A Guide For Stepping into the World of Weaning
Lucy Upton answers 10 of the most common questions asked by parents stepping into the world of weaning with their baby.
Approaching weaning with your baby can fill parents with equal measures of excitement and apprehension. With a plethora of information to trawl through, and advice pinging at you from all directions, it can be difficult to find clear answers to those burning questions. To help cut through the noise, you’ll find below, answers to 10 of the most common questions parents are asking as they start stepping into the world of weaning with their baby.
Weaning Aka Complementary feeding; The introduction of solid foods to your baby
1. What are the signs your baby is ready to start weaning?
When it comes to starting solids, the current UK recommendations are that babies should commence weaning at around 6 months of age, and not before 17 weeks of age (SACN report, DOH).
The key to understanding exactly when is the right time to start weaning with your baby is to pay close attention to developmental signs that show you they are ready to go. Like any developmental milestones, these can vary somewhat from child to child.
There are three key developmental signs to look for in your baby, before starting weaning;
- Your baby is able to sit up and stay in a seated position. They should also have good head control – being able to hold their head upright and steady
- Your baby is able to coordinate their hands, eyes and mouth – practically this means they should be able to look at food/an object, pick it up and bring it to their mouth independently
- Your baby is ready to swallow food. Babies have a natural tongue thrust reflex which starts to reduce as they reach weaning age. Babies who are still noticeably pushing food back out of their mouth with their tongue may not be quite ready to go, whereas those who are able to move food from the front to the back of their mouth (in order to swallow) are ready
There are still many myths flying around relating to weaning readiness. Behaviours such as sucking or chewing fists, waking during the night, and increased frequency or volume of milk feeds are still commonly mentioned.Whilst it is normal for babies to observe these behaviours around weaning age, they do not indicate that your baby is ready to start weaning.
2. Which foods are best to start with? How do you progress after these?
There are a number of foods you could choose to start your baby with, and it’s helpful to remember there isn’t just one ‘right’ way to commence solids. Parents are often encouraged to start with a vegetable-led approach to weaning, with a particular focus on green or more bitter-tasting vegetables. This is because evidence suggests getting these foods in early, may support ongoing acceptance of these foods later into childhood. Weaning is also a key time for exposure to lots of different flavours – with vegetables being a great way of offering babies those more challenging bitter tastes, which are very different to sweet tastes they generally find easier and are more familiar with (e.g. from their milk). If this approach feels right for you and your baby, you could offer tastes of a single vegetable each day for the first 7-10 days of weaning e.g. courgette, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, aubergine.
As mentioned, there isn’t just one way to approach introduction to solids. Some parents prefer to offer a variety of different vegetables e.g. green vegetables, root vegetables and fruit one at a time and others prefer to also include cereals such as baby porridge initially. As you progress through weaning, the aim is to introduce your baby to a wide variety of foods, including lots of different tastes and flavours.
Depending on your preferred method of weaning, first foods can be offered in pureed form (from a spoon) and/or as finger food. Finger foods should be a size and texture suitable for your baby, and are discussed more below. Don’t worry if your baby doesn’t take much initially, their first few days and weeks are just about small tastes and starting to get to grips with learning to eat!
Once you’ve offered your baby a range of first tastes with single foods across the first 1-2 weeks, you’ll probably be thinking ‘what now?’. The next steps of weaning really aim to focus on three key things;
1. Offering lots of variety
This means starting to introduce foods from across the different food groups including fruits, vegetables, dairy, carbohydrates (e.g. grains, potato, rice, cereals) and iron-rich foods (e.g. meat, oily fish, eggs, beans/legumes, nuts*). You can progress by starting to combine different foods, this may look like offering a combination of vegetables initially, moving onto vegetables combined with starchy or iron-rich food and eventually balanced baby meals (more on this below)
2. Progressing with texture
Babies have a key window of opportunity to develop experience with textures between 6-10 months of age. With this in mind, as you move through weaning you should aim to progress through textures with your baby (particularly if you commenced with purees). For example, you may transition from smooth purees, to well mashed then fork mashed or minced options.
3. Supporting skill development
Learning to eat is a big ask for babies, and takes time, patience and the right experiences. To support your baby’s skill development allow them to touch, squash, smell and experience food – even if they are not eating huge amounts. Babies can also benefit from watching you eat and plenty of opportunities for role modelling and building positive associations with mealtimes. Don’t be afraid to have some fun!
You can find out more below offering different tastes, textures and about building balanced meals for your baby once they’re more established with solids.
*offered in an age-appropriate way e.g. well ground or as butter
3. What is baby-led weaning? Is this the right approach for all babies and parents?
Baby-led weaning (aka BLW) is an approach to weaning that has gathered pace over the past 20 years. It is used to describe a method of starting solids which focuses on offering just finger foods, which are often adapted from family meals, and given right from the start of weaning. The approach encourages that babies lead with feeding themselves, rather than being offered pureed or mashed options initially from a spoon which can be viewed as a more ‘parent-led’ approach. Finger foods offered are adapted to be a safe and appropriate size and texture for babies, and research has shown that babies following a BLW are not at higher risk of choking (ref1). At the heart of BLW is encouraging independence with feeding and skill development, allowing babies to also choose what and how much they eat right from the start.
When it comes to deciding if this approach is right for you and your baby, the key is to choose an option you feel confident with. Despite the many articles you’ll find on this topic, there is no one approach to weaning which is considered to be better than another. Regardless of which approach you choose, or if you do a combination of spoon feeding and finger foods, the ‘end goal’ e.g. your baby managing a wide variety of family foods, remains the same and can be reached safely with either approach.
It can also be reassuring for parents to hear that both spoon-fed and finger food options can also still be led by your baby. Responsive feeding principles, supporting independent feeding, progression with family foods and exploration of food are achievable with spoon feeding and finger feeding.
In some smaller groups of babies, there may be incidences where BLW may not be the most appropriate way to start weaning. This is often guided by a Health Professional but can include premature babies, babies with developmental delay or those that need to commence weaning early due to being at higher risk of developing food allergies. In such circumstances, please do discuss further with your child’s registered Health Professional.
4. How do you progress with tastes and textures during weaning?
As you move on from those first foods with your baby, there are lots of ways you diversify their diet with tastes and textures. Remember the aim through weaning is to allow your baby lots of experience with different foods, and the more experience with flavour and safe textures the better! Texture progression particularly is very important for skill development, and babies need opportunities to develop those complex eating skills. Here are some top tips for taste and texture progression:
- Babies will be very receptive to tasting most foods, and from a flavour perspective there are very few flavours babies cannot have throughout weaning! It’s normal to see babies chomping away happily on foods with a big taste, like lemon slices – so let your little one get stuck in.
- The key tastes/flavours you’d want to avoid during weaning are salty foods, and those with lots of heat e.g. chilli (although in some countries babies are weaned onto chilli at a young age!)
It’s very normal for babies to scrunch up their faces or seem disgusted when trying foods during weaning – this doesn’t mean they don’t like the taste, more that it is a big and unfamiliar flavour. By continuing to offer these foods your baby is much more likely to accept these foods throughout weaning and beyond.
- Baby food certainly does not have to be bland or plain, and babies can accept and tolerate a wide variety of flavours from 6 months of age onwards. It is likely they will find certain flavours e.g. sweet much easier initially than less familiar flavours e.g. bitter, fragrant, savoury. With this in mind, aim to offer plenty of variety. An easy way to do this is to include foods from across the food groups, don’t be afraid to include herbs and spices, and avoid always combining foods with sweeter options like fruit.
- Offer home-prepared foods where you can, as there will be lots of natural variation in the taste of foods we prepare at home. With any package weaning foods, consider variety with taste/flavour and avoid just sweet tasting options. The Tilda kids rice range incorporates a wide range of different flavours, by including a variety of vegetables and spices ranging from mild curry to paprika.
- Texture progression through weaning may vary slightly depending on the approach you are using e.g. spoon-fed vs BLW. Regardless of this, however, the aim is to offer plenty of experience with different textures that are offered safely depending on your baby’s age and progress
- All babies should avoid foods of a certain shape and/or texture that pose a choking risk. You can find out more information about this below
- If you are predominantly using a spoon-fed approach, it is likely that you will make stepwise changes to the texture of your baby’s food, moving them gradually towards family meals. The aim is to gradually introduce more textured options and avoid just offering purees for too long. To achieve this you may make adjustments like;
- Blending food for less time to create thicker or grainy purees
- Moving onto mashing foods well, or offering thicker purees with small lumps
- Mashing foods less e.g. with the back of a fork
- Finely chopping or mincing foods
- Incorporating different textures of food, such as adding couscous or Tilda’s soft kid’s rice range to smoother or soft foods e.g. curry or stew
- Including suitable finger foods alongside spoon-fed options supports development with texture progression and self-feeding skills. For more information on preparing food foods for your baby’s age and stage visit Solid Starts
- If you are following a BLW approach, it is likely your baby will be offered a greater variety of textures from the onset of weaning. To support texture progression, you may;
- Start with chunky, soft finger food options that are easy to pick up, mash easily between baby’s gums e.g. between 6-8 months of age
- Combine suitable textures e.g. toast fingers with mashed avocado, hummus or smooth nut butter
- Move onto including smaller, diced or shredded pieces of food as your baby’s pincer grip develops and they are making good progress with their munching, biting and chewing skills
- Including meal or food options which your baby will likely need to eventually self-feed with a utensil e.g. yoghurt, risotto, stew
- Offering a variety of food options, across the food groups will also help with texture progression as there are natural differences between foods e.g. the texture of a banana is very different to a piece of toast or flaked fish.
- Texture progression and exploration during weaning is often associated with a common (but often worrying for parents) occurrence during weaning – gagging! Gagging is very different to choking, and something typical to observe with your baby as they learn how to eat. Gagging is a normal reflex babies have to help protect their airway, and with time and with plenty of food experience this will reduce. You can find out more about gagging vs choking below.
4. Are there any foods to avoid during weaning, and why?
To support keeping your baby safe, and establish eating habits certain foods should be avoided during weaning. These are listed below.
|Food||Reason for avoidance|
|Honey – should be avoided until 1 year of age||Risk of consuming a harmful bacteria that can cause an illness called Infant Botulism|
|High salt foods e.g. stock cubes, cured meats, crisps/snacks, sausages||Baby’s kidneys are still developing and cannot process lots of excess salt|
|Added sugar or higher sugar foods/snacks||Sugar can cause tooth decay. Consumption of added or excess sugar can also impact taste preferences and eating habits into later life|
|Cheese that may carry certain bacteria e.g. listeria. These include mould-ripened cheese, soft blue cheese or unpasteurised cheese
|Higher risk of acquiring a foodborne infection which could make your baby very unwell|
|Fish including; shark, marlin or swordfish||These can contain high levels of mercury which can impact a baby’s developing nervous system|
|Whole nuts and/or thick/sticky nut butter||Whole nuts, or thicker/chunky nut butter that have not been loosened pose a choking risk for your baby. Babies should be given well-ground or crushed nuts, and ideally smoother nut butter until at least 5 years of age
For more information on choking risks please see below
|Rice-based milk drinks||Due to naturally higher levels of inorganic arsenic in these drinks, it is recommended they are avoided in children < 5years of age|
More about choking risks
At the top of the list of foods your baby should avoid during weaning, are those that pose a risk of choking. Due to the size of your baby’s airway, combined with their lack of experience eating and chewing foods, there are several foods that either should be avoided, or prepared appropriately to avoid choking. These foods are generally harder or firm in texture and round or easily break to a size that could block your child’s airway.
Examples of some common food-based choking risks are listed below:
- Jelly cubes
- Whole nuts and sticky/tacky nut butter
- Whole cherry tomatoes*
- Whole grapes*
- Whole cherries*
- Whole large berries e.g. blueberries, blackberries*
- Raw apple or carrot
- Fruit stones
- Granola bars
- Sausage or hotdog, sliced (in rounds)
- Large beans or chickpeas*
*follow advice on offering these safely by chopping/preparing appropriately for your baby
Additional tips to help minimise the risk of your baby choking:
- Ensure you are sat with your baby when they are eating
- Check they are in a stable seated position in their highchair e.g. highchair is resting on stable surface, baby is sat upright and not reclined, their feet are supported e.g. with a footplate
- Avoid distractions during mealtimes e.g. toys, screens
- A baby first aid course can be a good investment for parents prior to weaning to ensure you feel confident with what to do if your baby does experience a choking episode
You can find out more about how to help a choking child here.
5. Is it gagging or choking?
It can be easy to confuse gagging with choking, and they can often seem to look similar. As mentioned above, gagging is a very common and a typical reaction to babies trying new foods ( -it also actually helps prevent choking), whereas choking is when a baby’s airway becomes blocked or partially blocked. Choking can be life-threatening. Some of the key differences in how your baby can present when gagging vs choking can be found below:
Stay calm & avoid intervening
Start first aid and seek immediate help
|Often can go red in the face||Can lose colour from the face and lips – often going grey, purple or blue|
|Can be loud e.g. hearing baby gag, splutter, cough, retch, push food out of their mouth||Often baby is quiet, baby may have small or no cough|
|Eyes may water||Baby can look scared or startled|
|Baby is breathing||Baby is not or is struggling to breath – you may see their chest or ribs ‘pulling in’|
6. What are the common food allergens, and how do you safely introduce these during weaning?
In the UK, there are 9 common food allergens, these are the foods which are most likely to be associated with food-based allergic reactions.
These Foods are;
- Cow’s milk
- Tree Nuts
Introducing these foods can be worrying for parents during weaning, especially if there is a history of food allergies in the family. Advice about introducing these foods to babies has varied a lot over the last 20 years, with guidance previously steering parents towards delaying introducing some of these foods e.g. peanuts until children were older. From current scientific research, we now know that it is beneficial to introduce these foods into a baby’s diet proactively during weaning and prior to 12 months of age. Early introduction of these foods is actually evidenced to help prevent food allergies from developing, and parents are now being encouraged to avoid delaying introduction. There are also a group of babies, who are considered at higher risk of developing food allergy, who may benefit from early introduction to these foods before 6 months of age with the support of a Health Professional.
Some top tips for introducing these common food allergens to your baby include:
- Always offer one allergenic food at a time
- Start with small amounts – for some foods like egg or peanut this may be ¼ tsp, to begin with, then gradually increase the amount offered over the next few days
- Ensure the food is prepared safely e.g. smooth nut butter or ground nuts, small bones removed from fish
- Ensure your baby is well before introducing these foods
- Stay with your baby whilst they are eating
- Familiarise yourself with the common signs and symptoms of food allergy reactions
- Once introduced, keep these foods in your baby’s diet, remember to introduce early then offer regularly
7. What are the benefits of a nutritious diet for children of weaning age?
Nutrition has an integral role in children’s growth and development, but also a range of other factors such as supporting immunity and preventing disease in later life. Weaning is a fantastic time to start laying down positive mealtime foundations and support balanced, varied and healthy eating habits for life. A nutritious diet during weaning takes into account a child’s unique nutritional needs and allows lots of opportunities for learning and developing confidence with different tastes, flavours and textures. There are wide-ranging benefits to offering a varied and nutritious weaning diet including;
- Providing key nutrients children need to support their growth and development e.g. zinc, iron
- Providing key nutrients for brain growth and development e.g. Omega 3, Iodine
- Establishing a flourishing and varied gut microbiome, which we know can have positive influences on health. Did you know that from 6-12 months of age a baby’s bacterial species in their gut can increase by 60%!
Developing and establishing acceptance for a wide variety of different tastes (including those tricky bitter flavours) and textures – which is essential for ongoing and later acceptance of a balanced diet past weaning. Did you know that babies have a key ‘weaning window’ between 6-12 months of age where they are very receptive to developing experience with flavours and texture?
8. How much should your baby be eating during weaning?
One of the most common worries from parents during the weaning process is about how much their baby is eating. It’s natural to feel concerned about this, and seek reassurance that your baby is making good progress with solids.
At the start of weaning, babies are experiencing food and the idea of eating solids for the very first time. During this stage, it’s likely that your baby will only be managing small amounts, and the focus is just on initial tastes and experiences with food.
As you progress through weaning there are no recommendations for portion sizes you should be offering. This is the case for several reasons which include;
- Babies are very good at listening to their internal cues (messages) of hunger and fullness. This means they will follow their appetite, and eat as much as they need. Use your baby as a guide.
- Whilst growth is rapid in babies, all babies will have different needs for growth – naturally smaller babies will generally require less than naturally bigger babies to meet their needs.
- Babies’ appetites can vary from day to day and meal to meal – this is very normal! Their appetite is easily influenced by factors such as teething, illness, tiredness and overstimulation.
- Volumes may vary based on the approach used, for example, babies following a BLW approach may initially manage much smaller amounts of foods whilst they develop the feeding skills needed to eat, chew and swallow finger foods.
- Learning to eat and getting to grips with food is a complex task – this means that some mealtimes may look more like ‘playing’ with food, small bites and exploring rather than managing all of the food offered. Like any other aspect of development, each baby will also progress through weaning at a different pace.
Whilst it can be tempting to encourage just one extra mouthful or spoonful at mealtimes with your baby, trusting their appetite will help build positive mealtime experiences for your child and help nourish mealtime relationships. Use your baby as a guide, following their hunger and fullness cues, and focus on the variety being offered alongside the appropriate balance of food. If you feel like your baby is struggling with progress through weaning, or milk feeds remain unchanged months into starting solids, consider discussing your baby’s weaning experience so far with a Health Professional who will be able to offer some individualised advice.
9. How do you introduce water or other drinks to your baby? And what about their milk feeds?
Water can be introduced to your baby right from the start of their weaning journey. If this is from 6 months of age tap water (in the UK) is safe and appropriate to use. If they are <6 months of age, cooled boiled water would be recommended. Babies do not need to be introduced to any other drinks during weaning (other than continuing their usual milk), and should not be offered cow’s milk to drink until at least 12 months of age. Baby juices, ‘teas’, fruit juices or squash are not necessary or appropriate to introduce to babies during weaning.
It’s helpful to remember that whilst your baby will be very competent at drinking milk from the breast or a bottle, cup drinking is a very different skill! It can take babies several months to grasp this.
To support your baby to learn to drink, and allow them the opportunity to have a little water with each meal, here are some top tips;
- Ideally choose a small open cup, and avoid valved beakers
- Try to stick with one cup and allow your baby to practice with this (especially at the beginning) – lots of different cups can be confusing for babies initially
- Start by offering some sips of water at the end of your baby’s meal, allowing them to focus on learning one skill at a time e.g. eating, then drinking
- Don’t worry too much about volumes, to begin with, your baby’s hydration needs will continue to be met with their milk feeds
- It’s very common for babies to splutter, spit, blow raspberries and spill their water as they learn about cup drinking – don’t worry, just keep practising and show them what to do
- You may need to support the cup for your baby at their mouth, to begin with to keep it stable and help control the flow of liquid
When it comes to a baby’s milk feeds during weaning, one of parents’ biggest queries is “how much of their normal milk should they be drinking now they’ve started on solids?”. Breast or formula milk will remain an important source of nutrition for your baby during weaning, including up to a year of age. At the start of weaning, it is normal for babies’ milk feeds to remain unchanged. As they progress with solids, however, and are managing increased meals e.g. 2-3 meals per day, and eating gradually larger amounts of foods, milk feeds naturally start to decrease. This may be reflected in reduced volumes accepted during normal feed times, or your baby dropping milk feeds completely. Usually, this happens gradually, as babies naturally regulate their appetite between solids and milk, however you may find, particularly for formula-fed babies, that you get to the stage where you reduce or discontinue a feed either because your baby seems disinterested, is only managing a small amount or the feed seems to be impacting on the subsequent meal (especially during the later months of weaning). Breastfed babies can continue to be fed responsively, and typically adapt their feeding frequency around progress with solid foods.
A guide to rough volumes of milk that babies require, which includes during weaning can be found here. Remember this is a guide, and there will be variations from baby to baby.
10.How do you build a balanced meal for a baby?
Babies and young children have unique nutritional needs, especially compared to adults. Their high requirements for energy and nutrients, for growth and development, combined with much smaller stomachs means that when offering meals, planning is key.
To help get the balance right for babies and young children, without feeling overwhelmed, it can be helpful to think about combining food groups in a rule of three. All the foods within the groups below will be those you probably already include in your family’s diet, so where you can adapt family meals can work well too!
Baby meals 1-2-3
1 – Iron rich food – babies have a high requirement for iron and from 6 months of age their stores of iron in the body are running low. Including an iron-rich food at each meal will help ensure your baby is getting enough, alongside providing other key nutrients also found in the iron-rich foods listed below.
Examples of iron-rich foods: Red meat, poultry (dark meat is higher in iron), oily fish, eggs, beans/pulses/lentils, fortified cereals, tofu, fortified cereals, nuts and seeds (well ground or as butter)
2 – Vitamin C-rich food – Vitamin C is a key nutrient for babies and is the perfect partner for iron-rich food. Serving a Vitamin C source at meals will support the absorption of iron in the body. Vitamin C-rich foods are also typically fruit and vegetables, so contain a variety of other important vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre for your baby. Each of the Tilda Kids range incorporates a portion of vegetables, which supports building those balanced meals.
Vitamin C-rich foods: Fruits e.g. kiwi, citrus fruits, strawberries, Vegetables e.g. peppers, broccoli, cabbage
3 – Energy food – the final food to be added to a balanced meal for babies is, of course, that all-important energy-rich food/s. This may be one, or a combination of foods typically made up of a starchy or carbohydrate-rich option and/or a higher fat option. Babies require a high proportion of fat in their diet to support growth so this is important to include.
Options for energy-rich foods could include potato, rice, pasta, bread products, couscous, grains, and cereals. Combine with these or as stand-alone alternative energy-rich options could include full-fat dairy e.g. milk, cheese, yoghurt, nut butter, ground nuts or seeds, avocado, spreads e.g. butter, oil
A balanced diet for your baby should ideally include lots of variety or what’s known as ‘dietary diversity’. Different foods are all unique combinations of different nutrients, and often the nutrients found in one food support the absorption of nutrients from other foods (like iron and vitamin C). Variety can easily be included within meals by; adapting your family meals where possible, choosing different coloured fruits and vegetables, incorporating a diverse range of flavours including the use of spices, herbs and different ingredients or making small adaptations to easy meals e.g. changing the type of sauce added to pasta.
Ref.1 – Arantes A et al. The Baby-led Weaning Method (BLW) in the Context of Complementary Feeding: A Review. Revista Paulista de Pediatria 36, no. 3 (2018): 353–63.