The NHS weaning page is an excellent introduction to weaning essentials, and Nikki Duffy’s River Cottage Baby & Toddler Cookbook includes a thorough and thoroughly useful chapter on weaning, nutrition, different approaches and the benefits of doing-it-yourself rather than relying on shop-bought. I also highly recommend First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson, a very readable book on the science and sociology behind how we pick up our food likes, dislikes, fears and habits.
The most important points to remember when you begin weaning are (but I do recommend you read the above as well):
The most up-to-date government health recommendations are to wait until your baby is around six months old before starting them on solid food, but not to delay it for too long after that. Before six months all their needs are met by breast milk or formula (though not follow-on formula, which is not suitable under six months and not necessary at any age).
In particular, babies’ digestive systems are not sufficiently developed to begin solids before 17 weeks (the end of the fourth month), and then only on a health visitor’s advice. Milk will remain the main source of nutrition for some months after weaning begins; the emphasis is on exploring flavours, textures and just getting used to the idea of eating solid food at first, rather than worrying how much of it actually ends up being swallowed.
Look out for the following developmental indicators that, taken together, show that it’s time for the fun to begin:
- Baby can sit up in their highchair unaided, holding their head steady
- They have lost the reflex to push solid food straight out of their mouth, but swallow it instead
- They have the hand-eye coordination to pick food up and put it into their mouths
Some misleading ‘signs’ that it’s easy to interpret as your baby being ready to begin weaning before six months include:
- More frequent night wakings
- Reaching out for your food
- Watching you intently as you eat (babies will watch you intently doing anything, you’re the most interesting person in their world!)
- Wanting more frequent milk feeds
- Gnawing on their fist/teether/anything that’s to hand
Weaning has two main schools of thought: purees and baby-led.
Going with purees is the spoon-fed approach commonly seen in adverts and most mainstream weaning books. You move from really thin purees to thicker, more textured mixtures, then ones with little chunks in, until finally a baby accepts family meals that have just been chopped up a bit. It’s important to introduce texture quite quickly if you do go with ‘mush’, and definitely by 10 months, as otherwise they can get a bit freaked out by lumps and you may struggle to move them on from the super-smooth.
Pure baby-led weaning isn’t just finger food, it’s about allowing your baby to feed themselves with food they can pick up from the word go – typically this means more playing and less swallowing for some time, but that’s rarely a problem. The idea is that babies work entirely to their appetites, learn to stop when they feel full and eat ‘regular’ food, not bland baby food.
In reality, many parents combine the two (at which point it is finger food rather than baby led weaning), and some don’t get a choice – some babies refuse point blank to be spoon-fed, and some otherwise self-feeding babies appreciate a bit of spoon-feeding when they’re tired, not feeling 100% or trying new flavours. I personally found a (home-made) pouch of mushed-up food (these are great) to be useful on the move as it’s a complete meal with a lot less mess, and mashing meals up a bit gives more scope for what can be served than pure finger food – soups, daal, porridge, stuff with sauces etc. Often the two methods are used in the same meal – bolognaise, for example, is served with some sauce-coated macaroni on the highchair tray and the rest of the sauce eaten from a spoon.
Whichever approach you choose there are some basic guidelines to follow:
- Start with fruit and vegetables, introduced one at a time. For finger food, these should be cut into chip-shaped pieces for easy grabbing, and, if not soft (banana, avocado, ripe peeled pear) steamed until easy to squish between finger and thumb.
- Once you’ve run through a couple of weeks of fruit and veg, start introducing other flavours. This could be as simple as ground nutmeg sprinkled on mashed potato: there’s no reason why you can’t dive in with herbs and mild spices from the earliest days.
- Potentially allergenic foods (nuts, eggs, fish, shellfish, dairy, wheat) should be introduced one at a time, in the morning, so if an allergy does appear it won’t be overnight. This is especially important if you have a history of allergy (even to pollen or other non-food triggers) in the close family. The official advice is to wait 3-4 days between each one, but any allergy will make itself known much more quickly than that.
- Don’t forget that it’s often the second or third time a food is eaten that an allergy will show itself, so don’t assume all is well because they’ve been ok once.
Before six months avoid:
- Fish and shellfish
- Dairy, including soft or unpasteurised cheese
- Citrus fruits (and pineapple)
- Soya (including tofu)
- Nuts and seeds
Basically, this leaves fruit, vegetables, porridge oats/oatmeal mixed with formula or breastmilk (ideally organic, otherwise just go for plain or own-brand versions of Readybrek, which are cheaper and pretty much the same as expensive baby oatmeal), and soft meat.
A note on baby rice: I don’t believe it is worth the money, and I’m not the only one. I think baby rice is a marketing con which exploits our fear of allergies and the outdated advice to begin weaning at four months. Processed white rice has little nutritional value, and baby rice and rice-based smoothies and purees taste horrible. There are (tenuous, don’t panic!) question marks over feeding too much rice to children (halfway down the linked page and also here), and whether you’re feeding your baby formula or breastmilk, they’ll be getting the vitamins they need without requiring supplementary vitamins from flavourless rice. Babies’ first foods shouldn’t be bland – we’re actually at our most receptive to new flavours between four and seven months, and discouraging this doesn’t make sense. Oatmeal has more natural nutritional value, can be bought with added vitamins for peace of mind and can easily be swapped for textured porridge oats when your baby is ready. Even then, I just see it as a useful breakfast rather than a staple of a baby’s diet. If you do choose to use baby rice, organic is just a few pence more.
From six months to a year avoid:
- Salt: babies’ kidneys are incapable of processing more than 1g of salt a day. Don’t add salt, stock cubes or bouillon to food they’ll be eating, and be aware that olives, capers, anchovies and smoked fish are all very salty. Other foods to be aware of are tinned beans, shop-bought bread, oatcakes and breadsticks.
- Sugar – the main offenders here are fruit juice, squash and yoghurts. Yoghurts marketed to children are often very sugary and it’s best to stick to plain yoghurt, with pureed or chopped fruit added sometimes. Be aware that a lot of baby food and snacks contain added sugar, which can easily catch you out – ‘baby’ biscuits are often little better than regular ones.
- Honey – it can contain the dangerous botulism bacteria whether heated or raw.
- Too much wholegrain (up to two years old) – confusingly, although wholegrain is healthier than the more highly processed white versions of pasta, bread and rice, it can fill little tummies up too quickly. Don’t worry about porridge for breakfast or a bit of wholemeal bread, and I ignored this altogether after a year as my daughter is a healthy eater, but it’s a general rule to be aware of.
- Liver more than once a week (too much vitamin A)
- Low fat food – yoghurt, cheese and milk should all be full fat until two years old. The fat is a good source of calories and vitamins.
- Cow’s milk as a drink – it’s fine to use in cooking.
- Whole nuts – up to five years old, these are a choking hazard
- Shark, swordfish and marlin
- Raw shellfish
- Raw and undercooked eggs – no runny yolks
It used to be advised to avoid potentially allergenic foods (wheat, dairy, eggs, nuts and seeds etc.) until one year old in an attempt to prevent allergies. Now, however, research indicates the opposite: introducing them safely soon after six months appears to reduce the incidence of food allergy.
Throughout childhood (and life!) limit:
- Processed food, particularly meat – ham, bacon, sausages, smoked meat, pate
- Ideally, red meat shouldn’t be eaten more frequently than once a week