Updated: Oct 16, 2018
As your little one gets ready to try solids, it’s up to you to decide how they’ll experience their first taste of real food. Hollie Allman explores the different trends in infant weaning to help you determine what’s best for you and your baby?
What are the options?
Food for your baby can either be pureed and spoon-fed or cut up into manageable chunks to pick up as they like. The term ‘baby-led weaning’, coined by midwife Gil Rapley, is often used to refer to this simple act of allowing your child to feed themselves from the moment you start providing extra food. Weaning is used here in the English sense of the word, meaning the addition of complementary food, rather than the American sense, meaning to give up breastfeeding.
When should I wean?
It’s definitely worth letting your baby take the lead here. Watch them closely at mealtimes and take note of if and when they start showing an interest in food. Some babies of eight months will sit quietly at the dinner table playing with their toys or watching the world go by, while others of five months will be frantically trying to grab everything off your plate! The age you choose to wean can also depend on whether you're happy to continue breast or bottle feeding. Most babies will receive enough nutrition from this until around a year old, so there’s no rush to get started if you or your baby isn’t ready. If, on the other hand, your little one seems keen to give it a go, then this is the perfect opportunity to begin weaning of some kind. If they don’t take to it, there’s no harm in going back to milk and giving it another try later.
What do I feed them?
It's generally agreed that babies can have anything that we can if you leave out the salt, but a full meal may be a bit daunting to them at first. To start them off, try steaming some vegetables until they’re nice and soft (but not falling apart) or cut up soft fruits or slices of bread. Once they seem comfortable with this you can begin to let them try whatever you’re eating – fried rice, baked potatoes and spaghetti are often popular. All of this can, of course, be pureed or mashed if you prefer, and there’s a good range of salt and sugar-free baby cereals available which contain a good balance of vitamins and minerals. Don’t worry about confusing your baby between spoon-feeding and finger food—human beings are perfectly adept at switching between the two, so give them some credit here. There is also debate as to when to introduce certain foods (cow’s milk, for example, isn’t recommended for those under one) but if you’re aware of what can commonly cause an allergic reaction and keep in mind any family histories, then you can let your common sense prevail.
What will work for you?
When deciding how you’re going to wean your baby, you need to consider your lifestyle and preferences. Some people find it easier to rely on fresh food and cut it up as they need it, while others prefer to puree, grab and go. The former, of course, relies on making sure there is plenty of fresh produce in the house, while the latter means you can have everything planned in advance and a freezer full of healthy combinations always on hand. Think about how you (and your helper) organise your time—do you prefer to shop each day or stock up in advance? If you’re on the move or travelling, it can be difficult to keep food fresh, so purees are often a more convenient choice. There’s a huge range of pre-packaged cartons and jars available in most countries, which are a great option in the short-term even if you’d usually rather make your own from fresh ingredients. Order of birth can also come into play in making your decision, as it may save time to serve up the same to everyone and younger siblings tend to want to copy their elders. As a parent you may also be more confident to let them feed themselves if you’ve experienced these stages before.
How will they cope?
The reality is that you won’t know this until you try. It’s normal to be a bit nervous as you take this step with your tiny bundle of joy, but trust your instincts and let them have a go. Advocates of baby led weaning will assure you that what we often mistake for choking is actually the baby’s healthy gag reflex helping them to move food around their mouth. For anyone who's ever seen a seven-month-old throw up a rice cracker after a violent coughing fit, there's little consolation in that! All children are different and while one may chomp down pretty much anything with no issues at six months, another may not enjoy feeling texture in their mouth until a lot later. If you’re buying packaged snacks you can work off the age guidelines, but be sure to watch your baby carefully and don’t worry if they’re not keen at first. The last thing we want to do is to put our children off their food before they've even got started. As the person who knows their baby best, you're the only one qualified to make the call whether to persevere, try some purees or leave it until later. Don’t be afraid to change your mind if it isn’t going the way you’d hoped.
Will it be messy?
Quite simply, that’s up to you! Sitting and spooning every mouthful of food exactly where it needs to go can certainly save a lot of cleaning up after a meal and you may enjoy this time of bonding with your baby. If, however, you don’t mind the mess as baby flings around whatever food they’re eating and a bit of spaghetti bolognese in their hair doesn’t bother you, then sit back and let the chaos reign. Most of us are somewhere in between in which case why not mix it up a bit and see what you and your baby prefer?
What’s best for baby?
At this stage, whatever complementary foods you give to your baby should be just that. It’s easy to get caught up in whether they’re eating enough and whether they’re getting the right nutrients, but if they’re still having their breastmilk or formula, then you shouldn’t need to worry. More may seem to be coming up than going down, particularly if your baby is “gumming” their food rather than chewing it, but this is still a valuable learning and tasting experience for them. Obviously the more fresh foods your child eats the better, but whether you offer them whole or pureed is up to you. While weaning guidelines continue to change, it’s not an exact science, so don’t be afraid to experiment and, above all, be as flexible as possible with the choices you make.
This is a wonderful time for you and your little one, as they move along on their journey to becoming a proper little person. Go with your (and your baby’s) gut and focus on giving them enjoyable experiences to help them build a lifelong love of food.
This article appeared in Playtimes October Issue 2017.