As with many aspects of parenting, weaning has become a battleground of expert advice and warring philosophies, leaving many parents feeling confused about what’s best. Where to start?
If you’ve had a baby in the UK in more or less the last decade, you’ll have been told that the best way to feed them is to exclusively breastfeed for six months. Same goes if your baby is bottlefed; milk feeds for six months are the way to go because their digestive system isn’t ready for anything more. However, before that generations of children were weaned at closer to the three or four month mark. So why the switch - and what happens if you think your baby is ready before six months? And what about that report recently that seemed to suggest exclusive breastfeeding is bad?
The current advice is given on the basis of a World Health Organisation report. Now, the WHO is an excellent body, which makes many good recommendations. But much of its work is trying to target, well, the whole world. Which means the recommendations have to make sense in both the developing and developed world. You’d think that babies are babies anywhere you go, and that’s true, but water isn’t. In some countries it’s dangerous to wean too early because of higher levels of infection and infant mortality. Nevertheless some countries – including the US – did not pass on the WHO message to new mothers, and continue to look at weaning earlier.
So that BMJ report, which sounded so controversial on the news, actually simply called for an examination of the evidence, and a possible view of weaning that was less cut and dried. After all, babies have individual needs just as adults do. They’re not even all born at the same time; since a full-term pregnancy can be anywhere between 37 and 42 weeks, isn’t it possible that a baby born at the beginning of that period might take more or less time to be ready for solids than a baby born at the end of it? And of course advice is already slightly different for actually premature babies.
There were also another couple of points raised in the report that got the media all abuzz; one was that exclusive breastfeeding for six months might lead to a slight iron deficiency. This was not the same as saying breastfeeding is harmful, but with the subtlety of farm animals approaching a trough, many mainstream outlets gorged on half-truths and misinformation to panic a generation of mothers who have been forced into defensive stances instead of standing together to share information and make their own decisions.
One point that was ignored utterly but that I found really interesting was one about how countries that have changed policies on when gluten was introduced have found that fewer gluten intolerances were reported when it was introduced around the five to six month mark instead of after six months. That said, this also still needs further investigation; an observed correlation is not a proven consequence.
So, where the hell do you start? Well, I’m not a doctor or a child nutritionist. But as far as I can work out it’s the same as with any other aspect of parenting: you read, you learn, you ask the professionals – and you observe your child.
So here are some of the main points about weaning I’ve been able to find in books and online, and that I’ve discussed with health visitors and other parents. It is only a description of various points, not a recommendation; please, do your own research too!
The few areas of consensus across the board are that weaning shouldn’t be before four months, shouldn’t be delayed too long past six months and milk feeds should continue as the main source of nutrition for quite some time after solids are introduced. There are lots of lists of the kind of behaviour you might observe to recognise that your child is ready for solids; one of the ones I found most useful was in What to Expect: The First Year.
Once you’ve decided it’s an appropriate time to start weaning, there are two basic philosophies to decide between, although of course they do overlap to some extent.
I’ve gone the mashing / pulping route - the one I think of as the Annabel Karmel method because she's come up with lots of useful suggestions and recipes; bascially, though, you start with smooth, pureed food and move onto lumpier offerings gradually. The alternative is what’s often called baby-led weaning, where the idea is that children will become ready to eat things as they become able to feed themselves, and picking up the food themselves is good for their motor skills. Just a note: some foods are not suitable immediately such as raw apple and carrot and grapes and most will need to be soft-cooked, so make sure whatever you’re giving isn’t a choking hazard.
The Birth to Five handbook from the NHS in the UK basically suggests something in between – some baby rice / cereal type creamed stuff - but leans towards a more baby-led approach.
Whenever you decide to wean, read as much as you can and have confidence in your knowledge of your baby. While it’s not a good idea to wean because ‘it’ll help them sleep better’ (and that’s not even always true), babies are individuals and to expect them all to eat at exactly the same time in the same way is unrealistic. So, as ever, read around and trust your instincts: no-one knows your child better than you do.
Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein is a mum of one, digital marketer and online community manager who takes any opportunity to blog about parenthood, social media, cats, baking and Disney. Follow her on Twitter @mokuska.
Image via nerissa's ring's Flickr