Introducing solid foods and weaning
For about the first six months of their life, babies only need breastmilk or formula milk. If solid foods are started too early, babies are likely to take less milk, yet milk contains more energy, vitamins and nutrients necessary for a baby's growth and development than vegetable or fruit purees.
If you are breastfeeding, continuing past six months means your baby will receive more antibodies and benefit from other health factors, such as having a lower risk of being obese or developing diabetes as a child.
Furthermore, there’s an advantage to continuing to breastfeed while your baby gets used to new foods, especially if there is a history of food allergies or intolerance in your family.
This article looks at the following aspects of introducing solids:
Signs that your baby is ready for solid foods
Signs mistaken for readiness for solid foods
Getting started with introducing solid foods
Your baby's first solid foods
Baby-led weaning babies
Tips on weaning
What can my baby drink?
A baby’s digestive system needs time to develop so that it can cope with the introduction of solid foods. Babies don’t actually produce all the enzymes needed to digest food thoroughly until they are about one year old.
Waiting until your baby is six months means that they will be more likely to be able to feed themselves, manage foods in their mouth and swallow properly, which reduces the risk of choking.
These three signs together will help you know if your baby is ready:
- She can sit up and hold her head steady.
- She can pick up food and put it into her mouth.
- She no longer pushes solids out of her mouth, and is able to swallow them.
- A larger appetite — it may just be an appetite spurt — try feeding her more frequently for a few days if breastfeeding, or giving more milk if formula feeding.
- Teething — she may begin to cut her first teeth sometime around six months which helps with biting and chewing food. But some babies do get their first teeth sooner than this and a baby who is unsettled and putting her fists in her mouth may be teething rather than hungry.
- Waking frequently at night after a period of being settled. There is discussion about whether introducing solids will help babies to sleep through the night; however, this is not supported by research.
It helps to introduce solid foods gradually with one new food at a time. If she has a reaction to anything, it will be easier to work out what caused it. Symptoms of food sensitivity include rashes, wheezing, red itchy eyes, fussiness or being unsettled, constipation and diarrhoea.
You don’t need to worry about proper meals at first; it’s more important to let your baby get used to eating solid food, so just choose times that suit you. It helps to eat at the same time as your baby, so that they can copy and learn from what you are doing.
Try not to focus on the quantity of food your baby eats in the beginning, as this is less important than introducing her to the idea of eating. As she starts to eat more food, she will gradually cut down on the amount of milk she takes.
Vegetables make good first foods. Cooked carrot, potato, parsnip, broccoli and sweet potato can be offered as pieces of finger food or chopped, sieved or mashed.
For a younger baby starting on solid foods, who is being spoon-fed, you can add expressed breastmilk, formula or the water the vegetables were cooked in.
Wheat-based foods contain gluten and this is not recommended for babies under six months. After this time, however, babies can eat most foods except whole nuts and similar foods which could cause choking. You may be surprised that babies can cope with pieces of lean cooked meat, pasta, fruit or bread that they can hold and suck on.
It's worth knowing that research from the LEAP study (Learning Early about Peanut Allergy) in February 2015 indicates that babies at increased risk of peanut allergy might benefit from early introduction to peanut-containing foods. It's too soon to state whether guidance to families should change, but it's possible that recommendations will change once the results have been fully considered.
Baby-led weaning is a way of introducing solid foods by letting your baby choose what they eat and feed themselves when they are ready. This means it is more likely to tie in with their ability to take food into their mouth, move it around and swallow safely. Although it can be messier at first, parents often say that babies who can choose what to feed themselves have wider food tastes.
- Start by offering just a few pieces or teaspoons of food once a day.
- Let your baby enjoy touching and holding food.
- Always stay with your baby when she is eating in case she starts to choke.
- Allow her to feed herself, using her fingers, as soon as she shows an interest.
- Don’t force your baby to eat — wait until next time if she isn’t interested.
- If you’re using a spoon, wait for your baby to open her mouth before you offer food. Your baby may like to hold a spoon too.
- If the food is hot, test it before giving it to your baby.
You might find attending one of NCT's Introducing Solids Foods workshops helpful as they cover topics such as when to start weaning, purees and baby-led weaning, as well as what foods to avoid. They are all run by one of our qualified practitioners.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.
NCT shop has a range of baby weaning accessories.
NHS Choices has information on weaning your baby.