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It’s a minefield navigating the conflicting advice on weaning, but fear not – I’ll help you reach your destination without the stress! Before you set off on your weaning journey there are a few questions to ask yourself.
Our little ones may be unable to verbalise their readiness, but they do communicate to us in other ways. There are tell-tale signs to look out for, such as tongue-thrusting and being able to hold up their own head. Generally speaking, and in line with official UK guidance, babies naturally develop the skills they need to move on to solid food at around the six-month mark.
Ultimately though, you should take your baby’s cue. If they start to show the signs of wanting solids a little earlier, then it’s totally fine to start. It’s important to note, however, that babies should never be weaned before 17 weeks. Research suggests that at this stage your baby’s digestive system and kidneys might not be developed enough to cope with solids. If you’re unsure and want to start a little earlier than six months, do check in with your health visitor or GP.
As with most big milestones in parenthood, nothing is ever black and white! Despite common conception, fist chewing, more frequent night wakings or wanting more milk feeds aren’t actually reliable signs of readiness. So, what I would say from the outset is to listen to your intuition.
The second important question to ask yourself is which weaning method to adopt?
At around six months you will start to introduce solid foods into your baby’s diet alongside their usual breast milk or first infant formula milk – but do you take the traditional spoon-fed route, baby-led method (BLW) or a combined approach?
As with many things baby related, it’s not a one-size-fits-all decision - there are many factors at play. My top tip would be to follow the lead of your baby, not your peers or what’s a la mode at the moment!
Without a doubt, both traditional weaning and BLW have their pros and cons, but you don’t have to choose one over the other. If you feel it’s right, you can offer your baby a mix of pureed nutrient-dense foods as well as soft finger foods from the get-go. In fact, this is my preferred route, as well as that of the Department of Health and Social Care, the NHS and the British Nutrition Foundation. By taking this combined approach, your baby can explore a variety of foods served up in different ways.
Anyway, by six and a half months all babies should be having soft finger foods, even if served alongside mashed or textured purees. And if you’re baby-led weaning, you’ll still need to let your baby explore smooth textured foods such as yoghurt, as this is a sensory experience in itself.
What is important is that baby gets to be a part of family mealtimes as they soak up so much from their social surroundings and from watching you eat a range of healthy foods. There really is no right or wrong when it comes to introducing complementary foods – take your lead from your baby and remember to enjoy the weaning journey!
Just because baby-led weaning seems to be the popular weaning route to go down, it doesn’t mean you should opt for this method. It’s about choosing the method that works for you and your baby. Both spoon-led and baby-led weaning have their pros and cons, so it comes down to personal choice and what your baby is ready for developmentally.
Looking at baby-led weaning specifically, the idea is that you skip the puree phase and instead start with soft finger foods and small portions of family meals from six months.
This feeding method requires you to take a step back and put your baby in control, allowing them to decide what foods they want to eat from what you offer, when they want to eat, in what order and how much. I know that sounds a little daunting, but this process is actually quite intuitive for a baby – especially if they are watching the rest of the family eat.
As you can see there are lots of positives associated with baby-lead weaning but it’s not for everyone and many of the positives above can also be applied to spoon-led weaning too. And, prior to six months, babies tend not to have developed the hand-to-eye coordination needed for baby-led weaning, so it’s not an option if your baby is ready to wean slightly earlier than six months.
A combined approach
I personally don’t think you have to choose one method or the other. Combining both purees and soft finger foods at around six months is an option many parents find most realistic to adopt and an option advocated by many healthcare professionals. Giving purees when your baby is ready for first foods at around six months, with the introduction of easy-to-manage finger foods and baby-friendly family meals from six months onwards, provides baby with the opportunity to explore a variety of foods served up in different ways, whilst offering peace of mind around their nutritional intake.
By six and a half months, all babies should be having soft finger foods anyway, even if served alongside mashed or textured purees. What is important is you are offering your baby a variety of nutritious foods and that they get to be a part of family mealtimes with the opportunity to soak up their social surroundings and watch you or a member of the family eating a range of healthy foods.
Allergies are a big concern for parents which isn’t a surprise given that childhood allergies are on the rise. Recent research has shown early exposure (around six months) to foods like peanut butter, eggs, cow’s milk etc… is the best strategy to avoid food allergy in babies.
Whilst family allergy history plays a role in how prone to food allergy a baby may be, specific food allergies are not inherited. However, food allergies are more common amongst children from families where other members suffer from an allergy. Also, babies who have severe eczema are much more likely to suffer from a food allergy so it’s best to seek medical advice for these babies before introducing potentially allergenic foods.
Choking when introducing finger foods is a worry and parents want to know what the best first finger foods are to avoid it happening. Start with soft finger foods like banana, avocado, mango, pear, steamed carrots and roasted sweet potato wedges. Your baby will need to close their hand around the food so it’s best to start with pieces long enough to hold in their fist with some sticking out – fairly long pieces (5-6 cm long) stand the best chance of being picked up. Avoid giving hard foods like raw carrot or apple until your baby can chew.
Gagging as opposed to choking is a safety mechanism – it’s a natural response to food travelling too far back in the mouth. Gagging is your baby’s way of managing the problem and they’ll usually sort it out without your help. You can offer a gentle pat or a sip of water to them, as well as some reassurance.
Babies need to learn to use their tongue to move food from the front of their mouth to the back, so they can swallow it. Just because your baby gags it doesn’t mean that you can’t give finger foods.
Remember, never leave your baby alone whilst eating and they must always be supported in an upright position.
How to introduce finger foods
Don’t delay in offering finger foods to your baby at around six months. They are the ideal way to introduce your baby to different textures and handing over the reins to your baby will allow them to work out how to get food to their mouth, break pieces off and chew. Don’t worry, even if your baby doesn’t have teeth yet, they’ll use their powerful gums to chew the food!
Whilst finger foods are an essential element of baby-led weaning, I also recommend they are offered alongside spoon-feeding. This encourages them to explore for themselves, and your little one will like asserting some independence by crushing, mushing and chewing.
How to get your baby to be more adventurous
Between eight and ten months, that window of opportunity for your baby to explore a whole variety of food continues to remain wide open. I’m not a fan of bland, boring food, and around the eight-month mark is the perfect time to experiment with everyday spices and herbs like garlic, basil, oregano, dill, rosemary and even a mild curry powder.
You’ll also want to start introducing them to more family meals, so this is a great trick to help with that transition. Start introducing small portions of what you’re eating, albeit adapted slightly to the right consistency for them. Also keep a close eye on ingredients, for example no added salt or sugar.
1. Bring baby to the dinner table
Make sure baby gets to be a part of family mealtimes as they soak up so much from their social surroundings and from watching you or a member of the family eating a range of healthy foods.
2. Mighty milk
For your baby’s first year, when introducing complementary foods, their usual milk still provides the mainstay of nutrition.
A baby’s iron reserve will be running low at around six months, so this is the ideal time to start introducing iron-rich foods into their diet. Babies absorb iron from meat more easily than iron from any other food source, and the darker the flesh of the meat, the higher the iron content.
4. Vital vitamin C
There are plenty of non-meat sources of iron such as egg yolks, wholegrain foods, lentils, dark leafy veggies, apricots and fortified breakfast cereals. Pairing these primarily plant-based sources of iron with Vitamin C will aid iron absorption.
5. Essential fatty acids
Essential fatty acids are super important for babies and must come from food. You’ll find them in abundance in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, and ideally you should include a serving of oily fish in your baby’s diet twice a week.
6. A word about wholegrain
Wholegrain bread, pasta and rice is a fantastic source of fibre, but too much can be a little bit bulky and too filling for babies. It can even inhibit their appetite and also reduce the absorption of key nutrients, so it’s best to alternate between different grains.
Babies should get up to 50% of their calories from the start of weaning from ‘good fats’ such as egg yolks, avocado, nuts (ground or as nut butter), cheese (made with pasteurised milk), full fat yoghurt, unsalted butter, lean meat and poultry.
8. Vitamin D
Did you know your baby is born with 300 bones? Vitamin D is needed for normal growth and development of bones in children and helps them maintain a healthy, normal immune system. Between the ages of six months to five years, there are three vitamins the Department of Health currently recommends supplementing – vitamins A, C, and D.
9. First tastes
Start with a single vegetable. The reason for this is so your baby can identify the foods they’re eating. Once they have accepted these single flavours, you can go on to combine flavours and introduce fruit which I’ll come on to shortly. With babies only having sweet milk until this point, it’s important to expose them to more bitter and sour tastes at the start of weaning. Try introducing those bitter and sour green veggies in the first few weeks alongside sweeter root veggies.
10. Finger foods
At six months, you can introduce soft finger foods into your baby’s diet. They are the ideal way to introduce your baby to different textures and handing over the reins to your baby will allow them to work out how to get food to their mouth, break pieces off and chew. Tackling lumps, bumps and texture is a really important milestone within weaning. Obviously, if you’re including finger foods from the outset, then texture will be on the menu from the very start. But even if you’re spoon feeding, don’t delay in starting to make meals less smooth, and more textured within a few weeks.
With a career spanning over 30 years, London-born mother of three Annabel Karmel has pioneered the way families all over the world feed their babies and children. In 2006, Annabel received an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for her outstanding work in the field of children’s food and has since become recognised as one of the UK’s leading female entrepreneurs. Credited with starting a ‘food revolution’ with her trusty recipes and methods, she has become the UK’s No.1 children’s cookery author, best-selling international author, and the mother of all feeding experts with 47 cookbooks… and counting.