One session of my recent NCT postnatal course was devoted to the topic of weaning our babies.
What is weaning?
I think the word “weaning” in this context is slightly misleading, as it often tends to be paired with “off”; for example, “I weaned myself off cake”. The definition according to Google (my new favourite dictionary) is indeed a bit contradictory:
wean wiːn/ verb
- accustom (an infant or other young mammal) to food other than its mother’s milk;
- accustom (someone) to managing without something which they have become dependent on: “the doctor tried to wean her off the sleeping pills”;
- be strongly influenced by (something), especially from an early age: “I was weaned on a regular diet of Hollywood fantasy”.
In the case of weaning a baby, it does not mean automatically stopping breastfeeding, unless you want to or need to for other reasons. A baby is not supposed to have cow’s milk as a drink until they are a year old, due to digestive issues, so if you remove breast milk from the equation at any point in their first year you will have to replace it with formula. Weaning a baby means moving them “ON” to solid food, which is ingested alongside – not instead of – milk. I for one didn’t understand this until I became pregnant, and a couple of people I’ve talked to since have also assumed that any breastfeeding beyond six months is for kicks rather than any real nutritional purpose (one source of confusion might be the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of “exclusive breastfeeding” for the first six months – the key is in the word “exclusive”!)
When to start?
The class leader asked us when we thought a baby was ready to start eating solid food – in other words, an opportunity for her to explode some apparent myths around the subject:
“When he shows interest in me eating.”
Reaching out for and staring at your food looks he wants to eat, but babies show interest in everything you do, and you eating is no more exciting for a baby than you washing up or drying your hair. It’s also true, I suppose, that a baby would not necessarily connect your eating activity with hunger being satisfied. This does make me feel better that at the moment I usually eat breakfast while Pip himself feeds and grab lunch while he sleeps. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that babies also love to copy, so when weaning starts you can eat alongside your baby to encourage them.
“When he starts waking more at night.”
Understandably, one of my classmates suggested a baby starts needing food when milk does not seem to sustain them through the night any more (if it ever did!) – but the teacher pointed out that in terms of calorific content, the foods a baby eats at first are far less filling than milk. Bites of fruit and veg and maybe a spoonful of baby rice aren’t going to tank up your baby enough to make a difference. Apparently it isn’t until a baby is around 8-9 months old that the amount and nature of the food they eat can actually fill them up to the point where they do start to need less milk – more of which later.
The three main things you do need to ensure are in place before commencing weaning are:
- Good head control;
- Can reach out to something, pick it up and bring it to their mouth;
- Baby is around six months old and definitely no younger than 17 weeks.
Essentially, there are two types of weaning, commonly known as parent-led and baby-led.