A Introduction to Weaning by Stacey Zimmels
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Getting started with solid foods can be an exciting time for parents; seeing your little one grow and develop and embark on learning their next new set of skills. However, it can also be a time of uncertainly. When to start? Baby led or spoon fed? How much to give?
There is no one way to start solids and for every question you ask (or google) you will likely find at least three different answers, that is why we have asked a feeding expert to share her frequently asked questions and answers with the Baby Boosa community. Stacey Zimmels @feedeatspeak is a feeding and swallowing specialist speech therapist and a lactation consultant. She has been supporting infant and child feeding for nearly 20 years.
When should I get started with solids?
Even though the NHS recommends weaning from around 6 months many of us are feeling the pressure to get started sooner. Messages from our parents to start as early as 4 months (as that’s what they did) or people encouraging weaning as a way to get our little infants to sleep through the night, can really confuse us.
To be clear, the current recommendations, which are based on evidence and which were recently reviewed; are to introduce solids at around 6 months and wait until our infants are developmentally ready. Developmental readiness signs for weaning are that:
- Your baby is able hold their head and neck up and sit in an upright position
- Your baby is able to pick up an object and bring it to their mouth
- The tongue thrust reflex has diminished enough that they are able to swallow more food then they push back out with their tongue
The following are not signs of weaning readiness unless they co-occur with the signs above
- Increased night waking or still waking at night for milk feeds
- Showing an increased interest in food (watching you eat with interest)
- Constantly chewing their hands or mouthing toys
What if my baby is 6 months old but isn’t showing signs?
That is fine, in the same way it is fine to start if baby is only 5.5 months old but showing all the readiness signs. Just wait! In my experience babies take to solids the best when they are ready and this makes for a much more positive experience for both you and them. If your baby is still not ready as you approach 7 months then speak to your health visitor for further advice.
So now you’ve established when to get started let's think about what you need.
Like everything baby related there are so many things marketed as must haves for your little ones and of course if you want to go out there and buy lots of products then go for it, but in terms of what you actually need to get started here is my list…
- A highchair with a tray, or a highchair that comes right up to the kitchen table. Have a look at my blog for information about selecting a highchair
- Cutlery and crockery. I recommend soft flat bowled spoons and suction plates and bowls.
- A cup. I recommend an open cup as first cup for drinking Bibs
- Ice cube trays/storage pots (if you are making pureed foods)
- Hand blender
Next is what I like to call the how, what, where and when of weaning!
What time of day? Breakfast lunch or dinner?
So this is where I say do what works for you. Pick a time when your baby is awake and happy and not hungry. Ideally, they should have had milk around 30 minutes before solids and have also had a nap. From your perspective pick a time of the day when you aren’t rushing and you have time to prepare and are able to sit down and eat with your little one.
When starting solids you don’t need your little one to eat at ‘typical mealtimes’. At 6 months there is enough to juggle with the naps and frequent milk feeds to worry about lunch at 12.00. If it works for you to give solids at 3 pm then go for it! The only exception to this is allergens where the general advice would be to offer them in the morning (more about allergens later).
You also don’t need to give it at the same time each day, so if you want flexibility take it. Some parents will be more routine focused and will like a set window whereas others will just go with the flow. Both are fine.
What foods should I start with?
Vegetables would be preferred over sweeter fruit based first foods, as research suggests that starting with veggies and continuing to offer them throughout the weaning process will support them being accepted and eaten later on. If you do start with veggies, especially green ones, they are bitter tasting and as your baby is used to the sweet flavour of milk you will likely notice they pull some pretty funny faces. This is totally normal and doesn’t mean they don’t like the food. They are just getting used to the new flavours! Keep offering.
From 6 months you can offer most foods. There are some foods that aren’t necessary to offer to infants such as additional salt and sugar and there are other foods which aren’t safe such as unpasteurised cheese, honey and shellfish. For a full list check out the NHS website.
From 6 months you little one can be given a cup of tap water with their food.
What about allergens?
There are 8 foods considered main allergens and the current advice is to introduce them early in to the weaning process and once tolerated to offer them repeatedly. The allergens are dairy, egg, wheat, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts and soya.
Offer one at a time, in the first part of the day and wait a few days before offering a new one. The nhs website has signs of what symptoms you may see from an allergic reaction when weaning and what to do.
If your child has a pre-exisiting food allergy or you understand that they are at increased risk of having one then please seek specialist advice about weaning.
Where should I feed my baby?
I would always recommend feeding your infant in their highchair at the table where you eat your family meals. Some highchairs come right up to the table allowing the baby to eat directly from it, others can be positioned just in front.
What approach should I use? Baby- led or spoon fed?
This is your call! To help I am listing the benefits of each, and remember the third option is to do a combination of both spoon feeding and finger foods.
Baby led weaning
- Your baby sits at the table with you and eats what you eat, therefore participating in family meals from day one
- Your baby is in total control of the volume they ingest. It is responsive and baby led
- Your baby learns to explore textures with their hands from very early on
- Your baby self feeds all meals from the start
- It is developmentally easier from an oral motor/skills perspective
- Your baby is less likely to gag (see point above)
- Your baby is likely to swallow more food in the early weaning stages which may be important for you. There are ways to spoon feed your infant responsively so they don’t overeat (see my blog post on this)
- It is a great option for those infants who are otherwise developmentally ready for weaning but who are not yet sitting unsupported such as some infants who are born prematurely.
How much food should I give them?
Introducing solids is a process and the first steps are all about tasting and exploring foods. It is experience focused not volume focused or another way to look at it is to think quality not quantity. The volume your baby takes in the first days should be led by them. Whether you do baby led weaning, spoon feeding or a combination of purees and finger foods your baby will tell you when they have had enough. This is known as responsive feeding. You can learn more about how to responsively spoon feed your baby here. Signs that they are done may include:
- Losing interest, being distracted.
- Turning head away from spoon, clamping lips shut or spitting food out
- Throwing /dropping food on the floor
- Crying or getting upset in the highchair
In the first days and weeks a ‘meal’ may last around 5-10 minutes depending on your baby and volumes will vary.
What about gagging or choking, I am really worried?
Choking is extremely rare; however gagging is very common. Parents often confuse the two and worry that their little one is struggling and choking when in fact they are gagging which is very much a part of learning to eat. The gag reflex will move further back in the mouth as weaning progresses and your baby gets used to different textures of food and becomes more proficient at eating. It can help to really understand the difference between gagging and choking and what to expect when weaning so that your fear doesn’t hold you and your little one back.
How can I encourage a positive weaning experience?
The following things are key to getting off to a great start with solids:
- Waiting till they are developmentally ready to for solid food
- Eating together. This means you eating the same foods as your infant and progressing to getting some of your mealtimes aligned with theirs once you get past the first stages and making one meal for all the family which you eat together
- Following their lead with volumes taken and knowing when they are done so you can stop
- Allowing them to explore foods with all their senses. Basically, let them get stuck in and make as much mess as they want
- Stay calm and relaxed
- Offer food in a distraction free space with no TV on or toys and books to distract them
- Learn about Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding method and stick to your role and let your baby stick to theirs.
This article was written by Stacey Zimmels, feeding and swallowing specialist speech therapist and IBCLC lactation consultant. Stacey has worked for almost 20 years supporting infants and children with a wide range of feeding and swallowing difficulties. Her breadth of knowledge and experience runs across the spectrum; including but not exclusive to, preterm infants, breast and bottle feeding, weaning difficulties, managing allergies and reflux, swallowing difficulties and fussy eating. Stacey can be found at www.feedeatspeak.co.uk where you can read her feeding blog or contact her for feeding support and also on Instagram @feedeatspeak.