Nurture Article | The Portland Hospital Parenting Magazine
Autumn Issue 2012 | Lucy Elkins
Weaning is a confusing subject for parents because there are so many differing opinions about it. Do you begin at six months or earlier? Do you start with pear or baby rice?
The official guidance from the NHS is that your baby only needs breast or formula milk for the first six months of life - so solid foods should be given from six months.
This follows advice from the World Health Organisation that a baby should ideally be breastfed for the first six months of life and then breastfeeding should continue as you introduce solid food for two years or more.
Not only does this reduce the risk of exposing babies to food or water-borne infections, it is also thought to reduce the risk of developing allergies.
“Health experts agree that around six months is the best age for introducing solids,” says the Department of Health guide to weaning.
“Before this, your baby’s digestive system is still developing and weaning too soon may increase the risk of infections and allergies.”
The best way to start weaning is by offering a small amount of mashed vegetable, fruit or cereal mixed with milk after a milk feed or in the middle of one, if this works better.
If the food is hot, allow it to cool, stir it and test it before giving it to your baby. Never leave your baby alone when eating, be patient and be prepared for some mess!
So how do you know if you baby is ready to try solid food?
A key sign is if they can support their head alone.
“This is important as, if they can’t, then they may choke on their food,” says Paediatric dietitian Judy More.
Other signs that breast or formula milk is not satisfying them enough is if they gnawing at their fist and not settling after a feed.
However, waking up in the night is not necessarily a sign that your baby needs weaning.
“It is normal for babies aged three to ?ve months to begin waking in the night when they have previously slept through,” advises the Department of Health.
“It is not necessarily a sign of hunger and starting solids will not make your baby more likely to sleep through the night again.
“If your baby seems hungrier at any time before six months, they may be having a growth spurt, and extra breast or formula milk will be enough to meet their needs.”
The first foods to offer your baby are cereals such as baby rice mixed with milk, mashed cooked vegetables such as parsnip, potato, yam, sweet potato or carrot, mashed banana, avocado, cooked apple or pear, and pieces of soft fruit or vegetables small enough for your baby to pick up.
“Use mashed-up family food when you can,” advises the Department Health. “It’s best to cook your own food for your baby. This way, you’ll know the ingredients of the food and you’ll be getting your baby used to eating what you eat. Don’t add salt or sugar to food for your baby.”
Foods to avoid include salt, sugar, honey, nuts and low-fat foods.
Furthermore, foods that commonly cause allergies such as milk, eggs, wheat, nuts, seeds, ?sh and shell?sh should be introduced one at a time so that you can spot any reaction, and should not be given before six months, according to the Department of Health.
Various studies including work carried out by Dr Gillian Harris, a psychologist based at Birmingham University, has found that unless you introduce sour flavours at a young age, children are unlikely to develop a taste for fruit and vegetables later on.
Dr Harris has found that early exposure to fruit and vegetables - around the age of six months - is a good indicator of how readily a child will eat fruit and vegetables at the age of seven.
“You can start with a mixture of fruits, vegetables or baby cereal and after that offer combinations of vegetables with meat, fish or pulses for more iron,” says Judy.
The issue of weaning at 6 months is however currently under debate as some experts believe more research needs to be carried out into the issue.
“I think we should not have adopted the World Health Organisation guidelines with the urgency that we did in this country,” says Professor Alan Lucas, of the Institute of Child Health and founder of the Child Nutrition Research Centre.
“There are a number of clinical trials going on looking at this (the age for weaning) and I think we should have waited until we had all the evidence in front of us before we made a judgment.
“The nutrition you have in early life can really make a big difference to future health so we need to take this seriously.”