlier than this was found to significantly increase the risk of coelic disease.
The Food Standards Agency currently still advises avoiding giving gluten-containing foods before six months. So, in keeping with both sets of advice, the best recommendation at the moment is to introduce your baby to small amounts of gluten between six and seven months.