Although breast milk or baby formula will give your baby the nutrition they need for their first year, when your baby is around 6 months old or older, weaning them onto solid food will top up essential nutrients including vitamins and minerals to help support healthy growth and taste development.
What is traditional baby weaning?
Traditional baby weaning or spoon-fed weaning is an approach where you feed your baby using a spoon and gradually introduce them to more solid foods.
Weaning would usually begin with smooth purees before moving to mashed and chopped foods, then finger foods and finally small bites.
Benefits of traditional weaning
Some of the benefits of traditional weaning are:
- Easy to keep track. It is easier to see how much your baby has eaten based on the prepared amounts and what is left over as you are the one who is feeding your baby.
- Less messy. It is less messy as babies do not touch or handle the food themselves. Chances of food spilling or getting all over their clothes are therefore much lower.
- Easier to identify food allergies. As traditional baby weaning often involves introducing foods once at a time, it would be easier to identify a food allergy.
- Lesser tendency to choke. Most parents feel more confident that their baby will not choke following the traditional weaning method.
When to start baby weaning: 6-month milestone
Paediatricians usually recommend that you start offering solid foods when your baby reaches 6 months old. Some babies may be ready as early as 4 months old. More studies have shown that 4 – 6 months is the most optimal window period to reduce the chances of your baby developing a food allergy but it is also important to look out for the following indications that your baby will be able to cope with solids:
- Your baby can hold their head up
- Your baby can sit up well with the support of their high chair
- Your baby shows an interest in mealtimes and food
- Your baby can move food to the back of the tongue to swallow
If you're unsure whether your baby is ready, you should check with your doctor.
How to start baby weaning: First solid foods and purees
When you begin preparing food for your baby, it's important to make sure that for the first few weeks at least, the food is pureed and smooth in texture, as they won't be able to chew anything truly solid yet. Some suitable first foods are:
- Single-grain cereals, fortified with iron, mixed with breast milk or formula
- Pureed meat, fish and poultry, or pureed tofu and lentils
- Pureed fruits, such as bananas, pears, apples, mango, and prunes. To prepare, boil or steam until soft, strain and then mash into a fine puree. You can use a blender and add some breast milk if you wish
- Pureed vegetables, such as carrots, potato, sweet potato, avocado, or pumpkin. Prepare these in the same way as the pureed fruits
Because of the soft texture of these foods, you can spoon-feed them to your baby as they learn what it feels like to swallow solid food. Try a variety of options and find out if there's anything your baby really enjoys. This is a fun time of experimentation, so don't be disheartened if your baby spits out what you make for them. They're learning all the time, and they may realise they like that food if you try it again on a different day.
What to feed your baby: 8 to 12 months old
Once your baby has mastered purees, you can start to add texture and lumps to their food. By 8 months, your baby can eat:
- A variety of mashed fruits and vegetables
- Small pieces of meat and fish
- Beans, which need to be mashed if they are large
- Eggs and some dairy, including yoghurts
You can also offer a variety of finger foods at this stage. Your baby will enjoy playing with the different shapes and textures of the food you offer, and they will develop their fine motor skills as they practise picking up and eating food by themselves. Start with:
- Small pieces of soft fruit
- Softened carrot sticks
- Cooked pasta pieces
- Cereal or cereal puffs
- Teething rusks
By 10 – 12 months, your baby can try eating most of the foods you eat now. You just have to make sure that they are cut up so that your baby can safely chew and swallow.
As you and your baby get more confident with the weaning process, you can introduce new foods all the time. Just make sure you never give your baby anything that could be a significant choking hazard, such as grapes, cherry tomatoes, or hot dogs, unless you've cut them into very small pieces. You should also avoid giving your baby honey until they are at least 1 year old, because it poses a risk of infant botulism, which can be serious.
The goals of weaning
Try not to get frustrated by the weaning process. It should be a fun, special time for you and your baby to enjoy. Even if your baby refuses foods, it's part of the learning journey. If you are concerned about starting to introduce food or how your baby is handling solids, you can see your paediatrician for advice that suits your child.
While you are weaning
- Continue to give your baby breast milk or formula. This will be your baby's main source of calories and nutrition until their first birthday, and if you eliminate it too soon your baby will be at risk of nutrient deficiencies and delayed development.
- Avoid giving your baby cow's milk until they are 1. Only breast milk and infant formula are recommended until then.
- Your baby does not need any water before 6 months, and they won't need a lot of water even when they begin to eat solids. They will get most of their hydration from breast milk or formula. You can offer a small amount of water in a sippy cup at mealtimes, but not too much until they're fully weaned.
- Don't avoid giving your baby foods that are common allergy culprits, just monitor them closely the first few times they try them. It's important to introduce one new food at a time and wait for 3 – 5 days to observe for allergic reactions such as rashes, difficulty breathing, diarrhoea or vomiting. Foods to keep an eye on include peanuts and other nuts, eggs and shellfish. If you suspect your baby is having an allergic reaction to something they eat, take them to the A&E. You may work with a doctor or dietitian to identify the specific food allergen.
Essential nutrients in your baby's diet
As your baby takes in more solids, and the weaning process comes to an end, it's important to ensure they are getting a balanced diet, especially as their breast milk or formula intake decreases.
Key nutrients to include in your baby's diet are:
- Iron, because iron levels become depleted in the months after your baby is born. Some iron-rich foods include meat, green leafy vegetables such as spinach, and fortified cereal.
- Zinc, which will boost your baby's immunity. Try offering cheese, chickpeas, lentils and red meat.
- Fibre, to assist in healthy digestion. Prunes, pears, plums, and oatmeal are all high-fibre foods.
- Calcium, which will help your baby build strong bones. Include yoghurt, hard cheese, cottage cheese and broccoli in your baby's meals. Make sure any cheese you offer is pasteurised.
- Protein, to help your baby's overall growth and development. Lean meat such as chicken, fish and peanut butter are all good sources.
The final stage of weaning
When your baby reaches their first birthday, you can choose to stop breastfeeding or formula feeding completely. If you wish to continue breastfeeding, then you'll be giving your baby an additional boost of immunity and nutrients for as long as you want to carry on. When you do stop nursing, your baby should be eating three regular meals a day, with snacks in between. As they grow more confident with solid foods, you can give them a spoon and a fork to practise with and, before you know it, they'll be running mealtimes themselves.
What is baby-led weaning?
Baby-led weaning is an alternative approach to the traditional way of introducing solid foods to infants that has grown in popularity over the past 20 years.
This method promotes infant self-feeding from 6-months of age, instead of conventional parent spoon-feeding.
Key features of baby-led weaning are that:
- Infants participate in family mealtimes
- Whole (baby-fist size) pieces of food are offered from the beginning of the weaning stage at around 6 months of age and the infants feed themselves
Benefits of baby-led weaning
There are several benefits that may be gained from the baby-led weaning approach:
- Good eating behaviours. The baby-led weaning approach allows babies to choose what and how much they want to eat, making them active participants in the feeding process. Research shows that this helps them to be better able to recognise feelings of hunger and fullness and promote healthier eating behaviours later in life.
- Protect against excess weight gain. As babies are much more involved in the eating process and feed themselves, experts believe this may protect them from excess weight gain later in life. Some studies have shown that babies weaned using the baby-led weaning approach are more likely to weigh in the normal range than those weaned by spoon-feeding.
- Reduce fussiness around food. There is evidence which suggests that baby-led weaning reduces picky eating behaviours and promotes the acceptance of a wider variety of foods, as more tastes and textures are introduced early on.
- Easy to implement. Those who practise baby-led weaning often say that this approach is easy to implement as there is no need to prepare or purchase pureed food. They simply offer their babies appropriate versions of their family meals.
First foods for baby-led weaning
Some great options for safe first foods for baby-led weaning include:
- Mashed avocado
- Thoroughly cooked sweet potato, served in finger-sized pieces or mashed
- Cooked veggies, such as peas, carrots, potatoes and broccoli cut into finger sizes or mashed
- Soft, well-cooked meat and poultry, preferably organic, served in cubes or slices
- Chickpeas cooked thoroughly, served whole by flattening them between your fingers or mashed
Should I stop breastfeeding?
When starting baby-led weaning, breastfeeding will continue to provide most of the calories your baby needs. As their intake of solids increases, their intake of breast milk should gradually reduce.