Weaning, also known as ‘Starting Solids’, ‘Complimentary Feeding’ and ‘First Foods’ is the process of gradually introducing solid foods to a baby at around 6 months of age, alongside breastmilk or formula milk (1;2). It is a milestone for babies that can cause lots of questions and anxieties for parents as all babies are very different, so it is important to bust those myths and misconceptions which may be adding to the confusion.
What are the influences on parents?
It is thought the biggest influences of new parents include their parents, grandparents, friends, social media, commercial baby food labelling, parent forums or books to name a few (3). It’s seen as such an exciting time, it can feel that everyone has an opinion of when parents should start giving baby solids, and the pressure can feel real. It’s no wonder that lots of parents are confused with the vast amount of information coming their way.
The best place to get the latest evidence-based advice is either from a Registered Nutritionist, Dietitian or Health Visitor for personalised advice for baby. Otherwise, the NHS Choices and Start 4 Life webpages are useful to read the general Department of Health Recommendations.
Misconceptions about when to start weaning
There are some normal behaviours seen in babies which can be confused as signs that they are ready to start solids.
• Belief that baby is not filling up on milk is one of the biggest reasons for parents introducing solids early (4). However, there is no evidence that babies settle better once solids have been introduced, they are actually getting very little energy when weaning begins, so introducing solids is unlikely to settle hunger compared to additional milk feeds.
• Waking in the night is another worry for parents, potentially thinking that they are waking because they are hungry. However, it is very normal behaviour for babies sleep pattern to change, and this could be for a number of reasons such as growth spurts, teething or illness (5), not necessarily a sign they are ready for solids.
• Baby chewing on their fist (7) is another mistaken sign, baby may be simply self-soothing or even bored.
• A bigger baby is often believed to need solids earlier (6), but having a larger birth weight does not mean they will be developmentally ready earlier. Feeding responsively to baby cues is still recommended with breast or formula milk until signs of readiness appear.
• Other confused signs I’ve heard in clinics include; teeth coming through, baby has doubled their birth weight or they are reaching out for others foods.
So, what are the real signs of readiness?
• Baby is able to stay in a seated position and hold their head steady.
• They can co-ordinate their eyes, hands and mouth so they can look at the food, pick it up and put it in their mouth by themselves.
• They can swallow food, rather than spit it back out (7), which means they have lost their tongue thrust reflex. If solid foods are offered and the baby just pushes it back out their mouth, its recommended to simply stop and try again in a week or so.
Showing all these signs together is important for both baby’s development and also safety. Baby will be more able to move foods around their mouth and swallow. They will also be more likely to get involved in the process, after all taste is only one of the five senses and if they get too see, squish and smell the foods, weaning can be more successful and enjoyable.
Some other myth-busting points to consider
• “You should always start with purees” The guidelines are to start solids from around 6 months, if baby is 6 months you can start with soft mashed veg or soft finger foods if you choose. It is okay to start with purees at this stage if parents prefer, but it’s important to move on to foods with a few soft lumps fairly quickly.
• “Baby should start by having bland foods” Lots of very interesting research suggests that starting with a variety of vegetables may help babies to like vegetables and be less fussy as they get a bit older (8).
• “Commercial baby foods are superior to homemade” Although they can be convenient, baby foods in jars and pouches can compromise taste, nutrients and texture. They may also encourage overriding fullness cues and finally they can be much more expensive than the homemade alternative. I always encourage and support parents to offer homemade foods.
• “Baby should be eating up all the food offered” It can be frustrating on days when baby doesn’t eat very much, but it is incredibly important to feed a baby responsively; meaning responding to fulness cues such as turning their head away, closing their mouth or even pushing food away. Responsive feeding is linked with a reduced risk of overfeeding.
Key points to take away; there are three signs we are looking for to show that a baby is ready to start solids; to be able to sit up steady, have hand mouth coordination and to be able to swallow foods. We would like to see all these signs together, and this normally happens when baby is around 6 months of age. If ever in doubt, always ask a registered health professional or visit an NHS webpage.
This was written by Katie Robinson RNutr. Katie has a first-class Bachelor (BSc) degree in Nutrition, Health and Lifestyles, graduating from Sheffield Hallam University. Since then Katie has had a number of roles working in public health nutrition, working up from a Health Trainer to a Community Nutritionist, and is now working full time as a Public Health Nutritionist for the NHS in a 0-19 Public Health Nursing Service. Katie has a passion for working with children and families, supporting many children to get the best start in life by increasing knowledge and skills encouraging good nutrition. You can find her on Instagram @kates_cooking.
1) Start4Life. (2020) Weaning | Start4life. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/start4life/weaning/ [Accessed 3 October 2020].
2) WHO (2020) Complementary Feeding. [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/westernpacific/health-topics/complementary-feeding [Accessed 3 October 2020].
3) Walsh, A., Kearney, L., & Dennis, N. (2015). Factors influencing first-time mothers' introduction of complementary foods: a qualitative exploration. BMC public health, 15, 939. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-015-2250-z
4) Brown, A., Rowan, H. (2016) Maternal and infant factors associated with reasons for introducing solid foods. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 12(3), pp.500-515.
5) NHS.uk. (2020) Helping Your Baby To Sleep. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/getting-baby-to-sleep/ [Accessed 3 October 2020].
6) Huh S.Y., Rifas-Shiman S.L., Taveras E.M., Oken E. & Gillman M.W. (2011) Timing of solid food introduction and risk of obesity in preschool-aged children. Pediatrics 127 (3), e544–e551.
7) NHS.uk (2020) Your Baby's First Solid Foods. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/solid-foods-weaning/ [Accessed 3 October 2020]
8) Fildes A., Lopes C., Moreira P., Moschonis G., Oliveira A., Mavrogianni C., Manios Y., Beeken R., Wardle J. & Cooke L. (2015). An exploratory trial of parental advice for increasing vegetable acceptance in infancy. British Journal of Nutrition. journals.cambridge.org/bjn/vegetabletrial
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