Weaning a baby: Everything you need to know
Know how and when to start weaning your baby with this expert advice.
The thought of weaning a baby is one that many parents feel anxious about, but it needn't be. Weaning can be a fantastic way to get your child interested in all the textures, smells, and tastes that food has to offer. Weaning can open the door to a wonderful relationship with food (and more than a few stains on the carpet, walls, anything within throwing distance – just saying).
The million dollar question is knowing when is the right time to start weaning a bay. Usually it begins at around 6 months of age, but this is not a hard and fast rule. Every child is different, and you know your baby best. The tell-tale signs to look out for are:
Baby can stay sat in an upright position and hold their head up
Baby has good hand-eye coordination, so can pick up a piece of food and move it to their mouth
Baby is happy to swallow food, rather than spit it out
The above behaviours are key signs your baby may be ready to introduce solid foods; however, these should not be confused with the following, which are common baby behaviours and not necessarily a sign of hunger:
Waking in the night
Chewing their hands
Wanting extra milk feeds
Weaning a baby: What about milk?
Milk (breastmilk or formula) will be your baby’s main source of nutrients until they reach around one year old. From approximately the age of six months, a baby’s solid food intake should be gradually increased with the aim that by the age of one, they would be eating three meals per day, alongside breast or formula milk.
It is important to begin the introduction of solid foods by the six-month mark to maintain healthy growth and development. After one year, dairy food often replaces formula or breastmilk. However, breastfeeding can be continued in conjunction with solid foods, which offers the child improved immunity and health in the long-term. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends breast-feeding is continued until two-years of age (alongside solid foods).
Spoon-fed or baby-led weaning - which should you choose?
Baby-led weaning means offering your child small finger foods right from the start, whereas spoon-fed is when babies start with pureed or mashed foods from a spoon. There is no right or wrong approach, it's whatever works for you and your baby. Some babies prefer baby-led weaning, and relish in feeding themselves, while others may like a combination of both finger foods and purees to start with.
How, when and what?
When you first start weaning, although nutrition is important, the focus is getting your child to enjoy mealtimes and the process of eating. Good news is there are many things you can do to make it a positive experience:
Timing is key – Choose a time when your baby is calm and not too tired. You also want to avoid trying to wean your baby when they are either full of milk or hungry.
Lots of praise and encouragement – this may sound obvious but showing lots of praise and smiles really does help, keep smiling!
Eat together – this is one of the best ways to encourage your child. Little people learn from us, modelling our behaviours takes pressure off them.
Smile through the mess – and there will be mess! But it's nothing a good splash mat can't sort. It's all part of their learning – children will be fascinated with the textures, smells and tastes of food, which won't always extend to it being in their mouths.
Funny faces – it’s very common for babies to pull faces when they try foods for the first time, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like it. It's unfamiliar, but you can help them stick with it by talking and offering gentle encouragement.
Set a routine – once you have started and found a good time to introduce food, stick with it so that your baby will start to understand when it is mealtime.
Offer your baby sips of water with their meal from a cup
Weaning a baby: First foods
In the first few days of weaning a baby, it's a good idea to start with single vegetable purees and soft finger foods. Begin with more bitter vegetables, such as broccoli, courgette, green beans, peas, avocado and spinach, mixed with your baby’s usual milk for the first couple of weeks, before moving onto a wider variety of foods.
Foods to avoid
There are certain foods to avoid or to limit when weaning your baby:
Low fat foods – babies have high energy requirements for their size and therefore should not be offered low fat food varieties, this means full-fat milk, cheese and other dairy products.
Salt – babies’ kidneys cannot cope with large amounts of salt in their diet, therefore it is important not to add salt to food at any point in the cooking or preparation process. Where possible, make recipes from scratch so you control exactly what goes into your little-one’s diet.
Sugar – too much sugar can lead to tooth decay and excess weight gain. Children’s tummy’s also get full very quickly, so it’s important for them to eat a wide variety of nutritious foods rather than sugary snacks or drinks that will fill them up too quickly.
Honey – this shouldn’t be given to your child until they are over one year old. This is due to a bacteria found in honey that can cause botulism.
Tea, coffee and soft drinks – from six months of age, babies can be offered water as a drink. Tea, coffee and other soft drinks are not appropriate for young children.
Fish and shellfish - avoid shark, swordfish and marlin as they contain high levels of mercury. Raw fish and shellfish should also be avoided as it can cause food poisoning.
What about allergies?
There are 14 main allergens, which are most likely to cause a reaction. By law, these allergens must be highlighted on an ingredients list on any pre-packaged foods you buy:
Egg (egg without the Red Lion stamp should not be eaten raw or lightly cooked in infants)
Cereals containing gluten, including wheat, rye, barley and oats
Tree nuts (crushed, ground or a butter for children under 5 years)
Peanut (crushed, ground or a butter for children under 5 years)
Shellfish (not to be served raw or lightly cooked for infants)
Molluscs (not to be served raw or lightly cooked for infants)
Introduce each new allergen one at a time.
Introduce the allergen in the morning or by lunchtime at the latest to ensure you have several hours to monitor for any reaction.
Start with a small amount of the new allergen, a quarter to half a teaspoon, and increase slowly over a few days.
Only introduce a new allergen into your baby’s diet if they are well.
If your child suffers with eczema, it is best to wait until their skin is in a good condition before adding a new allergen to their diet.
How to move onto three meals a day?
Once your baby has adapted to their new feeding routine and are consuming a fair amount of their meal, it might be time to add another meal to the day. Don’t put too much pressure on this, you know your baby best and they will let you know when they’re ready for more food.
Enjoy this special time with your baby. For further weaning advice, visit the NHS website.
Author Emma Jarvis (RNutr) graduated from Sheffield Hallam University with a degree in Public Health Nutrition. She has been working within childhood nutrition for 13 years and has a particular interest in nutrition for under 5s. She is a Director of the Let’s Cook Project, a social enterprise on a mission to give the nation the skills, confidence and knowledge to cook from scratch.