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.
This is the traditional way of doing things, which involves feeding puree to your baby with a spoon.
Like feeding on demand, baby-led weaning is a relatively recent parenting trend which puts the baby in the driving seat. Basically it involves providing a selection of appropriate finger foods for your baby and letting them explore, choose and taste it themselves. Advantages of this method include teaching your baby what food looks like (for example, that broccoli is floret-shaped rather than a green mush), and it apparently helps them become less fussy later. Babycentre has a comprehensive section on baby-led weaning here for those interested in finding out more,
A lot of parents seem to use a combination of the methods – baby-led in the comfort of home, and parent-led when out and about, using pre-prepared puree or a pouch.
How to wean?
In terms of when and how often your baby should be “fed”, it was recommended that you eventually aim for three eating sessions a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner. These should take place after a milk feed so they are not too hungry and fretful. If nothing much goes in at first, not to worry as the milk is more important nutritionally anyway. And like magic, in the post today I received a guide to weaning courtesy of Hipp Organic, which includes a suggested feeding schedule appropriate to age. It’s literally one teaspoonful here and there in the early stages!
However you choose to wean your baby, it’s going to be messy! One piece of advice I picked up from the session was to put down a clean plastic sheet on the floor under the high chair. Then, when the bits and bobs end up down there, you can pick them up and give them back to your baby to attempt to eat again. Less wastage and it protects your floor too.
So what about the milk?
How does weaning work with any feeding schedule your baby might have fallen into?
You need to follow your baby’s lead, say the NCT. At around 8-9 months your baby will somehow magically know what to do and the milk feeds will gradually reduce in length and frequency. If you are breastfeeding, your breasts will also adjust their supply to suit your baby’s needs, so you don’t need to consciously reduce or cut out feeds – your baby and body will do this for you while you sit back and watch (theoretically!)
The yummy bit
So what are baby-friendly first foods? Pretty much anything goes within reason and using common sense. I guess the ideal scenario would be for Pip to just eat a bit of whatever we’re having for dinner, so we don’t have to cook twice: ideal if we’re eating butternut squash risotto, but not so great to share the honey and walnut glazed salmon – see list below.
Annabel Karmel seems to be the queen of weaning and her range of books provide loads of ideas for what to feed your little prince/princess, including suggested meal plans. How anyone has the time or inclination to plan meals for their baby amazes me, but I suppose if there’s no shop nearby you’d need to maybe think ahead slightly (whereas we visit Sainsbury’s on an almost daily basis).
Otherwise the main thing to remember, as with pregnancy and breastfeeding, is what to avoid. The main list of no-nos is as follows :
- Honey until aged one
- Cow’s milk until aged one – but it’s ok if heated up e.g. in porridge
- Whole nuts and other choking hazards until the age of five
- Added salt
- Alcohol, caffeine etc
And exercise caution if there are allergies in your family – it’s probably a good idea to chat to a medical professional about how best to proceed.
Otherwise it’s a good idea to start with food like carrots. Once Elphie and Pip are eating I’m sure we’ll report back on how we’re getting on with the different cuisines! In the meantime there is absolutely loads of information out there about the nuts and bolts of weaning – the NHS is a good place to start if you are hungry for more.
So, what next?
One thing the NCT leader warned us about was that weaning can get competitive, and she urged us not to wean our babies early just to keep up with the Joneses. While despite my best efforts I can’t help but feel secretly a teensy bit competitive about other milestones*, my views on weaning are the opposite. If anything, I’d be more than happy to prolong the exclusive breastfeeding a bit longer – it makes life so much simpler and easier! I wouldn’t even know where to start with formula milk, let alone actual food.
However, if you do want to get your little one started on solids earlier, the NHS recommends your baby should be an absolute minimum of 17 weeks old. That’s last week for Pip… and while he is big for his age so realistically would probably be a good case for early weaning, the idea of him eating solid food is to me ridiculous at the moment!
Pip will turn six months in early 2014 so we’ll see how it goes between now and then. If he does seem raring to go before then maybe we’ll slip him some of our Christmas dinner. Lucky Elphie will be turning six months just before the big day – what perfect timing! Imagine… your first ever taste of food: pureed sprouts.
*well, the secret’s out now