I’m sure you will have heard that weaning should start at 6 months, however the average age in the UK for babies starting solid food is 5 months and 1 week.
In fact you might be a mummy who thinks their little one is ready to start a little sooner. Or if you’ve started weaning already, you might be wondering if that was ok? In this blog we’ll explore the pros and cons of early weaning and I’ll give you my professional opinion.
What is weaning?
Weaning (officially called ‘complementary feeding’) is the process of transitioning away from 100% milk feeds to a combination of both milk and food together.
What does the guideline actually say?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) advises starting solids at 6 months of age alongside breast milk (9). However, the UK’s Department of Health (DoH) recommends introducing solid foods at ‘around 6 months’ of age where “around” is the operative word.
Why the discrepancy?
The WHO advice is for the entire world including third world countries where babies can become unwell and sadly die from infection and disease, often transmitted from food or water. It’s far safer for those babies to remain on breastmilk for as long as possible.
In the developed world, however, we are fortunate enough to not encounter such risk and so complementary feeding can start when your baby is developmentally ready which is usually ‘around’ 6 months of age.
Why does the advice always seem to be changing?
Advice changes as new research is published and over the last 50 years, there have been significant changes to UK feeding guidelines (5). This is why often our own mums or grandmothers did something completely different to what we do now. In the 70’s, babies were weaned at 3 months and in the 1980’s it became 4 months but the government advice changed in 2003 to suggest exclusive breastfeeding was beneficial for a full 6 months before solids should be introduced.
In 2018 the evidence was reviewed again but it still concluded that the “Current advice on the age of introduction of complementary feeding should remain unchanged. That is, most infants should not start solid foods until around the age of 6 months, having achieved developmental readiness.” (5)
We’ve learnt a lot about the effect of early feeding, nutrition and long term health and there are a lot of benefits to getting feeding right during the first 1000 days of life. This starts at conception and goes right through until your baby’s 2nd birthday.
What are the dangers of starting weaning too early?
Solids should never be offered before 4 months or 17 weeks of age. Before then, your baby’s digestive system is not mature enough to cope with anything other than milk. Babies who start solids as early as this have higher rates of iron deficiency anaemia (thought to be caused by gastric bleeding), a higher risk of infections and weight problems.
What are the benefits of waiting till around 6 months?
The research is pretty conclusive. The two main benefits are nutrition and development.
In the main, breast milk and formula are nutritionally complete for the first 6 months of life. This means that your baby will receive everything they need from milk. Introducing solids automatically displaces some of the milk – your baby will naturally take less, and so will consume fewer nutrients.
There are a couple of exceptions. Babies who were born prematurely won’t have the stores of nutrients, and in particular iron, that babies born at term will have. Therefore babies who are premature will be started on an iron supplement. Likewise, if you smoked while you were pregnant, were overweight or anaemic or the cord was clamped too early, your baby may not have sufficient stores and will require an iron supplement.
In addition, all babies need additional vitamin D supplements. Despite it being called a vitamin, it’s actually a hormone and doesn’t come from food. All breastfed babies and breastfeeding mums should take a Vitamin D supplement. Infant Formula is already supplemented so there is no need for formula-fed babies to take any extra (2).
By six months, weaning is essential from a nutritional perspective as breast milk and formula does not contain enough nutrition for the growing needs of your baby.
At around 6 months, your baby will become developmentally ready to be able to eat solid foods. This means that they have good enough hand-eye coordination to be able to pick foods up and take them towards their mouths and therefore begin to feed themselves.
They will also be more proficient at moving food around their mouth in order to safely swallow it, reducing the risk of choking. This means that they may be able to manage a range of different textures so they don’t need purees or blended foods at all. This is where the concept of Baby Led Weaning (BLW) came from which avoids baby food and involves giving your baby solid finger foods which your baby self feeds (7).
How do I know my baby is developmentally ready?
There are 3 main signs of developmental readiness (2) to look out for:
Sitting up holding and their head steady
Good hand-eye coordination
Absence of the tongue thrust reflex
The advice is that you shouldn’t start weaning until your baby is showing all three of these signs. The majority of babies will be demonstrating these by the time they are 6 months (hence where the age came from), however, some babies will be ready before 6 months.
If you would like to learn about 3 simple checks you can do with your baby at home to assess if they are developmentally ready, click here for my free checklist which will be delivered directly to your inbox.
Is it worth waiting till after 6 months?
No, absolutely not. A fourth sign of being ready for weaning is a nutritional one. Babies can not thrive on milk alone after 6 months of age and so even if they are not showing all three signs of developmental readiness, you should still start weaning. Often the tongue thrust reflex is the last developmental sign to go and research has shown that the act of feeding itself can sometimes help push this back.
Discuss with your Health Visitor if you are unsure but remember that there are critical nutrients that your baby needs for their development beyond 6 months that milk alone can not provide.
My baby is waking up more in the night, surely they’re hungry for solids?
Lot of parents mistake night waking for being ready for solids, other common mistakes are demanding extra milk feeds, chewing their fists (2) and watching everything you eat.
These are all actually completely normal behaviours for babies and not a developmental sign that they are ready to start solid food. It’s the biological norm for babies to wake frequently in the night and this isn’t just down to hunger. Babies can be cold, wet, uncomfortable or just want a cuddle.
I’ve read that weaning early can help my baby sleep through the night for longer. Is this true?
There has been some controversial research in the last few years which suggests that the introduction of solids at 4 months may help your baby sleep better.
Babies who were in the earlier weaning group (4 months) did sleep for an average of 2 hours more per week than the group weaned at 6 months and had 2 less night wakings per week (6).
This 2 hours equates to just 17 minutes per night so in the grand scheme of things, it’s not going to make a sleep deprived mum no longer sleep deprived!
The general consensus is that starting solids will not make your baby any more likely to sleep through the night (Sorry to all the tired mums out there reading this!) (2).
My baby is 4 months old, I’ve downloaded your checklist and is showing all the developmental signs of readiness, can I start weaning?
If you think your baby is developmentally ready and they are older than 17 weeks, then yes, absolutely you can start weaning. Developmental readiness matters more than age (6).
The key here is that it is important for both developmental and nutritional reasons to only give appropriate foods (3). At this age, it is not recommended that you attempt baby led weaning (BLW) due to the risk of choking (6). There are certain foods you should avoid. The British Nutrition Foundation advises that you avoid the following foods until your baby is at least 6 months old (8):
wheat and other cereals containing gluten (e.g. rye, barley and oats)
fish and shellfish
And if you are ready to go for it, have a read of my blog all about stage 1 weaning which goes through the steps of how to actually deliver the first few meals including answering questions like where you should sit and how to encourage your baby to open their mouths!
When should I wean to reduce the risk of allergies?
The British Society of Allergy & Clinical Immunology and the British Dietetic Association have come together to provide guidelines on weaning and food allergies.
Exclusive breastfeeding for around 6 months and then to continue breastfeeding alongside weaning is the best protection you can give your baby against developing an allergy.
If your baby is not at high risk of developing a food allergy then you should introduce food as part of a normal weaning diet including the allergenic foods egg, peanut, other nuts, dairy foods, fish, shellfish and meat.
If your baby has eczema requiring daily steroid treatment or already has an existing food allergy, they are considered high risk. When your baby is developmentally ready, start solids and introduce egg and then peanut sometime from 4 months of age. After egg and peanut you can introduce the other allergenic foods; other nuts, dairy foods, fish, shellfish and meat.
Having another family member with a food allergy does not mean that your baby is at a higher risk and you should not delay the introduction of allergenic food because of this.
Keep a diary of when you offer the allergenic foods and monitor your baby for any symptoms. Immediate onset reactions tend to happen with the first 30 minutes of eating and delayed onset reactions can occur several hours later.
If you would like to read more about this please visit https://www.bsaci.org/about/early-feeding-guidance
What is important is that the introduction of allergenic foods is not delayed past 12 months, as research shows this can increase the risk of your baby developing an allergy to the food (8).
Babies born prematurely
If your baby was born prematurely (before 37 weeks), they need to be introduced to solid food according to their individual needs, which your dietitian will support with (4). The usual developmental cues to start weaning may not be present in a pre-term baby, but it is important that baby shows the following cues:
Holding their head steady – When sitting upright in a supported position. Many premature babies achieve this by 4 months corrected age.
Picking up toys and putting them in her mouth to explore.
Leaning forward, mouth open ‘asking’ for food.
I have a really detailed blog on weaning premature babies which was also published in a nutrition journal, so I’d love you to take a read.
Are there any benefits to weaning early?
The majority of babies have sufficient nutrient stores up until 6 months but some babies are born with lower stores to begin with. For example if they were premature or you smoked while you were pregnant, if you had iron deficiency anaemia, were overweight or the cord was clamped quickly after birth, these babies will need additional nutrients earlier than others (5).
Some researchers believed that there was a ‘critical window’ between 4-7 months for the acceptance of solid foods. However, the evidence is very poor and new research has shown that delaying weaning until 6 months does not cause any difficulty in accepting solid foods (5).
And my professional opinion?
It’s all about assessing your baby’s individual needs. As long as your baby is developmentally ready for weaning, there is no reason why you can’t start earlier, but definitely not before 17 weeks.
Early weaning foods
If you’ve weighed up the pros and cons involved with early weaning and think your baby is developmentally ready for solids, I have some recipes I can share with you to help you get started.
It’s important to avoid the allergen foods listed above before your baby is 6 months. However, you can still follow the general weaning advice to start on fruit and vegetables, particularly focusing on bitter vegetables.
Recent research has shown babies who were introduced to veggies first had a 38% increase in veggie intake at 12 months compared to those who introduced fruit first (6). Babies have very mature sweet taste buds and so will accept sweet tasting foods more readily.
Just remember that if you are offering any solid before 6 months, these should be pureed into a thin, smooth consistency similar to yoghurt in order to reduce the risk of choking.
My top 5 early weaning recipes
To get you started here are some of my favourite recipes for early weaning, remember to start with savoury flavours first like vegetables or baby rice before introducing sweet tastes like fruit.
Thanks to my intern Charli Farrar for sourcing the information for this blog.