How to Wean Your Baby in 10 Steps (From Start to Finish) is a practical guide for weaning your baby onto solids in a healthy way. Thank you to Paediatric dietician, Kath Megaw, for sharing her expertise.
Starting your little one on solids can be confusing – mostly because so much of the information available is contradictory. It’s hard to know what guidance to follow and what to filter out. Here I share my experience as an infant specialist and co-author of the best-selling book, Weaning Sense, to guide you through the process of how to wean a baby. I’ve also included the expertise of my co-author and well-known Paediatric dietician, Kath Megaw of Nutripaeds, for some invaluable weaning and nutritional advice.
Weaning your Baby – the When, What and How
With my first baby, feeding was the most challenging part of my early parenting journey. I battled to breastfeed and persisted against the odds until 6 months, but not without many hours of tears and anxiety. Once solids were introduced, I shifted that anxiety to how much James would eat. It was only when our wonderful nanny took over mealtimes that James’ eating settled into a more pleasant experience. I realise looking back that the emotional energy I put into each meal was not good for our relationship or his early feeding experience.
Working with moms in my OT practice and having two more children taught me so much about how relationships and emotions at mealtimes are a critical part of the equation. Looking back at my experience with my first baby, these are the three things I wish I knew:
It won’t be perfect
Like mealtimes, parenting is a messy affair. Flexibility is the only way to make the journey fun and manageable. You set yourself up for failure when you expect perfection in any parenting task. Your baby is perfectly imperfect and so are you. You will fail and then repair the failure and they will recover and that is the foundation of resilience.
Calibrations don’t count
The clinic scale, measuring cups, formula scoops and mls on a feeding bottle are not your friend. The real measure of whether your baby is flourishing is their mood, whether they connect emotionally with you and if they appear to be thriving (not measured but perceived by you).
With a baby, the days are long, but the years fly by. Don’t rush each stage. When they start to eat, follow their lead and amble down the weaning path – don’t rush towards the next feeding phase.
Weaning a baby is possibly one of the most contentious and conflicted areas of parenting and one that you are likely to hear a huge amount of conflicting information about. The advice varies from starting solids as early as 4 months, to delaying solids until after 6 months, to only letting little ones feed themselves with baby-led weaning at 8 months. The latest science tells us that while there is no perfect age to start solids, there is a window in which all babies can and should be safely weaned. Weaning your baby between 4 and 6 months of age has been shown to decrease the risk of allergies developing as well as prevent picky eating later.
In addition to this guiding principle of sensible science, you need to trust your gut and watch your baby’s signals too. Remember that when to start weaning your baby is one situation where the advice ‘Watch your baby, not the calendar’ has particular significance.
The signs of readiness for solids include:
- Your baby can hold their head up
- Their ability to sit well with support
- Seeming dissatisfied after milk feeds
- Showing an increased interest in YOUR food at family mealtimes
- Absence of the ‘tongue thrust reflex’ – i.e. pushing everything that is put in his mouth back out!
Much of the conflicting advice about how to wean a baby is focused on what foods to offer when your little one starts weaning. Why all the fuss, you might wonder? Scientists tell us that genetic programming and nutritional habits are formed within the first 1000 days of life. That is from conception until two years of age. This period of life lays down many foundations and most importantly the blueprint and map for your health.
As parents there is so much we can do to help our children lay down a positive health blueprint. And that’s possibly why there’s so many differing opinions about how to start weaning a baby. Here are some guidelines to follow about what to start feeding your baby that are both based on science and designed for the real-world:
One aspect that you as a parent can do to ensure your little one develops healthy eating habits is to monitor the amount of processed carbs that go into your child’s diet. We can do this from before birth, and when we wean onto a solid diet. Breast milk is always the gold standard so let’s take a moment to look at breast milk and what is in nature’s elixir. Mature milk is mostly water with fats (55%), carbohydrates (37%), proteins (8%), and various elements such as minerals, vitamins, and enzymes. What doesn’t make sense is that given what we know about breast milk, why do we wean babies onto 78% carbohydrates and 12% fat and 10% protein – in other words baby cereals? By weaning a baby on cereals, we totally switch the body’s source of energy.
Let’s consider weaning with less processed man-made foods and instead opting for wholesome choices like vegetables, fruit, healthy fats. Consider weaning using foods like mashed avocado with papaya. Or gem squash and blended olives. Or maybe sweet potato mashed with macadamia nut butter would be a better option. What all of these options have in common is that they present a nutritional profile more similar to breast milk than traditional weaning options like baby cereal.
Healthy unprocessed grains like millet, spelt, oats, rice and quinoa can definitely be included in your baby’s diet down the line but no need to rush these introductions in the first few weeks of weaning.
Thanks to the latest allergy research, feeding protein foods or high-risk allergen foods early into the introduction of solids is not only safe but may also prevent the child from developing an allergy to a specific protein food. Protein foods include fish, egg, nut butters, chicken, fish, beef, and lamb.
Follow these guidelines when introducing proteins:
- Introduce one new protein every 3-4 days
- Always introduce new proteins at lunch time
- When a protein has been tried and tested it can become a suppertime protein
Separating fact from fiction
I have always been partial to whole foods over convenience and have tried to ensure that my children are taking in healthy ingredients in the food I prepare. But admittedly, it can be confusing to know what is truly wholesome vs what is just the latest marketing hype and ultimately, what is best to feed your little one.
When Kath and I set out to write Weaning Sense, our aim was to separate the facts from the noise because a lot of what we hear and read is simply not factual. That became even more apparent during the launch of Weaning Sense when moms and dads were asking a lot of questions about ‘hot topics’ like GMO, organic, allergens, etc. I wanted to share some important information about these topics from myself and Kath:
Prioritise where to spend your money
Organic, farm fresh and other similar labels come with a higher price tag. The fact that a food is sustainably produced simply will add to the cost – for example, a battery egg is going to be cheaper than a free-range egg because the cost to produce an egg when a chicken sits in a battery all its life and will be less than the cost to give the chicken space to roam and a more varied, natural diet. That battery egg will also be likely to contain some undesirable elements such as antibiotics given to chickens to stop them from getting ill in its over-populated environment.
This goes for beef, milk, and veggies too. Healthy food just will cost more and in this day and age, parents may need to make choices and prioritise what is worth spending the extra money on.
Here’s what Kath Megaw has to say about these top topics:
- Don’t stress about organic fruit and veg too much. The term is so loosely used and unregulated in many parts of the world that spending extra money on organic fruit and veggies may not be the best way to prioritize spending.
- Likewise, GMO foods may not be all-evil as some would like you to believe. In fact, GMOs might well be the future of feeding a growing world population.
- Free range and organic dairy, eggs, and meat – this is the one place you should prioritise spending extra money if possible. Animal produce that is fed antibiotics and hormones to produce a better yield quicker affects our children and our bodies. Steer clear of mass-produced products in this basket as much as possible.
Know where ingredients come from
An overriding principle when choosing ingredients for your baby is to know where the food came from and how it was processed. At every point in the production of food there is a possibility of more additives. In other words, the more processed a meal is, the less you will know about what’s actually in it.
We have the most amazing bread recipe in Weaning Sense and now in the Parent Sense app. It’s a truly wholesome recipe that my kids love. Before you’re put off by the prospect of making your own bread, bear in mind that when you make it yourself you know exactly what’s in it and once you’re in the routine of it, it doesn’t feel like such a chore. And of course, if it’s shaping up to be a bad week, store bought can be a life saver.
When it comes to the flour, Kath and I strongly recommend stone-ground flour. When wheat is stone-ground, it has no bleach, preservatives and is literally pure wheat from the farm.
HOW TO WEAN YOUR BABY
Now that we have covered when to start weaning and what foods to offer your little one, we can talk about the how. Kath and I believe that the ideal way to wean should not be a case of following rigid advice but rather, it should be a collaboration between the advisors who guide you, your self, wishes, personality and of course, your baby. And that’s where COLLAB weaning comes in.
COLLAB* weaning is an approach that considers your baby as central in the weaning process – their age, development, and sensory personality. It encourages moms to guide their babies in the context of these factors as well as science and what we know about healthy eating. So, while you may manage the choices, who your baby is will also shape your choices. Very importantly, COLLAB weaning takes the pressure off you and your baby, allowing you to write your own weaning journey.
COLLAB is an acronym that stands for:
- CUES – Recognising and respecting your baby’s cues for readiness will guide you as to when your baby is ready to wean. Your baby will also give very clear cues within each feeding session (for hunger and fullness) and respecting these cues, interpreting them for your baby and offering food (or stopping a meal) in the context of these cues is the most critical contribution you make to ensuring your child has a healthy relationship with food and in the long term, preventing obesity. It is only by understanding your little one’s cues that you can wean collaboratively.
- OWN PERSON – Your baby is their own person and will not wean like the baby next door. Social butterflies, for instance, engage with new textures with gusto while Slow to warm up babies prefer a blander and slower route to whole food. Knowing your baby’s sensory personality is the secret to weaning happily.
- LOW PRESSURE – There is too much pressure on moms and babies to follow a pattern, conform and achieve. It is important to remember that parenting is not a race. Weaning is not a competition. Weaning is a journey, not a destination. Take the pressure off you and off your little one.
- LED BY SCIENCE – While it would be wonderful to entirely ‘wing’ parenting, in the face of decades of valuable research we have to consider the science to be sensible. Sensible feeding involves filtering noise and opinion and understanding what dietary science tells us about early infant feeding. This does not create rules for weaning but safe boundaries to work within. An example of how new science informs our weaning decisions is with regards to allergies. It has been shown that introducing solids from 4 months of age does not increase the risk of allergies at all, in fact, early exposure to allergy risky foods (such as eggs and nut butters) before 6 months of age may be protective against allergies developing.
- AGE APPROPRIATE – Research can and does guide us towards the age at which babies are best weaned. It is certainly not a certain week of life – e.g., week 17 or 24, as is commonly presented as fact. It is rather a window of around 4 months in which sensible weaning should begin. The ideal window starts from 4 months and anytime in the months thereafter is great to start solids. If your baby does not enjoy the first few mouthfuls and mealtimes are stressful, there is also no harm in stopping and then trying again a few weeks later.
- BABY FRIENDLY – As your little one grows, they develop self-regulation, which is the ability to manage their own physiology, emotions, and behaviour. Feeding is one area where self-regulation is mastered. Being baby-friendly is all about facilitating their own self-mastery in all areas, including feeding, right through the toddler years. It is the best way to prevent fussy toddler eating.
Science, knowledge, and the advice of your clinic sister or paediatrician create a basis for weaning but the exact journey involves teamwork between your baby and you. As with all wonderful journeys in life, it involves collaboration. COLLAB weaning will change not only the way to wean your baby but so many aspects of your parenting journey, making parenting your little one a sensational journey, a respectful nurturing of a life for long term physical and emotional health.
* Taken from Weaning Sense by Meg Faure and Kath Megaw. For more information about COLLAB weaning, get your copy of Weaning Sense (Quivertree) or download the Parent Sense app for trusted advice and hundreds of delicious baby-friendly recipes.
10 STEPS TO WEANING
- Identify your baby’s cues that they are ready to start weaning.
- Try to filter out the noise or listen to too much hype around weaning. Choose trusted, science-backed sources of information that make sense to you and your lifestyle.
- It’s easiest (and more effective) if weaning is gradual – over several weeks, months or longer depending on your baby and the context. Use the COLLAB method to guide the weaning process.
- Start by adding one meal at a time. Until 6 months old, milk is still your little one’s primary source of nutrition so don’t rush to reduce milk feeds with solids. Allow your baby to lead the pace.
- Make wholesome foods at home that are nutritionally more like breast milk than processed cereals. Leave some texture in foods and opt for vegetables, fruit, and healthy fats to start off.
- Introduce proteins slowly over the course of several days and at lunch times.
- Encourage your partner to participate in feeding your little one, make mealtimes a social time to connect with family in a way that nourishes the body and soul.
- Follow your baby’s cues to know when they’ve had enough. As important as it is to ensure your baby continues to grow adequately, it is equally important to ensure that your baby isn’t over fed.
- After 6 months old, if weaning is going well – start replacing more feeds with solids. As your little one gets older, offer steamed whole foods for them to handle and feed themselves.
- Watch the cues you give your baby around weaning. If you are tense, stressed, or anxious about weaning there’s a good chance your baby will be too. Relax and be patient – weaning is a wonderful time of bonding and learning more about your baby’s likes, dislikes, and their blossoming personality.
FINAL TAKE HOME ADVICE
To really simplify the science, there are the 5 core concepts that will help you make sense of weaning:
- Babies wean at different ages according to when they are ready and need solids. Do not offer your baby solids before 4 months of age but do try to have started the process by 6 months of age. Watch for their cues for readiness like interest in what you are eating, holding their head up well and not being satisfied with milk alone.
- While you wean, continue to breastfeed and make sure that your baby’s milk feeds remain the priority until 6 months of age. If their appetite wanes as they start solids, offer a milk feed ahead of solid meals so that they are hungry for the milk.
- Start with vegetables and within a week of starting veggies, you can add in a teaspoon of healthy fats, like mashed avocado or olive oil. The mix of complex carbs and fats more closely resembles breast milk than pure carbs like rice cereal.
- Aim to feed your baby home cooked food, which is more textured and wholesome than jarred baby food and avoid any processed carbohydrates (processed cereal) and fruit juice.
- You control when your baby eats, where they eat and what they eat. Let your little one control how much – little one’s tummies are very small, and they are likely to not eat huge amounts and some meals they may eat less than others. Don’t get into a battle, trying to ‘make’ them eat more.
Now that you have all the information about how to start weaning, I wish you and your little one a magnificent journey of discovery and enjoyment. For hands on guidance to weaning, download the Parent Sense app now for sound advice, tailored suggestions, and fantastic recipes your little one will love.
ABOUT KATH MEGAW
Kath is a paediatric dietitian who has been in private practice for the past 15 years. After qualifying as a dietitian, Kath studied further and gained specialist experience in paediatric and special needs dietetics.
However what qualifies Kath more than all her years of study is her 3 children who constantly challenge her theoretical paradigms and help her put her theory into practice. Kath is passionate about helping families navigate through a wealth of nutritional information that is available to them. Kath’s private practice is not only built on assisting her little patients with their nutritional needs but also offering support to moms and dads.
Kath speaks at various baby and toddler seminars around the country and runs workshops on infant and childhood nutrition. She is a regular guest on the etv Great Expectations show and a variety of other media. Kath has written articles for many leading magazines and co-authored the book ‘FEEDING SENSE” (Metz Publishers 2010). Kath lives in the beautiful city of Cape Town with her husband and 3 beautiful children.