Weaning an infant from exclusively breast milk or infant formula to solid foods can be equally difficult for parents as for baby. While it’s easy to imagine the mix of sensations and emotions a baby might experience as solid foods are introduced to their diet, the process can also be a challenge for mums and dads. Many parents struggle with knowing when to start weaning, what foods to introduce first, and whether they should continue breastfeeding their baby while weaning. A survey in the UK found that many parents transitioned from using homemade ingredients when they started weaning to mostly using commercial pre-prepared infant foods after 3 weeks. Alarmingly, many parents were not concerned about the nutrient quality of these commercial foods.A qualitative study of mothers perceptions of weaning and the use of commercial infant food in the United Kingdom. https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/a-qualitative-study-of-mothers-perceptions-of-weaning-and-the-use-ofcommercial-infant-food-in-the-united-kingdom-mpn-1000103.php?aid=64679
Whether a baby has been breast or bottle fed, the process of introducing solid foods to their diet is the same. Preferably, weaning is a slow, gradual process that allows an infant time to adjust. It is recommended that infants are exclusively breast (or formula) fed until 17 weeks, with weaning ideally starting at six months. From six months, babies require additional nutrients that can’t be supplied by breast or formula milk alone.Weaning. Australian Breastfeeding Association. 2016. https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/bfinfo/weaning.html As well, from six months, an infant’s chewing and swallowing abilities are developing, and their digestive and immune systems have matured and are capable of digesting solid foods. Before introducing solid foods, it is important that an infant can support their own head, sit upright, and control basic movements. Complementary breast or formula feeding is still recommended.Introducing solids. Department of Health. Australian Government. 2011. http://www.health.gov.au/internet/publications/publishing.nsf/Content/gug-director-toc~gug-solids
Considering a growing baby’s nutrient needs can help determine the best foods to start with when weaning. Although breast milk provides many essential nutrients, it also lacks sufficient amounts of iron and vitamin D. So introducing a baby to foods high in these nutrients (such as lean meat, green veg and fish) is crucial. However, some professionals recommend supplementation, especially during the early stages of the weaning process.Vitamins and babies. What to expect. First year. 2014.https://www.whattoexpect.com/first-year/feeding-your-baby/vitamins-and-babies.aspx
In the first few years of life, many of a baby’s organs, including the brain, are still undergoing critical stages of development. At six months, the brain has reached about half its mature size and still has not fully grown by age 3 (85% full size). The brain grows more rapidly in infancy than any other life stage. So optimal nutrition is vital during early life to achieve full brain development and prevent future complications. Infants need iron to produce red blood cells, which carry oxygen and help neural development.The role of iron in learning and memory. Stephanie J.B. Fretham. Advances in Nutrition. 2011. http://advances.nutrition.org/content/2/2/112.full
After six months, an infant’s iron stores built up during pregnancy begin to diminish as breast milk does not contain sufficient iron levels. Infants are at high risk of iron deficiency, which if prolonged can result in lasting cognitive and motor neuron complications.Long-lasting neural and behavioural side effects of iron deficiency in infancy. Betsy Lozoff, John Beard. Nutrition Reviews. Oxford Academic. 2006. https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article-abstract/64/suppl_2/S34/1836617 The Australian iron RDI for infants aged 7-12 months is 11mg/day;Nutrient reference values for Australia and New Zealand. Ministry of Health. Australian Government. 2017. https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients however, it may be a struggle to meet this target as an infant’s portion sizes are generally so small. Vitamin C aids iron absorption and is often recommended to accompany iron food sources (for example, fortified cornflakes with orange juice).Weaning. First 1000 days. https://www.first1000days.ie/blog-category/nutritional-advice/
Vitamin D and calcium.
An infant grows most rapidly up until 2 years of age. During this time, bone and tooth growth are crucial. Vitamin D aids the absorption of calcium, and both these nutrients are essential for optimum bone development and health.Baby feeding and nutrition. Aptaclub. https://www.aptaclub.co.uk/article/importance-of-each-nutrient-for-baby# Although breast milk contains sufficient calcium for newborns (34mg/100g), cow’s milk contains higher amounts (120mg/100g) and so should be introduced at meal times as the growing baby’s requirements increase (the RDI increases from 210mg/day for 0-6 months to 270mg/day for 7-12 months) and foods other than milk become part of their diet.A comparison between human milk and cows milk. Viva! https://www.viva.org.uk/white-lies/comparison-between-human-milk-and-cows-milkNutrient reference values for Australia and New Zealand. Ministry of Health. Australian Government. 2017. https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients. In addition to milk, tofu, yoghurt and cheese are all rich and convenient sources of calcium, with eggs and fish being good sources of vitamin D. The recommended intake of vitamin D is 5 µg/day. Supplementation in the form of vitamin D drops is recommended for infants up to 12 months as they ideally won’t be exposed to much sunlight.Baby and vitamin D. First 1000 days. https://www.first1000days.ie/baby-and-vitamin-d/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI65uNzeTS2AIVxbztCh1NiAJoEAAYASAAEgIoKPD_BwE
Other nutrients that are key to supporting a healthy immune system and growth include zinc, selenium and vitamin A. Deficiencies in these nutrients, however, aren’t common and popular weaning foods (such as pureed carrots) contain high amounts.Weaning nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Baby nutrition. Aptaclub. https://www.aptaclub.co.uk/article/importance-of-each-nutrient
What to do.
From the age of six months, it’s advised that infants consume 3 small meals and 2 to 3 healthy snacks per day, alongside breast or formula milk. Many parents find starting with pureed foods most successful. Smooth fruits and vegetables such as carrots and bananas are often popular, with water added to further liquefy the foods. Babies naturally have a preference for sweeter tastes, which means they may not initially warm to all new foods, but this can change with repeated exposure and continued encouragement. With regular and communal meal times, babies can often become interested in trying new foods by tasting what’s on Mum’s or Dad’s plate! It is also a good idea to introduce an array of textures and tastes early to allow interest and diversity of palate to develop.Introducing solids. Department of Health. Australian Government. 2011. http://www.health.gov.au/internet/publications/publishing.nsf/Content/gug-director-toc~gug-solids Lean meats, fortified breakfast cereals and green vegetables are brilliant sources of iron, as well as zinc, with dairy products being key to adequate calcium intakes.Iron nutrition for infants and young children. Bord Bia. 2018. https://www.bordbia.ie/consumer/aboutfood/nutrition/pages/ironnutritionforinfants.aspx It is always possible to add milk instead of water to soups and sauces if there is a concern that calcium intakes are low.
What to avoid.
Homemade purees, soups and sauces are preferred over commercial pre-prepared products as additional salt and sugar can be avoided while cooking. Naturally sweet fruits and vegetables should replace sugary treats, as they also contain vitamins and minerals and are a source of fibre and antioxidants. Infants should not be encouraged to eat honey as a source of sweetness as bacteria can germinate in the baby’s immature gut and cause infant botulism (a rare but fatal disease).When can my baby eat honey. Charles Santerre. Baby center. https://www.babycenter.com/404_when-can-my-baby-eat-honey_1368490.bc Cutting food into circular shapes that are the size of or smaller than the esophagus should also be avoided as they can be a potential choking hazard.
With approximately 50% of an infant’s energy intake fuelling their brain, carbohydrates (glucose) are crucial in early nutrition. Wholegrain bread, cereals and brown rice and pasta are great sources of glucose and fibre. Many parents are concerned about the risk of coeliac disease with early introduction of gluten. However, studies have shown that small amounts of gluten from six months are not harmful, but introduction before this time could cause an earlier onset in those genetically predisposed to the disease.Introducing gluten when weaning. Cow & Gate Baby Club. https://www.candgbabyclub.ie/introducing-gluten-weaning/
Small, regular portions of a diverse range of healthy foods that are rich in iron, vitamin D, calcium, glucose and fibre, as well as zinc, selenium and vitamin A, will give babies the best start they need. Encouraging infants to be involved in family mealtimes and, as they get older, with food preparation can help them develop a healthy relationship with food, and it never hurts to have a budding commis chef who’ll eventually be able to set the table!
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