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
Getting started with introducing solid foods
Your baby's first solid foods
Tips on weaning
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.
There are various signs that indicate your baby might be ready for solids:
- They can sit up which allows them to take an active part in eating.
- They no longer automatically push food out of their mouth (young babies have this tongue-thrusting reflex).
- They can pick up food and put it in their mouth.
Your baby may also seem hungrier. However, this is not a helpful signal on its own as babies sometimes have growth, and therefore, appetite spurts. You can respond to your baby’s increased need for milk by feeding more frequently for a few days if breastfeeding, or giving more milk if formula feeding.
Although there is a widespread belief that solids will help babies to sleep through the night, this is not supported by research.
Most babies start to cut teeth at around six months, which helps with biting and chewing food. Some babies do get their first teeth earlier than this and a baby who is unsettled and putting their fists in their mouth a lot may be teething rather than hungry.
It’s important to keep first foods simple and in small quantities. If you suspect your baby may be sensitive to new foods, or have allergies, stick to one food at a time at first.
Some parents opt for baby-led weaning (BLW), others choose to make and then purée or mash foods, or buy baby foods, and some go for a combination.
BLW is when parents offer pieces of food that their baby can grasp in their hand and then themself. This can be messy as your baby gets used to feeding themself - but many foods are ideal for holding, exploring and enjoying in this way.
Homemade foods are cheaper, tend to be more nutritious and enable you to introduce one food at a time (commercial foods are often a mixture of ingredients).
There’s no right or wrong time of day to offer food either. Ideally, it should be when your baby isn’t too tired or hungry and you have lots of time because it can be slow and messy. It can also help if you and other family members eat at the same time, so your baby can watch and copy.
There is little evidence about what foods to start with though vegetables, fruit and rice can make good first foods. Food for babies should not have salt added, either at the cooking stage or afterwards. Babies also don’t need sweet foods, such as biscuits or cakes.
Anaemia (low iron levels) is one of the most common problems among young children, so iron-rich foods are important in your baby’s diet. These include red meat, pulses (peas and beans) and iron-fortified cereals. Vitamin C (in fresh fruit and fresh or frozen vegetables) can help your baby absorb iron. Breast milk and formula milk also contain iron.
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.
- Whichever method you use, don’t force your baby to eat, be patient and wait until next time if they aren’t interested.
- If you’re using a spoon, wait for your baby to open their mouth before you offer food.
- Don’t worry if your baby hasn’t eaten much – what they eat over the course of a week is more important.
- If you’re using a spoon, wait for your baby to open their mouth before you offer food. Your baby may like to hold a spoon too.
- Babies will often refuse a new food many times before deciding they like it, so don’t be put off by one refusal.
- If the food is hot, test it before giving it to your baby.
- Always stay with your baby when they are eating in case they start to choke.
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.
NHS Choices has information on weaning your baby.