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All you need to know about weaning

A lot of parents reach out for help with their little ones sleep at around 6 - 8 months - just at the time when they’ve added weaning into the mix. So I often find myself talking about weaning alongside any sleep support. We know what we eat can have an effect on sleep, so it definitely makes up a holistic approach to a family’s sleep journey.

I’ve put some of the main points on weaning into an easy to follow question and answer blog. So, whether you’ve already consumed a load of weaning books, or have dived straight into starting solids with your little one, but are now questioning whether you should have done some reading first - hopefully this whistle stop tour will answer any questions you have.

When should my baby start solids?

The World Health Organisation recommends starting solids from 6 months (this applies to premature babies too). You may know of people who've started to wean their baby earlier than this in this belief it will help with night waking. I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble, but this probably won’t work and you’ll be starting to introduce solids when your baby isn’t digestively, or developmentally ready.

It makes sense really, chomping on a bit of cucumber in the early months of weaning, isn’t going to fill up their tummies nearly as much as calorie and nutrient dense breastmilk or formula - so they’re likely to wake up just as much as they would have done regardless for any feeds.

But just as you don’t want to start solids earlier than 6 months, it’s also a good idea not to start much later than this either.

That’s because at around 6 months, babies start to need other nutrients that are not found abundantly in milk. Also importantly, some studies have shown that if you start much later than 6 months, you run the risk of some foods being rejected and the risk of allergies increasing.

Basically, whatever way you look at it, aim to start weaning your baby at 6 months - not much earlier and not much later.

What are the signs my baby is ready to start weaning?

Having said all this, development is so rapid around this age, so you may notice your little one is ready a few weeks early, or you might hold off a few weeks if you can see they’re not quite ready. Things to look out for include (your baby might do some, or all of the below):

  • Being able to sit up (some support is likely to be needed).

  • Being able to get their hand to their mouth accurately.

  • Starting to make chewing movements, or gnawing on toys.

You might think because your baby is super curious in everything you’re eating that this is a sign they’re ready to start much earlier than 6 months. But babies are just naturally curious in everything you do, so this would not be reason enough alone to start - but could definitely form part of the above.

If your baby was premature and you don’t think they seem developmentally ready to start solids, then please do check with your usual doctor and get some advice. As ever, nothing in this blog constitutes medical advice.

What do I need to buy?

Ok, so your baby is around 6 months and they’re showing signs of being ready to wean as per the above list - what do you need to get cracking?

Well, you definitely need a highchair. I massively regret everything about the highchair I bought for my first born. It was overpriced and not very practical.

When choosing a highchair everything will be a lot easier if you choose one which is:

  • Easy to get your little one in and out of.

  • Can be easily cleaned.

  • It goes without saying that it also needs to be safe for your little one.

Clearly weaning can be very messy, splash mats are great, but often the mess can go further than the area they cover. A larger wipeable table cloth used on the floor instead is a good option.

If the mess is particularly triggering for you, then maybe initially think about offering the most potentially messy meal at the end of the day - that way you can put the baby straight in the bath after and you know once you’ve cleaned any excess mess, that’s the last time for that day.

How do I know the difference between gagging and choking?

My biggest advice here would be to sign yourself onto a baby first aid course. I’m sure if you’re unable to go to one in person at the moment, they’ll be running online. These courses are great and cover lots of basics for your little one - not just what to do if you think your baby is choking, so is definitely money well spent.

Is food before 1 really just for fun?

It’s certainly true that weaning can be a slow old process initially. From 6 months to a year there will be a gradual shift from milk being the most important thing your baby consumes while they get to grips with weaning (which is the just for fun stage), to food providing all the nutrition your baby needs and milk being a drink.

In that first 6 months while your baby is experimenting and having fun with food, concentrate on offering an appropriate range of family foods for them to get to grips with.

Remember, it’s a gradual shift to food providing all the nutrition they need - so focus on offering variety and try making it an enjoyable and not stressful experience as best you can.

And remember, not all babies are the same. Just because your friend's 9 month old baby is packing away three square meals a day already, it doesn’t mean yours will be. Every baby goes at their own pace, comparing will only add an unnecessary layer of stress to the weaning process.

What foods should I introduce first?

The world really is your oyster here. There is some evidence which suggests (and it would make sense when you think about it) to offer savoury foods first as babies naturally prefer sweeter foods - so it’s worth doing if it means they have a higher tolerance for vegetables later on!

You can try offering any of the following:

  • Fruit

  • Vegetables

  • Cereals

  • Pulses

  • Eggs (well-cooked)

  • Meat

  • Fish

  • Tofu

  • Ground nuts and seeds

There are some foods you need to avoid, including:

  • Salt

  • Added sugar

  • Honey (under 1)

  • Processed foods

  • Ready meals

  • Dieting foods intended for adults

  • Artificial colours and sweeteners

  • High fibre foods

  • Low fat foods

When should I try giving food?

Well, herein lies the tricky part. You need to factor in:

  • Time when they are awake, but not overtired and cranky.

  • Hungry, but not so hungry that they just want a feed.

  • When there are not too many distractions and you’re not about to rush off to do something else (possibly easier in current lockdown restrictions in the UK).

If this is your second baby, then I’d definitely say your easiest option is to offer food at the same time you’re feeding your other child - they can be the best encouragement for them taking a bite!

My blog on fussy eating covers the frustration of offering something which is rejected, but ultimately in those early months this is a risk you run as they are experimenting and you work on getting the timings right.

Should I do baby-led, purees or both?

Look, I’m not here to tell you what approach to weaning you should take with your baby, it’s a personal decision and sometimes can be based on situational factors.

So I’ll just provide you with a few thoughts:

  • There is some good evidence that a baby-led style with occasional or no purees and spoon feeding is associated with less fussy eating and less risk of a baby being overweight, but no increased risk of being underweight.

  • Baby-led eating allows a baby to eat at their own pace, manage their appetite, and learn about tastes, textures, and developmental coordination better.

  • However, giving occasional puree, or offering liquid foods such as yogurt, mashed potato and runny sauces is very unlikely to un-do the benefits of mostly following a baby-led approach.

Remember, if you do decide on some baby-led weaning, the vegetables will still need to be cooked, your baby won’t be able to munch on raw veg and you’ll need to cut them into large finger size pieces they can pick up and chew.

Top Tip: If you do decide to give purees, the cooking liquid can reduce the nutrient content and much of the bulk of the food can be water. So try to add as little water to the food as possible for maximum nutrition - steaming rather than boiling vegetables and fruits to trap more nutrients can help here.

Is it ok to use commercially prepared baby food?

Again, I am not here to tell you what to do and I know for some parents these can be a lifeline in some situations. However, there are a few things to be aware of, which means they’re best not used 100% of the time:

  • The foods tend to lack flavour, which can make it harder to adjust to family meals when you begin to serve them.

  • The products tend to mix sweet and savoury ingredients, leading to a preference for sweet foods (as be discussed above, it’s a good idea to get your baby used to savoury foods first to be more tolerant of vegetables!).

  • The foods tend to be much smoother in texture than home made foods, which can cause little ones to reject lumpier textures later on.

  • The foods contain preservatives and more salt than would be added at home, and poorer quality ingredients than home made food.

  • The convenience comes at a price as they are expensive. If you’re already having to make a family meal, it’s a much cheaper option to offer some of this (adapted if needed for your little one).

What drink shall I offer?

As I said above, up until the age of one, milk is still the main source of food for your little one, so continue to feed as you have been. You can offer sips of water (a non-valve sippy cup or open top cup is best), but don’t give too much, meaning they’re only filling up on this and don’t have room for anything else!

Here’s what you need to know beyond the age of 1:

  • If you’re breastfeeding then still offer feeds alongside meals as appropriate and for however long you choose.

  • If you’ve been formula feeding, you can move on to cows, goats, or a non-dairy fortified full-fat milk. The current guidelines are to wean off a bottle around the age of 1, so this is best offered as above in a non-valve sippy cup or open top cup. Why? Well, bottles affect the shape of the palate, and can alter the position of teeth. I know it can be tricky, but it will be easier to wean off the bottle earlier at this stage in the process than it may be if you leave it later and they are even more attached to it.

  • They cause milk (or whatever is in the bottle) to pool in the mouth, which can lead to tooth decay.

  • They’ll need to know how to use a cup eventually and this can delay this ability.

As I said, this is just a whistle stop tour, if you still have any further questions, you’d be best to speak to your health visitor for advice.

If however you’d like some support with any of the above and your little ones sleep at the same time, please do check out my sleep support packages, or hop on your free 15 minute introductory call. Or in the meantime, head over to my Instagram page for all my latest free help and tips.

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