Although breast milk or baby formula will give your baby the nutrition they need for their first year, when your baby is around 6 months old or older, weaning them onto solid food will top up essential nutrients including vitamins and minerals to help support healthy growth and taste development.
When to start weaning
Paediatricians usually recommend that you start offering solid foods when your baby reaches 6 months old. Some babies may be ready as early as 4 months old. More studies have shown that 4 – 6 months is the most optimal window period to reduce the chances of your baby developing a food allergy but it is also important to look out for the following indications that your baby will be able to cope with solids:
- Your baby can hold their head up
- Your baby can sit up well with the support of their high chair
- Your baby shows an interest in mealtimes and food
- Your baby can move food to the back of the tongue to swallow
If you're unsure whether your baby is ready, you should check with your doctor.
How to start
When you begin preparing food for your baby, it's important to make sure that for the first few weeks at least, the food is pureed and smooth in texture, as they won't be able to chew anything truly solid yet. Some suitable first foods are:
- Single-grain cereals, fortified with iron, mixed with breast milk or formula
- Pureed meat, fish and poultry, or pureed tofu and lentils
- Pureed fruits, such as bananas, pears, apples, mango, and prunes. To prepare, boil or steam until soft, strain and then mash into a fine puree. You can use a blender and add some breast milk if you wish
- Pureed vegetables, such as carrots, potato, sweet potato, avocado, or pumpkin. Prepare these in the same way as the pureed fruits
Because of the soft texture of these foods, you can spoon-feed them to your baby as they learn what it feels like to swallow solid food. Try a variety of options and find out if there's anything your baby really enjoys. This is a fun time of experimentation, so don't be disheartened if your baby spits out what you make for them. They're learning all the time, and they may realise they like that food if you try it again on a different day.
As you progress
Once your baby has mastered purees, you can start to add texture and lumps to their food. By 8 months, your baby can eat:
- A variety of mashed fruits and vegetables
- Small pieces of meat and fish
- Beans, which need to be mashed if they are large
- Eggs and some dairy, including yoghurts
You can also offer a variety of finger foods at this stage. Your baby will enjoy playing with the different shapes and textures of the food you offer, and they will develop their fine motor skills as they practise picking up and eating food by themselves. Start with:
- Small pieces of soft fruit
- Softened carrot sticks
- Cooked pasta pieces
- Cereal or cereal puffs
- Teething rusks
By 10 - 12 months, your baby can try eating most of the foods you eat now. You just have to make sure that they are cut up so that your baby can safely chew and swallow.
As you and your baby get more confident with the weaning process, you can introduce new foods all the time. Just make sure you never give your baby anything that could be a significant choking hazard, such as grapes, cherry tomatoes, or hot dogs, unless you've cut them into very small pieces. You should also avoid giving your baby honey until they are at least 1 year old, because it poses a risk of infant botulism, which can be serious.
The goals of weaning
Try not to get frustrated by the weaning process. It should be a fun, special time for you and your baby to enjoy. Even if your baby refuses foods, it's part of the learning journey. If you are concerned about starting to introduce food or how your baby is handling solids, you can see your paediatrician for advice that suits your child.
While you are weaning:
- Continue to give your baby breast milk or formula. This will be your baby's main source of calories and nutrition until their first birthday, and if you eliminate it too soon your baby will be at risk of nutrient deficiencies and delayed development.
- Avoid giving your baby cow's milk until they are 1. Only breast milk and infant formula are recommended until then.
- Your baby does not need any water before 6 months, and they won't need a lot of water even when they begin to eat solids. They will get most of their hydration from breast milk or formula. You can offer a small amount of water in a sippy cup at mealtimes, but not too much until they're fully weaned.
- Don’t avoid giving your baby foods that are common allergy culprits, just monitor them closely the first few times they try them. It’s important to introduce one new food at a time and wait for 3-5 days to observe for allergic reactions such as rashes, difficulty breathing, diarrhoea or vomiting. Foods to keep an eye on include peanuts and other nuts, eggs and shellfish. If you suspect your baby is having an allergic reaction to something they eat, take them to the A&E. You may work with a doctor or dietitian to identify the specific food allergen.
As your baby takes in more solids, and the weaning process comes to an end, it's important to ensure they are getting a balanced diet, especially as their breast milk or formula intake decreases.
Key nutrients to include in your baby's diet are:
- Iron, because iron levels become depleted in the months after your baby is born. Some iron-rich foods include meat, green leafy vegetables such as spinach, and fortified cereal.
- Zinc, which will boost your baby's immunity. Try offering cheese, chickpeas, lentils and red meat.
- Fibre, to assist in healthy digestion. Prunes, pears, plums, and oatmeal are all high-fibre foods.
- Calcium, which will help your baby build strong bones. Include yoghurt, hard cheese, cottage cheese and broccoli in your baby's meals. Make sure any cheese you offer is pasteurised.
- Protein, to help your baby's overall growth and development. Lean meat such as chicken, fish and peanut butter are all good sources.
The final stage of weaning
When your baby reaches their first birthday, you can choose to stop breastfeeding or formula feeding completely. If you wish to continue breastfeeding, then you'll be giving your baby an additional boost of immunity and nutrients for as long as you want to carry on. When you do stop nursing, your baby should be eating three regular meals a day, with snacks in between. As they grow more confident with solid foods, you can give them a spoon and a fork to practise with and, before you know it, they'll be running mealtimes themselves.
Brennan, D. (2017, March 7) Baby Nutrition In The First Year. Retrieved 01/02/19 from https://www.webmd.com/parenting/baby/baby-food-timeline#2
Brennan, D. (2017, June 13) How To Start Your Baby On Solids. Retrieved 01/02/19 from https://www.webmd.com/parenting/baby/how-to-start-solid-foods#3
Shroff, A. (2017, August 21) Baby Nutrition 101. Retrieved 01/02/19 from https://www.webmd.com/parenting/baby/baby-nutrition-101
Shroff, A. (2018, October 29) Feeding Baby: 8 Eating Milestones. Retrieved 01/02/19 from https://www.webmd.com/parenting/baby/baby-food-milestones#3