Introducing your baby to solid foods can be an exciting yet confusing and stressful time for parents. We we look at the evidence to help you decide what’s best for you and your baby.
Today, parents are advised to wait until six months because the majority of babies are not developmentally ready to manage solid foods until then – this is supported by international research from expert bodies.
After this time their digestive systems will be able to cope better and their tongue and gag reflexes will have evolved, reducing the risk of choking. In addition, milk has far more of the energy, vitamins and nutrients essential for your baby’s growth and development than most baby foods.
If a baby eats solids before they’re ready, and earlier than six months, they’re likely to want less of this nourishing milk.
And research shows that exclusive breastfeeding to six months gives babies greater immunity and limits their exposure to anything that could cause illness at a vulnerable age, as well as contributing to a lower risk of being obese and developing diabetes as a child.
Helen Boosey, mum to Isobel, two, and member of Sussex Downs NCT branch, says she felt some pressure: ‘Everyone was saying I needed to introduce solids earlier than six months for various reasons, such as Isobel not sleeping through the night or not getting enough nutrition from breastmilk alone. But I stuck to my guns and ignored them.’
Parents are sometimes confused and feel pressured about offering solid foods… partly because there are few hard and fast rules to follow’ Rather than focusing on the age, it might be more helpful for parents to consider signs that their baby might be ready for solids.
Waking frequently at night after being settled doesn’t necessarily mean your baby is ready for solids.
Graziella Iossa, mum to Roan, five, Eoin, three, and Bran, 18 months, and member of Lincoln NCT branch, says: ‘I felt trepidation about introducing solids with my first baby – it seemed a huge step and a whole new world.’
But she says her son started to show he was ready by being able to sit up and hold his head steady, reach for food, take it to his mouth, and swallow rather than pushing solids out of his mouth.
These signals tend to appear together at around six months and rarely much earlier. Some parents may interpret the following signs to mean their baby is ready for solids, but this isn’t necessarily the case.
Babies might have a larger appetite, but this could be a growth spurt and giving more milk can help. Also, a baby might be unsettled and putting their fists in their mouth, which might indicate they’re teething rather than hungry.
In addition, waking frequently at night after being settled doesn’t necessarily mean your baby is ready for solids and, although there is discussion about solids helping babies sleep through the night, this isn’t supported by research.
Rosemary Dodds, NCT Senior Policy Adviser, says: ‘Parents are sometimes confused and feel pressured about offering solid foods. Part of it is society’s pressure for baby to grow up rapidly and be seen to “progress”. And part is because there are few hard and fast rules to follow.’
When it comes to introducing solids, 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 about your baby choosing what and how much to eat – with parents offering pieces of food that their baby can grasp in their hand and letting them feed themselves.
Helen says: ‘I opted for BLW because I wanted Isobel to grow up eating what we eat. And I didn’t have the energy to purée.’ At almost six months, Isobel helped herself to her mum’s food and they haven’t looked back since. BLW is as simple as offering a few pieces of food once a day at first and letting your baby enjoy holding it and exploring the new textures and tastes.
There is some initial evidence to suggest there’s an advantage to letting babies lead or have control when it comes to introducing solids. This includes parents feeling they have to monitor and pressure their children less about eating, as well as having less anxiety.
Choking is one of the most common first aid concerns for parents. Helen says: ‘I was worried about choking, but by around six months Isobel seemed to have a strong gag reflex and whenever she stuffed too much food into her mouth she was able to cough it up.’
Some parents find their babies have wider food tastes, which has led authors to suggest BLW could help reduce food fussiness. In addition, one study found BLW was associated with a lower body mass index (BMI), though more research is needed.
Also, while it may not look like your baby has eaten much, finger foods are generally less watery than purées, and babies are guided by their appetite.
Graziella also chose BLW. ‘I was captivated by the idea. It’s easy, stress-free and introduces babies to family meals naturally.’ But it can be messy and Graziella suggests parents use wipe-down bibs and put an old tablecloth under the highchair. BLW is suitable for most full-term babies but premature babies or those with developmental delays may need help. Whichever method you use, it’s important to allow babies to go at their own pace.
Another option is puréeing or mashing food and then spoon-feeding your baby – eventually allowing them to spoon-feed themselves when they’re ready.
In the government’s Infant Feeding Survey 2010, 94% of mothers said they first gave their baby puréed or mashed food. Some parents like this option because they worry that their baby won’t eat enough through BLW and may also be concerned about choking.
Although in a study of 155 parents by the University of Nottingham in 2012, spoon-fed babies were no more likely to choke than those who fed themselves.
If you’re making a family meal, a good tip is to set aside a portion for your baby before adding seasoning, salt, stock cubes or sugar.
Adding expressed breastmilk or formula when puréeing can help add nutrients. If you do make food for your baby, remember they can’t cope with a lot of salt in their diet. The same goes for sugar as this encourages a sweet tooth without providing any nutrients.
If you’re making a family meal, a good tip is to set aside a portion for your baby before adding seasoning, salt, stock cubes or sugar. Some parents offer shop-bought baby food and snacks, some of which are labelled as suitable from four months, but this is based on outdated guidance.
Recent evidence shows they don’t always meet babies’ dietary needs as they’re predominantly sweet and less nutritious than milk. They can be quick and convenient, but they’re expensive and parents are potentially being misled about the health benefits.
The Diet and Nutrition Survey, published last year, found the average salt intake in babies aged 12-18 months was higher than the recommended maximum of 2g per day. As a result, parents might find it useful to check nutritional information on manufactured foods, such as salt and sugar quantities, before buying.
Many parents also deliberate over what time of day is best when it comes to feeding. You can choose when suits you and your family – ideally this should be when your baby isn’t too tired 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. Researchers like Gabrielle Palmer say meat is suitable as it’s high in the iron that babies need and they can chew on strips, while others say fruit, vegetables or rice are a good place to begin.
So, pretty much any unprocessed food is an option, though very fatty meat can be too rich for young babies. It can help to introduce solids gradually with one new food at a time. If your baby has a reaction, this makes it easier to work out the cause.
Reactions can include rashes, red itchy eyes, constipation, diarrhoea and being unsettled. If you think your baby has had a reaction, seek medical help.
Helen says: ‘I was aware of giving Isobel anything that was a potential allergen and kept an eye on her for any sign of a reaction.’ Reactions can include rashes, red itchy eyes, constipation, diarrhoea and being unsettled. Severe reactions can include wheezing, swelling of the tongue and mouth and trouble breathing. If you think your baby has had a reaction, seek medical help.
Babies don’t need much extra energy at first so large quantities aren’t necessary. Most babies know when they’re full. They may turn their head away, spit food out or keep their mouth shut.
Don’t worry if your baby hasn’t eaten much – what they eat over the course of a week is more important.
Babies need food from all four groups: fruit and vegetables; bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods; meat, fish, eggs, beans and other proteins; milk and dairy.
They don’t need sweet foods, such as chocolate, biscuits and cakes, and water can be offered rather than fruit juices. Babies will continue to need as much breastmilk or formula at first. But as they start to eat more, they’ll gradually cut down on the milk they take, so follow their lead.
Graziella continued to breastfeed: ‘This is because food was for playing until my son was about nine months – then he started to eat more than he spread all over the dining room!’
NCT member Sophie balanced her daughter’s formula intake as per guidelines from her Health Visitor and continued to give a morning, lunch and bedtime bottle, cutting out the middle bottle when she was one.
Of course, your decisions will depend on your baby and your family. It may seem like there’s a lot to think about, but watching your little one explore new tastes and seeing their reactions can be rewarding and funny!