Weaning your baby onto solid foods is a really important step in their development and it can be great fun to explore new flavours and textures together.
Babies need nothing but breast milk or infant formula for the first six months of life according to research conducted in this area. Introducing your baby to solid foods, often called weaning on to foods, should start when your baby is around six months old. To begin with, how much your baby takes is less important than getting them used to the idea of eating. They will still be getting most of their nutrition from breast milk or infant formula.
Babies don’t need three meals a day to start with, so you can start by offering foods at a time that suits you both. Gradually you’ll be able to increase the amount and variety of food your baby eats until they can eventually eat the same as the rest of the family, in smaller portions.
It is very important to wean your baby at around six months because it is at this time that their natural stores of iron begin to dry up. It is also important that they get used to eating before they actually need it so that there will never be a period when they are taking in no iron at all. Delaying weaning can also make the process more difficult. This is because babies are usually most willing to try new tastes and flavours at around six months old.
Watch for the signs
There are a number of signs your baby will give you when they are ready to be weaned:
- They are hungry and restless after a milk feed.
- They can sit propped in a sitting position and hold their head steady.
- They open their mouths and ‘chew’ when they see other people eating.
Begin by offering tiny amounts of food so your baby can get used to this new experience and taste. Never force solids on a baby. This should be a gentle and enjoyable experience – for both of you. If your baby refuses food, stop and try again in a few days. Do not rush your baby; this is a daunting time for them as they learn these new tastes and hardest of all, how to swallow. Up until now all they have had to do is suck.
Many parents find lunchtime a good time of day to try solids with their baby as they are alert and hungry and eager for playtime. Start with one or two spoons of food, waiting until the baby opens her mouth to offer more. It’s a good idea to let your baby hold her own spoon to get a sense of feeding herself. Remember not to add salt, sugar or stock cubes to your baby’s food.
While it’s important to purée all of your baby’s food at the beginning, most babies can chew soft lumps, such as mashed banana or mashed vegetables even if they have no teeth. Varying the texture of your baby’s food not only helps them to chew but also helps them to develop the muscles used for speaking.
What to drink?
As your baby takes more solid food, he will need less breast or formula milk. If your baby is full on milk feeds, he may not want any solid food. Fruit juice should not be given instead of milk but small amounts of fresh, unsweetened fruit juice can be given very occasionally from a cup at mealtimes from six months on. It is best to offer water in a cup once your baby is six months old. Use a beaker with two handles. It is a hard process, as many babies do not want to give up their bottle, but by the age of one your baby should only be drinking from a beaker.
A gradual process
When you and your baby are ready, you can start to increase the amount of solid food your baby is getting. This is a great time to experiment with flavour combinations, but remember not to add salt to any of your baby’s food as this can adversely affect their kidneys and liver. Save time by making up a supply of baby food in advance and freezing it in ice cube trays. The frozen cubes can be defrosted as you need them.
Babies are born with stores of iron. At around six months, these stores begin to run out so it is important to ensure that your baby gets enough iron for healthy growth and development. Give him iron-rich foods (lean meat, cereals, beans and green vegetables) regularly.
Keep it clean
It’s important to keep all equipment used to feed your baby scrupulously clean. Sterilise all feeding equipment until your baby is 12 months old, and after that, clean with soap and hot water, using a clean tea towel or paper towels to dry them. Always wash your hands before you start to prepare meals for your baby and wash high chairs, bibs and eating areas in hot, soapy water. If your baby is eating finger foods, wash his hands before eating.
Finger food ideas
- Small pieces of lightly toasted bread or bagels (spread with vegetable purée for extra vitamins).
- Small chunks of banana or other very ripe, peeled and pitted fruit, like mango, plum, pear, peach, cantaloupe, or seedless watermelon, well-cooked pasta spirals, cut into pieces.
- Small, well-cooked broccoli or cauliflower ‘trees.’
- Pea-sized pieces of cooked chicken, ground beef or turkey, or other soft meat.
Great care must be taken to ensure that all foods are fresh, clean, hygienically prepared and stored correctly. Never leave leftover food lying around. If you wish to offer it again later the same day, cover it and store it in the fridge. Meals, which are prepared in advance for freezing, or for use later in the day, should be stored with care. Freeze small portions in containers or plastic bags and defrost in the fridge. Reheat all pre-cooked food thoroughly and allow to cool before serving.
Foods to avoid
There are some foods that should be avoided for a baby’s first year:
- Honey can contain bacteria that can damage your baby’s intestines, leading to a very rare condition called infant botulism.
- Some kinds of fish Shark, swordfish or marlin can contain traces of mercury. This can affect your baby’s nervous system.
- Uncooked or lightly cooked eggs Make sure that eggs are cooked through until both the white and the yolk are solid.
- Whole nuts Never give chopped or whole nuts to small babies or young children because they can cause choking.
- Salt Don’t add salt to your baby’s food, because their kidneys can’t cope with it. Babies should have less than 1g of salt per day.
- Sugar Be careful with sugary foods and drinks. They are bad for the teeth and can encourage a sweet tooth.
Check out our latest weaning recipes
Q. Is it best to buy food or make it myself?
By making your own weaning foods you know exactly what your baby is eating and they will become familiar with the taste of homemade foods from an early age. When cooking for themselves, parents should be aware that they can set aside some of their food before adding salt or gravy, alter the texture as needed and offer it to baby. In this way, homemade foods are included in the weekly shop and can be relatively cheap to prepare compared to bought food.
Commercial baby foods are safe and can be useful for the sake of convenience when travelling or eating away from home. There is an obvious cost factor and parents should be aware that it’s best to choose savoury bought foods as desserts and puddings can be based mainly on added sugar and fat. Other bought products such as sauces, gravies and dishes containing processed food like sausage have a high salt content and are not suitable. It’s important to check the label. Even though it may say ‘suitable from four months’ all foods given to babies under six months of age should be gluten-free. Whatever your choice, try to promote savoury over sweet foods.
Babies need to learn to develop their taste and palate for a wide variety of food and not rely on one particular flavour. Babies often need to taste a new food up to 15 times before they will accept it, so persevere!
Q. Should I hold my baby or put him in a chair?
One of the signs that your baby is ready to start spoon feeds is when they’re able to sit up with support and control their head. Once they are at this stage a high chair and table can be used. If they’re being held, get another person to hold and position baby so that they are upright, well-supported and can see the face of the person feeding them. However they sit for spoon feeds, expect both a mess and some food waste. These are perfectly normal as baby gets used to this new experience of eating. Messy play with food is all part of learning to eat and helps to develop hand eye co-ordination.
Q. Why does my baby gag when I feed him?
Gagging is a normal and can happen while baby is moving on from sucking to learning to eat and swallow solid food rather than thin liquid milk feeds. Gagging is a sign that your infant can protect their airway and can clear food from the back of their mouth. It’s a reflex that will gradually lessen over time provided your baby is challenged with new textures.
Gagging is not choking, but it can be scary for parents when it happens and you might be tempted to avoid offering lumpier textures. Gagging is something that will only start to lessen when your baby is repeatedly challenged with lumpier textures. It is something that will last if your baby remains on lump-free purée for longer than two weeks. Choking is different and can happen when the airway suddenly gets blocked. A baby that’s choking will be distressed and may be unable to cry, cough or breathe.
Ruth Charles, Paediatric Dietitian at the Early Feeding Clinic Dublin. http://www.earlyfeedingclinic.ie
More you might like:
Pureed sweet potato
Pear and baby rice puree
Beef and potato puree