Weaning is the introduction of solid food into your baby's diet.
Initially this solid food is as an extra to their milk feeds - the majority of calories and nutrients should still come from their milk feeds, slowly changing this over the first 3-6 months of weaning.
The Department of Health and World Health Organisation recommend exclusive milk feeding until 6 months of age, and no solids should be introduced before 4 months. This is for the following reasons:
- Before 6 months your baby's kidneys are not developed enough to cope with a diverse diet.
- There is not sufficient development of the neuromuscular system in a baby under 6 months, therefore choking is much more of a risk in younger babies.
- Increased risk of Obesity in children weaned early.
However, once a baby reaches around 6 months it is a perfect time and important to introduce solids:
- Your baby will have inadequate calories from milk feeds alone, which could result in poor weight gain, sleep issues, waking more at night
- Learning the skills of chewing, passing the food to the back of the mouth and swallowing are key to development and your baby’s neuromuscular ability is such that by 6 months they will be ready to learn these new skills
- Your baby could become deficient in certain nutrients, such as iron, if solid food is not introduced around 6 months
How to tell when your baby is ready to be weaned:
Some babies will start to get hungrier as they approach 5/6 months. Some signs that your baby may be getting ready to wean are:
- They may start to wake in the night more when they used to sleep through (although this could be the sleep regression if they aren’t sleeping independently**)
- They may cry for more food once they have finished their milk feed (this could also indicate a growth spurt in a breast-fed baby and a need to feed more often for 24-48 hours) in a bottle-fed baby always top up the bottles with more milk (in the daytime) first to see if that works.
- Milk feeds may not appear to satisfy their appetite
One sign that parents often look out for as a sign their babies are ready to wean is their baby being interested in your food. Babies become interested in anything at this age (Lego, small toys, dirty shoes!) it doesn’t mean that they should be offered to them. It's great if your baby is interested AND at the right age, as you can take advantage of this, but don’t take this one factor as the decider as to when to start solid food.
Because of the possible risks associated with early weaning, should your baby show signs of wanting to wean early I would recommend waiting at least one week to see if changes in behaviour are due to other factors such as teething before deciding to wean your baby early. It would also be preferable to try other methods of satisfying your baby's increased hunger such as re-introducing a night feed (if your baby has dropped this already) rather than wean early. There is no research that shows any benefit of early weaning, however there is a lot that show the benefits of waiting.
Please also remember that because the foods you are able to introduce if weaning early are very low calorie the chances of this having a positive effect on your baby’s calorie intake and therefore a positive effect on your baby's sleep are very minimal. Early weaning ‘helping to get your baby to sleep for longer periods’ dates back to the times that we introduced things such as rusks first - these are particularly high calorie, contain sugar, milk powder and wheat so did have an impact on appetite and sleep. Advice has changed now, and I would strongly advise against introducing these kinds of foods first!
However, if your baby approaches 6 months and is still not showing signs of needing to be weaned then it is important to start weaning them onto solids at this point.
What time of day to start weaning?
I think that a good time of day to start weaning is around an hour after their morning milk feed. This way they are not starving, shouldn’t be tired and it also extends the gap between their first 2 milk feeds (once they are swallowing a little) which allows more time for their morning nap.
Wake and milk feed (assume 7am)
1 hour later breakfast
What foods first?
I always advise starting with high calorie, high nutrient foods, vegetables are good because I think it is important to get a baby used to savoury flavours first. This can be mixed with a little avocado or coconut, so you have the benefit of the calories.
You want the food you are introducing to be higher calorie than the milk it will naturally replace. For this reason, I avoid only vegetables (apart from avocado).
Best first tasted are either avocado on its own, or sweet potato mixed with coconut.
Carrot, avocado, sweet potato, parsnip
Sweet potato and lentils and cereal
Chicken and lentils (lentils are a good source of both carbohydrate and protein)
Pear and prune (if at all constipated)
Avocado, coconut cream, olive oil and then progress to nut butter
If you decide to start weaning before 6 months you must stick to vegetable, carbohydrate and fat foods. Protein must not be introduced until close to 6 months.
Other important points to remember when starting weaning:
- Again, I advise to introduce savoury foods first: This is to not encourage a sweet tooth. I have never known a child not to like sweet flavours but plenty that refuse to eat vegetables; introducing the foods this way round ensures the best possible chance of your child liking all foods.
- Research shows that your baby needs to try different flavours up to 17 times in order to like it, so in the beginning it is not unusual for them to turn their nose up at each new flavour. Initially (the first week or so) they will be eating very little, sometimes just a taste - this is normal.
- In the first 3 weeks keep offering the same amount of milk (if your baby is roughly on a 3-4 hourly feeding routine already). They may naturally take less at the feeds you are offering the solids at, but the majority of their calories should still be from milk. Your baby will naturally reduce their milk feeds as they start to take more solid food.
- In the beginning you can mix a little formula or breast milk into the food to give a familiar flavour. Baby cereal can be used to thicken the food if it is too thin.
- Finger foods can’t be introduced until after 6 months because of the higher risk of choking. After 6 months it’s important to introduce finger foods into your baby’s diet. Some parents are worried about this, but incidence of choking is lower in babies that are weaned onto finger foods early. This is because they develop their gag reflex which protects them. Finger foods are also a great way of ensuring your baby likes a variety of flavours and textures, isn’t fussy and develops well.
The most important thing is to be relaxed. Weaning is a process that starts at around 6 months and finishes at around 18 months. Taking advantage of the whole year is ideal. If you are relaxed then your baby will be too, enjoy this new stage.
Hannah Love is a paediatric nurse, nutritional therapist, parenting and sleep expert. She has spent the last 25 years showing families that parenting doesn’t need to be exhausting. More importantly, juggling work, life and a baby can be a pleasure. You can be a gentle parent, have a baby who sleeps well and who fits into your lifestyle - whatever that means to you. Through her CALM approach (Consistent, Achievable, Loving, Manageable) she helps parents in all areas of parenting, including her favourite subjects – sleeping and feeding.
Hannah has a full weaning course with everything you need for your weaning journey:
If you would like more information and support, she also has a free community: https://www.facebook.com/groups/yummybabysleepwell