For at least the first six months of your baby’s life, the only nutrition she needs comes in the form of milk, whether it is from the breast or the bottle. Breast milk is tailored to your baby’s needs and each feed provides your her with the essential vitamins, minerals and antibodies that she needs to remain healthy and strong. Similarly, formula milks are designed to provide your baby with all that she needs until solid foods are introduced. After six months, your baby’s digestive system is ready to try something a little different- and that is where the fun really begins! Not sure where to start? Read our guide on introducing solid foods to your baby.
Time it right
Your baby will start to show signs that she is ready to be weaned onto solid food, but it’s important to time it right. Your baby is not a robot; she may be ready for solid food slightly before the age of six months, or much later than this. Let yourself be guided by her, and not by what other people are doing with their babies. It is certainly wise to follow guidelines that recommend solid food is not introduced until the age of six months, but if you do have any questions speak to your doctor or health visitor who will be able to advise you. In general, the signs that your baby is ready for solid food are:
● Baby shows an interest in food and watches people as they eat
● Baby is able to hold up her head independently, and to sit up in a chair without support
● Baby is able to chew and swallow
If you’re certain that your baby is ready to move on to solid foods, it’s worth doing a little research into babyled weaning. Before the World Health Organisation amended their guidelines to recommend weaning begins no earlier than six months, the age that most parents introduced solid foods was four months. At that age, babies were being fed pureed food, which requires very little chewing. Since guidelines were amended, experts have come to believe that babyled weaning is actually a lot more beneficial for baby, and that by the age of six months your baby has developed significant skills that mean she is now able to chew lumpier food.
What is babyled weaning?
Babyled weaning, put simply, means to follow your baby’s lead when it comes to the whole weaning process. Allowing baby to pick and choose foods she wants to eat, and taking a step back in the process. It is a way of nurturing her self-confidence and encouraging healthy eating habits from the very beginning. It is often a concept that lots of parents struggle with initially, as it means providing foods for your baby that traditionally might not have otherwise been on the menu. It requires a fair amount of patience and understanding on your part, as most meals will see you presenting your baby with a selection of foods that she then picks and chooses from. Some foods she will eat- with gusto!- and some she will not. The temptation will be there to try and feed her yourself, but babyled weaning is all about allowing your baby to lead the way, and to feed herself with the foods that she wants to eat.
The benefits of babyled weaning
Lots of research has gone into weaning, and babyled weaning in particular. Studies have found that there are huge benefits in allowing your baby to take control of the whole weaning process, and they include:
● Babies learn the process of eating a lot more quickly when they are given ‘proper’ food over purees. With pureed food, babies learn to swallow food without lumps and sometimes display resistance when more textured foods are introduced. Babies who are given lumpier foods learn to chew and swallow simultaneously, thus eliminating these issues.
● Babyled weaning often means that baby is exposed to a wider range of foods; this helps to encourage a healthy attitude towards food and eating.
● Babyled weaning helps to encourage an enjoyment of food and eating, and gives baby confidence to try new foods. If baby is having fun, she is learning and she is more likely to dig in and enjoy her meals. She is also likely to transfer that confidence to other areas of development too.
● Allowing your baby to choose the foods she wants to eat, and celebrating her enjoyment at mealtimes makes for happier parents too. Babyled weaning often means that the frustration of feeding an unwilling infant is never an issue at the dinner table!
● Babyled weaning helps to develop healthy eating habits in the sense that baby will only eat when she is hungry, rather than when she is expected to. This can be frustrating at first, but in the long run it is better for baby to be in control and to eat when her body requires fuel, rather than eating when she is not ready to do so.
● Babyled weaning helps to develop and fine tune gross and fine motor skills as baby is doing all the work herself. These skills are essential for your baby’s development.
● The process of chewing means that baby is preparing facial muscles for speaking, and chewing effectively means that nutrients in her food are being broken down and absorbed fully into her body too.
● Babyled weaning means that baby is able to integrate herself into family meals easily. Often, dinner time is an occasion where many families sit and talk and interact at the end of a busy day. It’s a huge deal for your baby to be a part of this!
How to get started
Before you start to wean your baby onto solid foods, please do check that your baby is ready, and speak to your health visitor or doctor if you’re not sure. There really is no rush, and for the first twelve months of her life, your baby will get most nutrients from milk anyway. The initial stages of weaning are more about exploring new tastes and textures, and introducing new foods as supplements rather than replacements for breast or formula feeds. Here are some tips on getting started:
● Stay calm. Don’t worry unnecessarily about whether or not your baby is going to enjoy trying new foods, and don’t panic if she doesn’t seem interested at all. As long as you offer milk feeds alongside solid foods, she is getting enough to eat.
● Trust your baby. She may not want to try new foods at first, so it helps to remember that this is all very new to her. Take your time and allow your baby to guide you.
● Prepare baby’s food into small, bite-size pieces- but not too small! As her fine motor skills are still developing, she will use her fists to pick up her food, so foods that stick to a spoon or that are stick shaped are perfect.
● Never leave baby unattended during feeds. Make sure that you supervise your baby at all times, and especially when she is trying solid foods. Research has shown that babyled weaning does not pose any extra risks when it comes to choking and the key factor here is to remember that your baby will learn quickly that she needs to chew in order to break down her food. That means you need to remain vigilant while she is learning to eat.
● Don’t be afraid of the gag reflex! This does not mean that your baby is choking, and is a very natural part of the learning process for your baby.
● Start slowly. Introduce one new food at a time, and take note of how your baby reacts. It’s also worth checking baby for any adverse reactions to each food too, and if you notice anything speak to your doctor straight away. Leave three days before you introduce another new food so that you can be 100% sure that your baby is ok with each new taste.
● Introduce new foods early in the day, so that any reactions can be dealt with. This also helps with foods that may cause wind for your baby- if you feed her in the morning, she has all day to pass the wind and hopefully night time sleep will not be affected.
● Prepare for a change in nappies! Not pleasant, but your baby’s digestive system is going to have to work a little harder to deal with new foods, so make allowances for this at first. It can take a few days to settle down and if your baby has trouble you can help her with some gentle baby massage techniques. Wait at least an hour after her meal, and stop if she appears to be in any discomfort at all.
● Allow your baby to play with her food. The exploration is such an important part of the process and the messier it is, the better the experience will be. Place a plastic mat under her chair and let her get stuck in. You can worry about cleaning up later!
● Make sure baby has a drink to help the food go down.
● After feeding, always check baby’s mouth to make sure there is no food tucked away in her cheeks.
If you choose to follow babyled weaning when introducing your baby to solid foods, try to resist the temptation to feed her yourself, especially when it comes to messier foods such as yogurt. The idea is that babies learn the independence and self feeding skills as the same time as they explore new tastes and textures, and this is important. When a baby feeds herself, she is in control of how she moves the food around her mouth, and she will lose that control if you take over for her. Trust your baby.
First foods to try
Some good examples of first foods to introduce your baby to:
● Cooked sticks of carrot, celery, broccoli or potatoes
● Cooked pasta
● Breadsticks, toast soldiers, bread cut into sticks
● Pieces of cooked meat or fish
● Chopped hard boiled egg