An Introduction to Traditional Weaning
In a follow-up to our Guide to Formula Milks last month, we now introduce the topic of weaning — also known as complementary feeding. Weaning relates to the introduction of foods other than milk to your baby once they reach an appropriate age. In today’s article, we explore the traditional approach to weaning although will follow up separately with an alternative weaning method, in the near future.
The Meaning of Weaning
A typical dictionary definition tells us that weaning is, “to gradually stop feeding a baby or young animal with its mother’s milk and start feeding it with solid food.” Specifically, we mean the process of changing over i.e. phasing out the milk/formula and gradually transitioning the infant to ‘solids’. The new foods will initially be given alongside the breast or formula milk that the child has consumed up until then.
“Solids” — a Clarification for the Traditional Weaning Approach
It should be noted that, using the traditional approach to weaning, food is not initially introduced as actual solid pieces. Although we call foods other than milk or formula solids, they are fed to babies and infants initially in puréed form in the traditional approach to weaning. Examples of foods that can be pulped in this way are soft fruits like ripe apples and pears, bananas, cooked (but suitably cooled) vegetables like cauliflower, potato, broccoli, spinach, sweet potato, carrots and suchlike. Puréed food like this can slip down easily – almost like a liquid. It’s intuitive for a baby to swallow as it’s not too dissimilar to drinking, which is what they’ve been used to.
The thinking with this traditional approach is that puréed food is safer for very young babies too. It may also be easier for them to consume (most have no teeth at weaning age). Pulped vegetables or fruit, for example, will have been blitzed in a blender to a point where there are no lumps and the food is simply in a lovely purée form. The traditional wisdom is also that its pulped form will significantly reduce the potential choking risk that would otherwise apply if the food hadn’t been puréed. However, see our note below about baby-led weaning as that approach is quite different to the traditional one.
Anyway, as your infant grows older and more used to eating puréed food, you can gradually progress to less ‘blitzed’ textures. For example, mashed foods rather than completely puréed ones. They’ll have a bit more texture about them. A slightly lumpier mixture can follow later, then eventually graduate them to finger foods, so long as they’re soft (for example cooked carrot sticks rather than raw). Do see the safety notes in the box at the end of this guide, though, including in regard to avoiding possible choking hazards.
In contrast to traditional weaning using puréed food, a more recent approach that’s become quite popular is baby-led weaning. However, because it’s quite a big topic in its own right, we have published a stand-alone article outlining the alternative baby-led approach separately, here.
When to Wean?
Unless you’ve been advised otherwise by a healthcare professional (e.g. Health Visitor), it’s usually best to wait until your baby is 6 months old before beginning the weaning process. Ensure your child is physically ready for the process. This will include good hand-eye coordination skills, being able to sit up and hold their own head steady and being able to swallow puréed food.
Be mindful, though, that the introduction of solids should accompany their breast or formula milk, not immediately replace it. Continuing to consume milk is essential to their growth and health at this early stage in their lives.
The 3 Stages of Traditional Weaning
- The initial introduction of some solid foods (mashed or puréed) usually takes place from the age of 6 months.
- At 7 months, more textured food and some different tastes can be mixed in.
- Between 9 and 12 months of age, a wider variety of food can be given.
What if Babies Don’t Like Solids?
Weaning is an exciting milestone. However, it can be both fun and challenging in equal measure. Each baby is individual. While some babies take to eating solids like ducks to water, others take longer to adapt. Their expressions are the real giveaway, so watch out for those. It’s a whole new experience for them and remember; they are going from knowing only warm milk to a whole new world of unfamiliar textures and tastes.
Start Weaning Slowly
It’s important not to rush the weaning process and for both parent and baby to enjoy the new journey. Starting with just small amounts is fine if the baby isn’t taking to solids initially. They’ll soon catch on and you can then introduce more as time goes by.
Spoon-Fed vs. Baby-Led Feeding
Whether spoon-feeding as a parent or allowing the baby to lead their own feeding may require some experimentation. Some babies like to be spoon-fed while others get on better with ‘baby-led’ feeding. So it’s worth trying each and even a combination of the two when you first start weaning your child onto solids. Their preference will soon become apparent and, before you know it, they’ll be transitioning to solids beautifully.
Top Tips for Worry-Free Weaning
- Avoid feeding when the baby is tired or preoccupied.
- Remove toys from the baby’s vicinity and turn off distractions like TVs.
- Pick your moment to start weaning carefully.
- Demonstrate how you eat, use a spoon, etc. and let them watch. They will learn from your example.
- Give them a ‘weaning spoon’ (these are softer than standard ones) and try not to overload their spoon with food. A weaning bowl, with suction cup underneath for stability, is also a useful tool.
- Don’t be surprised if they initially push solids out of their mouths — babies need to learn how to eat, use their tongues and swallow these new puréed foods.
- A little gagging may be natural, but be vigilant about possible choking, which is dangerous. Learn some First Aid just in case.
- Don’t stress if things get messy — this is totally natural and can easily be mitigated through use of a bib (e.g. a pelican bib).
- Don’t forget that babies may not accept foods until they’ve tried them multiple times. Sometimes it can take as many as 10 tries before a baby will accept a new food. Perseverance is key but, of course, never force an infant to feed.
- Following a session of eating ‘solids’ with a drink of milk is a good way to put your infant at ease and make the process of weaning more natural. It can also help to wash the puréed solids down and reduce the possibility of indigestion, hiccups etc.
- Don’t worry if the amount of solids consumed by your baby in each sitting is inconsistent. Your baby may sometimes eat more, other times less.
- Ensure that, overall, your little one is consuming a balanced and varied diet.
- Discuss whether additional vitamin/mineral supplements are appropriate for your child with your GP or Health visitor. This is particularly important if your little one has a special diet. (Aside from special diet scenarios, the NHS website makes recommendations about vitamin supplements for little ones and that information is included in the bold NHS link directly below this section).
- Be patient and persevere.
The NHS outlines additional guidelines about weaning here.
- Avoid choking hazards. That means things like grapes, cherry tomatoes, nuts, raw vegetables etc. should not be given whole nor in chunks that could be a choking hazard. Chop them up small or mash them, as appropriate. Remove stones and pips etc.
- Always supervise feeding, particularly when weaning.
- Was your baby born prematurely? If so, consult your doctor or health visitor before starting the weaning process.
- Maintain high levels of hygiene around food preparation.
- Ensure that you know which foods to avoid giving your little one.
- Do not add salt or sugar to infants’ food.
- Always check that food is at the correct temperature for your child before serving.
- Be mindful of possible food allergens when first introducing new foods to your child. Click the green link to learn more.
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