What does weaning really mean?
Let us first try to understand the definition of weaning. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, weaning means “ the act or process of causing a baby or young animal to stop feeding on its mother's milk and to start eating other food”. In modern terminology, we could describe it as “complementary feeding or “the process of introducing your baby to solid foods”.
When to start introducing solid foods?
You are the parent, and only you know your baby best, so I recommend you do whatever you feel is best for your baby. Speaking out of my own experience, I know that weaning is a big concern for many parents, myself included. Introducing your baby to food for the first time can be stressful and cause a lot of uncertainty. But don´t stress out! To put your mind at ease and your baby on the right track, here are some tips for how to start your baby on solid foods.
In this digital age, new parents are flooded with information and you may find yourself researching like an FBI agent on the topic of weaning your baby. It does not matter how many parenting books you read, how many Instagram accounts you follow, there are so many recommendations, opinions and discussions about when and how to start weaning. It is as if you need to take a course to learn how to feed your baby 😊.
And the questions in your head are many….should you follow your mother´s old school recommendations, spoon-feed your baby with purées, should you follow baby-led-weaning (BLW), do the parent led weaning (PLW), or a combination of all. What a headache!! But remember, you do not need to panic and think that your routine of giving breastmilk or formula needs to change in an eyeblink. Starting solids is an exciting (if messy) and important milestone in your baby’s development—like any milestone, it is important not to rush. Your baby will be ready to explore a world of taste and flavors in its own pace! Here is what you need to know about how and when to start introducing solid foods.
Which advice or recommendation should you follow?
It is time to turn the tables on everything your mum or older relatives thought they knew about feeding a baby. Recommendations have changed over the years, and what people may be telling you might be outdated and it can be very hard to deal with the well-meaning advice, especially if it comes from family and friends.
Some history: In the past, it was recommended to introduce solids between 4-6 months. Some doctors would even recommend introducing thin cereals before that or adding them into the bottle. Your parents may have fed you this way and opinions and recommendations seem to be forever changing. Research confirms that with so much conflicting advice available, weaning can be a very confusing time for parents.
Advice changes as new research is published and over the last 50 years, there have been significant changes to feeding guidelines. This is why often our own moms 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. So, what is recommended now? The World Health Organization recommends that all babies be exclusively breastfed or take formula milk during the first 6 months of their life. They provide all the nutrients that baby needs for their growth, and then gradually introduce to appropriate foods after 6 months while continuing to breastfeed.
When can we start with solids?
Not too soon! Some experts could say at 4 months, but do note that solids should never be introduced before 17 weeks of age. It is common for new parents to come under pressure to begin solids earlier than 6 months and you might see signs that your baby is ready…but they can be false signs. Most babies grow beautifully on breast milk or formula for the first 6 months, so do not stress. Every baby progresses at their own pace, so let your baby be your guide.
Let us talk timing! Knowing when to start weaning is both crucial and tricky. There are good reasons for waiting until your baby is about 6 months old. The medical reason for delaying the introduction is found in the way our organs develop slowly after birth. The immune system, digestive system and kidneys have not fully developed yet. Experts also claim that starting too early can cause obesity and food allergies. So, there are many reasons to not rush into weaning. But introducing solids too late also means you might slow the baby’s growth and encourage an aversion to solid foods, among other conditions like iron deficiency. For the first 6 months of their life, babies use iron stored in their bodies from when they were in the womb. They also get some iron from breastmilk and/or infant formula. But baby’s iron stores deplete as they grow and by around 6 months and they need to start having solid food rich in iron,
An easy way to demonstrate the fact that nature intended you to continue with milk formula/breastfeeding till at least six months is the occurrence of the tongue-thrust reflex. This is when parents think that something is seriously wrong with their child because it refuses eating. It “pushes” out the food due to this reflex. Sometimes this reflex will not fade away until 9 months old.
Read the signs!
If you are wondering about the right time to start your baby on complementary food, be sure to look out for individual signs of readiness. They are:
-developed good neck control
-they can stay sitting up and hold their head steady
-hand-eye-mouth coordination; baby can look at, grab and put food in their mouth
-showing interest in your food
-loss of the tongue-thrust reflex so they can swallow the food. Babies who are not ready will push their food back out with their tongue.
- the baby has doubled its birth weight.
What is the tongue thrust reflex?
Babies are born with several protective reflexes that help them feed and keep them safe from choking immediately at birth. One of those reflexes is the tongue-thrust reflex, which means they can only move their tongue back and forth in the mouth. This reflex causes them to forcefully push food out with their tongue when something other than breast or bottle touches the lips or tongue.
This reflex can easily be misinterpreted by parents, giving them the impression that their baby is pushing the food out of the mouth because it dislikes the food, but what it actually needs is more practice in order to develop the tongue control. So, trying to start solids before this reflex has integrated can easily lead to baby pushing the food out of his/her mouth, fussing, or gagging. Put the baby´s tongue thrust to the test by placing a tiny bit of food thinned out with breastmilk or formula for starters in your baby´s mouth. If the baby keeps pushing the food back out, even after several tries, then you know that your baby is just not ready yet.
Flavor training and flavor window
As you may have experienced, that when the time comes to introducing food to you baby, we parents are provided with lots of information about feeding, but most of it is related to portion sizes, food safety, and nutritional requirements. Right? Very few resources mention the variety in diet and palate development as an important goal for the introduction of solids. Research now shows that a baby's palate can actually be primed and trained to prefer healthy foods. What if children learned to love vegetables and unprocessed foods from the day they start eating?
Have you ever noticed how French kids eat anything and everything under the sun but typical American children won’t touch anything unless it’s white (think French fries, chicken nuggets and pasta)? So, what’s the reason those Frenchies are such good eaters? Because they are introduced to fresh, adventurous and flavorful foods straight from the start! So, here is the trick!.
In babies, there is something researchers refer to as the “flavor window”. This is the time when babies, as early as 4 months old, are more sensitive and open to flavors and likely to accept new tastes than they will later on. There’s evidence that introducing new flavors during this period increases their acceptance and liking of vegetables later on when you start with the “real” introduction of solids. If you look at the starting solids recommendation, we´re waiting until 6 months of age to do that. While it might not seem like that big of a deal, the truth is, we could be missing on a very critical and valuable time frame, even though it´s just a few months difference. And this is where flavor training comes in.
Many different researchers suggest that it’s possible to try introducing small doses of flavors, especially when the flavor window is “wide open”. Now we´re not talking about food to nourish the baby, more like just exposing it to a wide variety of different flavors as little as a teaspoon on your finger and putting it on your baby’s lip letting it taste it. You are only offering a smear of these flavors before your baby really starts solids. Flavor training isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, don’t give up just because your baby makes a funny face or won’t eat something the first time. Studies have shown that the best way to get babies to eat foods is through repetition. They need as many as 15 exposures before accepting a new food. So don’t give up and try to have fun with it along the way.