There comes a point in every baby’s life, usually when they’re approaching six months old, when milk just doesn’t quite cut it any more.
She’s ready to grab a fork and head out into the big, wide world of food.
‘Weaning is a really exciting journey,’ says nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed. ‘You get to introduce your baby to one of life’s real pleasures!’ And, just like everything else baby-related, weaning is a huge learning curve for you and your baby. That’s why we’ve put together this guide: to give you the fast-track guide on when to wean, how to wean, what foods to start with and how much to feed your tot. Ready? Get stuck in!
‘The NHS advice is that you should wean your baby when she’s around six months old,’ says Charlotte. ‘And the reason that they use the word “around” is because all babies are different, so some babies might be ready slightly earlier.’ It’s not always easy to work out when your baby is ready to move beyond milk into the wonderful world of food. ‘Sometimes you get young babies who seem absolutely fascinated by food – they stare at your plate, they watch you eating, they try to grab your lunch,’ says Charlotte. ‘This doesn’t mean they’re gearing up to tuck into a three-course roast dinner. It’s far more likely to reflect the fact that your baby finds you, and everything you do, amazing.’
In other words, your baby isn’t gawping at your chips because she’s fed up of milk – she’s just intrigued by those funny yellow sticks you’re putting into your mouth. But if food-fascination isn’t necessarily a sign that a baby’s ready to wean, what is?
‘A number of developmental steps come together when your baby is ready for food,’ says Charlotte.
- Your baby is getting towards six months in age.
- She’s able to hold her head and neck steady, so she can swallow safely.
- She has some hand-eye coordination, so she’ll be able to see food, pick it up and get it into her mouth. (Although even the most coordinated baby will get food everywhere in the early days of weaning!)
Tip: Don’t start weaning before your baby is at least four months old (17 weeks+). Her digestive system just won’t be ready for it.
Once you’ve decided to start weaning, choose a time when you and your baby are both relaxed and happy, when there are no illnesses or colds that might put her off trying anything new. ‘The other thing to think about - in terms of timing for that first taste – is making sure your baby isn’t really hungry, as then it could make her upset, and she isn’t totally full of milk, which could mean she won’t want to eat,’ says Charlotte. ‘A good time is an hour after her first milk feed of the day.’
There are a variety of ways to start weaning – spoon-feeding, where you create purées to offer your baby on a soft, silicone spoon; baby-led, where you offer your baby soft food to pick up and gum herself; or a combination of these approaches. ‘The right way to do it is the one that makes you feel most happy and relaxed about feeding, because that helps your baby to feel happy and relaxed about food,’ says Charlotte. ‘Just remember that babies should ideally be aged six-months plus before you offer finger foods.’
Spoon-feeding: ‘Spoon-feeding tends to be less messy than baby-led weaning because you have control of the spoon (initially)!’ says Charlotte. ‘In the early weeks, it also means you have a better idea of just how much your baby is eating.’ But spoon-feeding involves spending more time in the kitchen than baby-led weaning because you’ve got to cook food then also purée it.
‘Also think about your baby’s temperament,’ says Charlotte. If you have an easy-going baby who goes with the flow, she’ll probably slot into spoon-feeding without a fuss. If you have a determined tot who likes doing things <her> way, she might want to be the one holding the spoon. ‘If this happens, try using two spoons at meal times – one pre-loaded for baby and one for her to hold,’ says Charlotte.
Baby-led weaning: ‘One key benefit of baby-led weaning is that your baby gets to play with her food,’ says Charlotte. ‘She might not eat much of it, but it gives her the chance to get used to the way different foods look, smell and feel. That builds familiarity with the food, which ultimately encourages babies to eat. You don’t have to cook special meals for your baby – you can just give her soft food from your plate (so soft that you can flatten it by squeezing it between your finger and thumb). And as your baby is dealing with texture from the start, she’ll hopefully be less fussy about lumps in her food.’
Baby-led-weaning does get messy so expect food on the floor (and the walls, and possibly the ceiling). That means it won’t always be easy to tell how much of her food your baby has eaten rather than smeared around her plate. There’s a high chance that your baby will have moments when she gags on her food – this is completely normal, it is a reflex action when a lump in food travels into your baby’s throat, and the gag reflex is actually there to stop her choking. She will probably spit out the lump and may also vomit a little, but try to stay calm so food doesn’t become a source of worry to your baby.
Babies are born with a preference for sweet tastes, but it can take them longer to like umami/savoury, bitter or sour flavours. ‘In the first two weeks of weaning, I suggest that you feed your baby a helping of one vegetable a day, either cooked until it’s soft, or puréed,’ says Charlotte. ‘Initially go for some veg with a slightly bitter taste, such as cauliflower, broccoli, courgette, aubergine or spinach, rather than the sweeter veg such as carrots, parsnips or peas.’ The good news is that in these early days when your baby is just starting out on her food journey, she’s much more amenable to giving things a go than she maybe when she’s a few months older.
‘Starting her off on vegetables gives her experience of the more bitter flavours from the start,’ says Charlotte. ‘So, you’re already building up her palate. Once you’ve done this veg intro for around 10-14 days, you can start adding in different flavours. Again, avoid the sweet flavours for now and introduce her to savoury tastes like well-mashed butter beans, flakes of white fish, strips of chicken, mashed pasta and eggs. Once your baby has experienced a range of flavours, you can introduce the sweeter flavours. Don’t give up on foods that your baby is less keen on – every so often, offer her a taste of them again. At some point, she may decide they’re really tasty!’
There are some foods that young babies (and toddlers) shouldn’t eat, such as honey, salty foods, certain soft cheeses. Check out M&B's list of foods that are to be avoided by children under one.
As soon as your baby starts weaning, offer her water in an open cup (no spout or lid) to have with her meal. Once she’s six months, this can be water straight from the tap. ‘At first, the water is going to go everywhere,’ says Charlotte, ‘because your baby has to learn how to manipulate the cup to her lips and how to sip from it. Until she’s mastered those steps, only put about an inch of water in the water. You’ll still have to mop up – but you’ll be mopping up a small puddle, rather than a lake!’
In the first weeks of weaning, babies are just getting used to the concept of exploring new tastes. ‘Spend the first one to two weeks of weaning offering your youngster one food, once a day,’ says Charlotte. She may only have a teaspoon-full of cauliflower purée, or one floret, or she may have a few teaspoons or florets, depending on her appetite and how she feels about the flavour. ‘At this stage your baby might get no more than a taste of food, which is fine. Around week two or three start offering a “meal-time”, twice a day.’ You can start combining foods at this point too: maybe a piece of soft avocado with a small finger of toast or baby-friendly ratatouille. ‘Then, at the start of week five – when your baby’s been weaning for around a month, introduce a third meal time of combined flavours,’ says Charlotte. By the time your baby is around seven months old, her daily feeding timetable could look something like this:
- 7am: Milk
- 8.15am: Breakfast
- 10am: Milk
- 11.30pm: Lunch
- 2pm: Milk
- 4.30pm: Dinner
- 6.30pm: Milk
That’s when you might feed your baby. But how much food should you be offering her? ‘There is no set amount of food that your baby should be eating,’ says Charlotte. ‘Her appetite – just like the rest of her – is unique. Some babies have tiny appetites; others eat loads. The most important thing is to be responsive to your baby’s signals and to let her choose how much she wants to eat and what – of the food you’re offering - she wants to eat.’
- Pay attention to what’s normal for your baby. Is she a fan of food or is she a grazer?
- Watch for the signs that she’s had enough. Common ways of showing this are becoming upset; turning her head away; clamping her mouth shut.
- Get your baby weighed regularly to check that she’s maintaining a healthy weight for her height/age.
- Keep an eye on her nappies. If she’s got her normal amount of wet and dirty nappies (at least six in 24 hours), she’s eating enough for her.
- Watch her energy levels. If she’s got the same amount of energy as normal, she’s eating enough food for her.
- Think about what she’s eating over the course of a week, rather than over the course of a day. Babies’ appetites can fluctuate from meal to meal, so don’t micro-manage her food!
- Think about how much milk she’s drinking. As your baby’s food intake increases, her milk consumption should naturally reduce. ‘By 10 months, when a baby is on a good three meals a day, I’d expect her milk intake to have gone down from about 600 ml a day to about 400ml a day,’ says Charlotte. ‘If she’s still drinking lots of milk and being picky about food, it could simply be that the milk is filling her up, so try to re-balance the milk/ food ratio.’
- If she’s a gobbler, try to slow her eating down. ‘Start with a small portion of food and only give her more when she’s finished that portion and she’s indicating that she wants more,’ says Charlotte. ‘Offer her a variety of textures, as that naturally slows eating down. Let her feed herself, rather than you feeding her. And “chat” during the meal! That communication is a good way to slow things down, too.’
Weaning can be a real adventure – here’s how to overcome some common hurdles
Q. My baby’s six months old, but she’s showing no interest in food. What should I do?
A. ‘Don’t worry – if your baby’s only six months then it’s really early weaning days,’ says Charlotte. ‘The key thing is to make meal times really fun. Sit with your baby, lots of smiles and no pressure. Just give her a little bit of food and let her explore it – whether she pokes it, throws it or smears it in her hair! Babies are comfortable with things they’re familiar with, so kick back and enjoy the journey of letting her get to know food. Some will go in her mouth, and gradually she’ll get a taste for it!’
Q. Help! I need to wean, but I’m terrified of my baby choking.
‘This is a big fear for parents,’ says Charlotte, ‘but there are two really helpful things you can do. The first is to go on a baby first aid course, so that you’d know what to do if your baby did choke. The second is to understand the difference between gagging and choking.’ Gagging is a noisy way of moving food from the back of the throat to the front. Choking is when food gets stuck in the throat and it’s silent. What to do if your baby is choking at sja.org.uk.
Q. What snacks should I give my baby?
‘Babies under 12 months don’t need snacks because milk is still their go-to extra,’ says Charlotte. ‘But if you’re out-and-about and need to give her something, try a piece of banana, some veggie sticks or a sugar-free, homemade oatcake.’
Q. Why does my baby keep spitting out his food?
‘Babies often go through a phase of spitting out their food,’ say Charlotte. ‘That can happen in the stage when she’s learning how to move food around in her mouth – some of it comes out because she hasn’t got the hang of it yet. It can also be a behavioural thing – she spits out food and it gets a reaction from you, so she tries it again to get more attention. The best thing you can do is to not draw attention to the spitting out and to eat with your baby, so she sees how meal time should be done!’
Q. Should I be giving my baby supplements?
‘Yes,’ says Charlotte. ‘Here’s what your baby needs:
- If you’re breastfeeding your baby, give her a daily vitamin D supplement from birth, regardless of whether you’re taking vitamin D yourself, or not.
- Babies who are exclusively having formula milk don’t need this vitamin D supplement until they’re having less than 500ml of formula a day. That’s because infant formula is already fortified with vitamins.
- If you’re mixed feeding (some breast milk and some formula), you need to think about how much formula milk your baby is having. If she has less than 500ml a day, she needs a daily vitamin D supplement. If she has 500ml a day or more, she doesn’t.
- Once your baby is six months old, she needs a daily vitamin supplement containing vitamins A, C and D, unless she is still drinking 500ml or more of formula every day. Only start giving her a vitamin supplement when she is drinking less than 500ml of formula a day.
- Talk to your pharmacist about which supplement is best for your baby.
Meet the Expert: Charlotte Stirling-Reed is a registered nutritionist who specialises in maternal, infant and toddler nutrition, and a mum of one, srnutrition.co.uk