Many parents are keen to wean their babies as soon as possible, expressing pride at their infant’s early progress. However a baby simply cannot digest anything other than mother’s milk or formula before the age of three months – and even that is on the early side. At six months solids need to be introduced as the baby will begin to need more calories than milk alone can provide. So there you have it – between three and six months, though I believe that nearer to six months is ideal. One way or another, your baby will soon let you know if and when he is hungry. If he is dissatisfied with his feed, or chewing at everything in sight then maybe you need to take the hint.
Eating is a new sensation and at first your baby may do no more than just taste the food – soon he will get the hang of this new activity without too much prompting. Be patient, more may end up on the bib than in his mouth at first. Each new taste needs to be explored. If your baby does not like some tastes, just try them again a few weeks later. And do not be surprised if something he loves for several weeks suddenly goes out of favour – just try it again at a later date. Tastes change. Use single foods first and, as time progresses you can begin to combine them to provide a more interesting variety. Early foods must be puréed or mashed to a fine consistency with no lumps.
The first four months of building up the foods to which your child gets used to might look like this:
Initially concentrate on the vegetables. In particular, sweet vegetables are usually well received. I would suggest that, at this stage, you avoid what are called the deadly nightshade vegetables – they are a related family of vegetables that include potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. As the name implies they have toxic elements to which a young child can be sensitive. On a more positive note, you might like to try any of the following: carrots, parsnips, spinach, sweet potato, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, pumpkin, leeks, butternut squash, swede, and I am sure you can think of many more!
Then begin to add in the fruit – the cornucopia is too large to list all fruits individually. They are easy to introduce to babies as they love the naturally sweet flavours. They also mix well with vegetables to give a sweet/savoury variety. Use any fruits that are easy to puree or mash, avoiding any with seeds at this stage (such as pomegranates, kiwi or raspberries). Some parents prefer to give vegetables before fruit in case their child refuses all but the luscious fruit. I don’t think it matters hugely, just see what your baby likes. Most types of fruit can be given raw, and do not have to be cooked as vegetables do, making them an ideal source of nutrition. For the very young they should be peeled before pulverising, or cutting into fingers to chew on, to minimise the risk of choking on the skin.
Pulses, beans and brown rice added in to the diet at around five or six months, begins to give a little bulk to satisfy a hungry baby. There are also some slightly more unusual foods, millet, quinoa and buckwheat, that can be introduced at this time as they have very low allergenic potential and are a good source of proteins and starches. Pulses and beans must be well cooked and blended well as they can be a little indigestible otherwise. All of them rice, lentils, chick peas, white beans, flageolets, quinoa, etc, combine well with either savoury or sweet ingredients, and can be combined together to provide endless interesting dishes. Baby rice is a staple of the shop bought baby foods, however I would prefer, ideally, to use home-made brown rice, millet, quinoa or buckwheat. Grains and cereals, other than these, should be left until later as they have a higher allergenic potential – these include wheat, corn, rye, barley and oats.
Meat and fish can finally be introduced in small quantities – preferably keeping red meat to a minimum and concentrating on fish, especially oily fish, poultry and game.
In the first week or so your baby will only be able to handle a teaspoonful or two of mushed up food at a sitting. You may find that initially he finds it easier to suck some food from your (clean) finger. In time you may learn to think in numbers of ice-cubes, as you prepare and freeze food in ice-cube trays. Your child will increase the quantity slowly – let him decide. Be patient, mealtimes should not be rushed and your baby will decide when he is full. Maybe he just wants another taste sensation- so try a second course – for example a fruit dish after a vegetable dish.
Initially, the food you give your baby will be pulverised to a mushy consistency. He will not be able to deal with any lumps, and indeed for safety against the hazard of choking you need to be sure that it is completely smooth. Around the age of 5-6 months babies like to exercise their jaws on everything around, but their food should still be a puree. You can give him some carrot, cucumber or apple sticks to chew on to toughen up his gums (though from the point of view of the risk of choking you may prefer to use teething rings). Teeth usually begin to appear at around 6 months, and at this time you can pulverise food to a slightly lumpier consistency. Food that encourages chewing helps to develop jaw development and may help to avoid crowded teeth later in life. Never leave babies alone with any food in case of choking
When to give up breastor formula
Ideally, it is desirable to carry on breast feeding until the age of one, or even later. Certainly, you should keep up either breast or formula milk until that age. If I had it my way, from a nutritional standpoint, we would probably carry on breast feeding until nearer the age of two, but I realise that, for many mothers, this is not a realistic option. I believe it is around this time that nature intended us to wean our children, as many will start to reduce the amount of lactase, or milk sugar digesting enzymes, that they produce.
You may find that your child decides for himself when to give up breast-feeding. This is often more traumatic for the mother than the child – but when they decide to stop, they just do it. I was determined to carry on breast feeding until my son was well into his second year, but at ten months of age – with no formula bottles to tempt him – he just decided to stop and gave me gentle warning bites every time I tried to persuade him otherwise. So much for theory.
The conventional wisdom is that small children do not thrive best on solid food alone, and need some milk up to the age of two. At the age of one government guidelines state that it is safe to introduce ordinary cow’s milk into the diet. I would prefer to see a wider range of nutrients coming from foods and for milk to take a second place in the diet after the age of one, and then preferably from breast or formula milks rather than cow’s milk. You are raising a human infant and not a calf.
when he starts to feed himself
This is where all hope of control can go out of the window. Luckily, around the age when your child begins to be interested in feeding himself, his need for calories takes a bit of a dip – I say ‘luckily’ because a lot will end up on the floor! You will probably have to allow two or three times the amount of time for meal times than you have so far, and be prepared for him to be more pernickety as he has the option of whether to put something on the spoon or not. Trying times indeed! Part of the trick is to stay relaxed and keep distractions to a minimum – if you can!
Weaning to avoid allergies
It is all too easy for allergies, or food sensitivities, to be established in a young child. The three golden rules for reducing the chance of your child developing an allergy are:
1. Follow the sequence of food introduction on page XXX to minimise the risk.
2. Introduce one food at a time, and try to keep a food diary, noting any unusual reactions. If you think your child reacts, avoid the food for a week or two and then re-introduce it to see if the reaction is repeated. It is important to be organised about this otherwise if you introduce too many foods at the same time the results become meaningless and confused. If you notice that any foods provoke a severe allergic reaction, such as difficulty in breathing or swelling of the lips and face, or any other signs of which you are unsure, it is vital that you contact your doctor immediately.
3. Rotate foods as far as possible from day to day. Many allergies are established because of the frequency of consumption. You may feed your child a food for several months and suddenly notice that he starts to have some symptoms like digestive or skin complaints. The best way to avoid this is to rotate foods – so, for example, don’t have the same cereal for breakfast every day, one day have porridge, the next a rice based cereal, one day a corn base cereal, and on another day a cooked breakfast.
The ideal sequence to introduce foods
The ideal order in which to introduce foods, one stage at a time, is as follows
Age 4 – 8 months
a. Vegetables (except the deadly nightshade group – see i. below)
b. Fruits (except citrus)
c. Pulses and beans
d. Rice, buckwheat, quinoa and millet
e. Poultry, meat and fish *
f. Egg yolks
Age 9 – 14 months
g. Oats, barley and rye
h. Live yoghurt
i. Deadly nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines, peppers)
j. Whole eggs *Soya products* Shellfish*
Age 15 – 24 months
o. Dairy products
p. Seeds* and nuts* (not peanuts)
Age 5 years
q. Peanuts *
* The foods marked with an asterisk, fish, eggs, soya, shellfish, seeds, nuts and peanuts, are most commonly associated with the classical food allergy (as opposed to food intolerance or sensitivity). Do remember that the protein component of any food can provoke this sort of reaction. I have erred on the side of caution and chosen to put these foods in at stages when most children can tolerate them. If you are happy to take the risk, you may want to introduce them a bit earlier as they are all good nutritious foods.
For example, I chose to give my son finely ground sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and fresh nuts from the age of around 8 months as I believed the risk was small, but the nutritional benefits were many. On the other hand I was very strict with grains and dairy because of the far greater risk of sensitivity becoming a problem.
Peanuts are highest on the list of foods that may trigger a serious allergy and, if being super-cautious, are probably best left until the age of five years. They are a concentrated source of lectins, which are protein molecules that bind to human cells. This may be why they can cause such a serious reaction. If your child tends towards allergy, or comes from a family that does, then it may be wise to protect him from this small risk.
Be aware also that peanut or groundnut oil can provoke the same reaction and the fact that it is found in such a diverse range of products may be the reason why the number of children who are becoming sensitised is on the increase. Parents who are concerned about the small risk of this, and other, life threatening allergies should seek guidance from their doctor or one of the allergy associations.