Written by: Kerryn Gibson (Dietician)
Weaning describes the process of introducing solid foods into an infant’s diet. From birth up until the age of 6 months breast milk and/or an appropriate infant formula provides adequate nutrition to support growth. From 6 months onwards, these can however be inadequate as a sole source of nutrition. Although infant formulas are fortified with important nutrients, breast milk does not provide adequate levels of vitamin D or iron. For this reason the latest age solids should be introduced into an infant’s diet is 6 months. From a developmental point of view the earliest solids should be introduced is 4 months of age.
Weaning should be a staged process spread over a few months. By the time a child is 12 months, and provided they have no underlying problems, they should be eating the usual family diet. In order to achieve this, parents need to ensure that they provide a variety of tastes and textures to their babies as well as encourage self-feeding.
As solids are introduced breastfeeding and/or formula feeds must continue. Initially the solids are not going to be contributing significantly to a baby’s nutrient intake. As the volume and frequency of solid food intake increases the volume of milk needs to progressively reduce. Once a child is 12 months old there should be no need to continue with breastfeeding and/or an infant formula, provided they are eating a varied diet as well as growing appropriately.
Apart from contributing to nutritional intake, weaning and the process of learning how to chew, bite, move food around the mouth and swallow foods helps a child to develop key oro-motor skills that are needed for speech development.
Signs my Baby is ready to be Weaned
• Can sit unsupported and has good head control
• Is no longer satisfied after a breast or bottle feed
• Has started waking for feeds over night when they previously used to sleep through
• Picks objects up and puts them into their mouth
• Shows a keen interest in foods when other family members eat
• Tries to take foods off other family members’ plates
Initially only one new flavor should be introduced at a time, and textures should be of a smooth puree consistency. Parents can either purchase commercially produced baby foods, or alternatively make their own at home. Cereals based on baby rice can be used as well as vegetables and fruits. Once these have been accepted parents can start introducing protein based foods, for example chicken, fish, beef, lentils or legumes. Adding some of baby’s milk to the purees if needed is preferable to adding water.
Parents should start by offering 1 – 2 teaspoons once or twice a day and gradually increase the quantity given. These may be refused initially, but this does not mean that your child does not like the foods. Try to remember that this is something completely foreign to your child and can take some getting used to. If a food is refused do not persevere too much and rather try again later or the next day. The process of sucking compared to moving food off a spoon is entirely different and may take some time for your child to master.
Different textures should be included from around 7 months of age. Instead of being completely pureed, foods can instead be mashed so that there are some lumps remaining. At this stage parents should ensure that a wide variety of foods start to be included, and these should be in line with healthy eating guidelines. There is no reason to exclude a food unless it has caused an adverse reaction. Early exposure to foods has recently been shown to actually reduce the incidence of potential food allergies.
Soft finger foods, for example, soft vegetables and/or fruit or scrambled egg, can also start to be introduced at this stage. Do not leave your baby unsupervised during meals at this stage in case they battle with the lumps and may choke. Encourage baby to start feeding themselves with their hands and also get them to start holding a spoon. It could get messy so be sure to put some newspaper down!
Playing with and self-feeding finger foods helps a child to develop fine finger control. This can be started as soon as your child starts to pick things up. Encouraging messy play with foods helps to increase a child’s acceptance of foods and also helps them to learn about the different textures of different foods. Your child will automatically start putting these foods to their mouth when they are ready.
Initially soft finger foods should be used and are safe to be introduced before your child has teeth. A combination of soft finger foods and lumpy/ mashed foods can be used in one meal. As your child masters the art of self-feeding with finger foods the amount of mashed foods provided should be reduced.
From 9-10 months of age children should be eating family foods, and foods provided should be based on family meals. Try to make meals social involving the whole family as often as you can. Ensure that foods are cut into bite size pieces that your child will manage to ‘self-feed’ on their own. Parents need to remember to lead by example when it comes to their child’s eating, and that children tend to replicate their parents’ eating habits.
The decision to continue with breast feeding or an infant formula beyond 12 months of age will be based on a child’s growth trend, the adequacy of their food intake as well as their eating behaviours.
Overall, weaning needs to be a fun and positive experience for child and parent. Occasionally, however things do not always go smoothly. The advice would be to seek help from early on before poor eating habits are established. A dietician experienced in working with children is best positioned to provide appropriate feeding advice.