Dr Zoe Williams
Dr Williams is a well-known and respected media medic who also has experience in health, fitness and wellbeing, alongside her role as a GP. She is a national advisor to the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) GP clinical champion network and also leads on work to promote physical activity and healthy lifestyle with The Royal College of General Practitioners.
What is Weaning?
The dictionary definition of weaning is to “accustom an infant or other young mammal to food other than it’s mother’s milk”. Which sounds so simple when it’s written down but anyone who’s read about it or attempted it will know it’s not always straightforward. And of course, human babies may be fed breast milk, formula milk or a combination of the two. Searching the internet for weaning can be a minefield of information and some disinformation. There’s baby-led weaning, spoon-fed weaning, finger foods to think about. I found the NHS Start for Life website to be a great source of evidence based information on weaning and later on for recipes too.
The good news is, there’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to weaning but there are general ideas and advice you can follow which will hopefully make the experience pleasurable for both parents and little ones.
When to Start Weaning?
Don’t be tempted to start early. NHS advice suggests babies can be weaned from around six months but there are three signs that your little one should be able to show you to indicate that they are ready to start trying solid or textured foods. You want your baby to be able to stay in a sitting position and hold their head steady – this is vital for digestion. You also want them to be able to coordinate their eyes, hands and mouth, they should be able to see something, to then pick it up and bring it to their mouth and finally, they need to be able to swallow food rather than spit it back out. The first two you’ll know instinctively as a parent, the third might be a suck it and see – or suck it and spit it out! If your child is chewing their fists, waking up in the night more than normal and wanting extra milk feeds it might be tempting to presume these mean he or she is ready for weaning, but the reality is these are all normal baby behaviours so it’s important to wait until they are demonstrating the 3 signs mentioned.
Go at Your Baby's Pace
Once you know your little one is ready to get going, don’t expect miracles. Eating is a whole new skill and it’ll take a while before food and solids replace the nutrition your baby is getting from breast milk or formula. In the beginning, weaning isn’t about how much they eat, it’s about tastes and textures so persevere with lots of different foods. With every spoon – or fist full – they get into their mouth they’re learning to masticate and figuring out how to use their mouths to manipulate food to swallow it. It might be second nature for us but it’s an entirely new skill for them so be patient and go slowly. Remember in the beginning weaning isn’t just about nutrition, it’s about getting them used to the art and joy of eating.
Create Good Habits Now
There are a few key things to consider when weaning which could help create good habits as they get older. Firstly, where possible enjoy mealtimes together. It’s not always easy when your little one is smearing food everywhere but if they see you eating, they will mirror you and copy. Secondly, allow plenty of time. We might be able to get a meal done quickly when we’re in a rush but it’s new for them so try to take it at their pace. Thirdly keep distractions to a minimum. Lots of adults talk about eating mindfully and we’re more likely to eat like a conveyor belt when we’re distracted by TV or a tablet so keep everything off during meal times, except maybe some calming music.
Baby Weaning Foods
Google “weaning recipes” and you’ll get over 11.5 million results. NHS Start for Life website is a great resource and there are some popular books out there too. Think about what you eat that is healthy and might be appropriate for babies. Variety and nutrition is the key here so think about lots of fruits and vegetables, and especially more bitter veg like suede, broccoli, spinach, asparagus and kale. As humans we instinctively have a preference for sweet tasting food, so introducing a wide range of tastes and flavours early on can positively impact palate and food preferences towards healthier food later on. Babies can have meat from six months but you’ll either need to pulse it or give it to them in chip shaped pieces so they can hold it and chew it. Popular weaning foods include root vegetables, potatoes, rice, grains and pulses, watermelon, strawberries, apples, pears, sweet potato, carrots, pumpkin, cabbage, avocados, beetroot, peppers, cucumber, courgette, mushrooms, blueberries, bananas, raspberries, tomatoes, plums, satsumas, eggs. I could go on but think about what you eat and how you can adapt it to be a weaning food. Babies love spices and herbs too, so add them in to whatever you’re cooking – cinnamon is great with sweet potato and beetroot but think about basil, oregano, mint, cumin, coriander, garam masala and whatever other herbs and spices you cook with.
What to Avoid
Avoid anything with sugar, salt, stock cubes, or chilli, whole nuts, raw and lightly cooked eggs, shark, swordfish, marlin and raw shellfish. Popcorn, grapes, cherry tomatoes and raisins can cause choking unless they’re pulsed down, or chopped small and you should avoid processed or ultra processed foods so try to stay away from oven food, fast food and crisps. What a baby is weaned on can help shape their palate and tastes for a long time to come so you want them to enjoy healthy nutritious foods so you can start to create good habits they’ll keep into childhood and hopefully beyond.
If you’re doing baby led weaning – where you go completely at baby’s pace and they eat what you eat, texture won’t be an issue because they’ll be used to different textures from the beginning but if you’re making and blending foods make sure you adapt textures and make things slightly more textured and lumpier as your little one gets older. Breadsticks or wholemeal toast or wholemeal pita slices are a great side to serve while you’re feeding blended food as your baby will end up with the texture of toast but softened by the blended food that’s on it. Babies may find texture harder to cope with once they’re used to soft and strained blended foods but persevere and remember to take it at their pace.
As They Get Older
From around 8-9 months, your little one will be moving more from ‘food for experience’ to ‘food for nutrition’. You’ll be thinking more about three meals a day in addition to their milk and it might be that your little one wants less milk after their meals – if they don’t though, this is nothing to worry about so keep giving what they’ll eat and drink. It’s vital at this point their diet consists of variety. So even if they have a favourite, make sure they’re not relying on it as their sole source of nutrition. Think about porridge or eggs or fruit on toast for breakfast. Finger food or wholemeal pitta sandwiches for lunch or pasta and maybe a no salt, no sugar, no stock version of
whatever you’d normally have for dinner. Puddings are fine to introduce too but make sure they’re fruit or yogurt and don’t have added sugar in them.
They Won't Like Everithing
As us adults have choices and favourite foods and things we like and hate, so will your little one. Yes, to a certain extent they’re blank canvases when it comes to flavours, but we all have flavours, textures and tastes we love and like and other foods we wouldn’t ever choose through choice. While weaning is about persevering, if you’ve tried a food or a texture with your child several times and it keeps being spat out, accept that it just might not be to their palate. You can keep revisiting it but they’re little people just like we’re big people so accept the fact they might not like everything – no matter how long it’s taken you to prepare or how much of it you batch cooked. It can be really difficult but it’s important to keep mealtimes calm and fun as stress can negatively impact the weaning journey. One of the best bits of advice I ever heard from a dietician was ‘It’s a parent’s choice when food is offered, and which foods are offered and it’s a child’s choice what they eat and how much. If you follow this rule then a healthy child will not starve themselves’.
Their Poo Will Change
A small child’s poo can change colour and texture depending on what they’ve eaten, it can also pass through their system very quickly or completely undigested. So don’t worry if it goes a bit orange after carrots or sweet potato, darker after spinach, or bright purple after beetroot. Likewise seeing sweetcorn, beans or lentils in the nappy looking just the same as when they ate them is completely normal too. As their digestive systems mature they will get better at digesting all foods and being exposed to these foods is like training the gut for the future. Do speak to your GP though if the child has prolonged diarrhoea, is constipated and struggling to poo, or if you have any concerns.
Trust me, I know it’s easier said than done but weaning is something to enjoy. It’s the start of your child’s relationship with food and you want it to be a positive experience for so many reasons – not least because you want them to develop a healthy relationship with food and mealtimes and see them as something to enjoy rather than endure. Make sure you take lots of pictures, both of their gorgeously grubby faces and yours when they might have spat something all over you. You can remind them when they’re older when you’re out for dinner together how picky they might have been when they were little so make sure you focus on the long game.