Stepping into the exciting world of weaning? From introducing those first tastes, to building on texture and starting regular meals, we're with you every step of the way. Registered dietitian and public health nutritionist Dr Frankie Phillips explains how to begin...
Those first few mouthfuls of food mark an exciting milestone for you and your baby. This new experience can be a time of pure wide-eyed delight as your baby expresses their pleasure at the new flavours in their mouth.
Whether you start with purée or mashed food on a spoon, or give your baby some soft finger food to chew, the flavour and texture will be worthy of some reaction.
Where to start?
Some research suggests it's a good idea to start with just plain vegetables so that baby gets used to the slightly bitter or sour taste rather than offering sweeter tastes such as fruit. Baby rice, or other suitable cereal, mixed with their usual milk (expressed breast milk or formula) is also fine, but it does have a naturally slightly sweet taste. As babies have an innate preference for sweet tastes, it’s worth bearing in mind that this is likely to be more acceptable. But to get your baby started on a journey into a world of new tastes, health professionals recommend offering a wide range of flavours as soon as your baby's had that first mouthful. Studies have shown that by giving a wide variety of different tastes early in the weaning window, baby is more likely to enjoy a varied diet as they get older.
Sometimes they might not find the taste of a new food too appealing, and you're likely to get some grimaces, as well as coos of delight. Both reactions are fine, and if your baby doesn’t seem to enjoy something the first time, don’t give up, just try it again in a couple of days. Sometimes it can take up to 10-15 times of trying a new food before it’s accepted, just keep trying, even with a tiny amount, and it will help to stop any fussiness later.
Building in texture
Texture is as important as taste in weaning. If you're starting with purées, it’s useful to move quickly onto lumpier mashed foods. By six months, your baby should be able to move the food safely around his mouth and chew it. Even before the teeth start to appear, he can still manage. By introducing lumpy foods, studies show that babies are less likely to be fussy eaters. Introducing lumpier and chunkier foods with a range of textures means that by their first birthday they should be able to enjoy family meals with the same foods as you.
Introducing finger foods, such as mini rice cakes, soft pieces of fruit or cooked vegetables like steamed broccoli or cauliflower florets gives baby an opportunity to feed herself. It can also help her to fine tune her pincer grip and other developmental skills. Giving a few peas in a bowl for a snack is a fantastic way to try this skill out.
Moving onto regular meals
You might start off by giving baby just a small taste in between milk feeds, but within a couple of weeks they might be enjoying three small meals with you. Keep up with their usual milk supply as this is an important source of nutrition (cow’s milk can be used in cooking but not as a drink until he’s a year old). Some babies might like to take it slower, and get used to having a few mouthfuls at one mealtime before adding in another mealtime. It’s a balancing act as the weaning window, where your baby is more willing to accept new foods, is only open for a brief time up to around nine months, so try to move on and establish a good pattern of eating and a wide variety of flavours and textures at mealtimes. But go at the pace that suits your baby.
How much is enough?
Babies are really good at recognising when they're hungry, and when they're full. The amount your baby eats can vary widely, and some days he might seem to have hollow legs, whereas other days he may barely touch a thing. That’s fine – just let him guide you and practice ‘responsive feeding’. This is where a baby’s cues or signs are used to respond to his appetite. If your baby turns his head away and pushes food aside, don’t try to cajole him into having ‘just one more mouthful’, just accept this way of telling you he's had enough. So long as your baby is growing well and is active, just relax and take the plate away. It can be frustrating, but go with the flow – chances are he'll be demanding second helpings tomorrow!
There are no rules about portion size – roughly speaking about the size of his hand is a guide to portion. Baby’s appetite and cues of hunger and fullness are the best way to determine portion size. And no matter what granny says, it’s okay not to clear your plate if you're already full!
What’s a balanced diet?
For adults, there are clear guidelines about what makes up a balanced diet; include at least five fruit and veg a day, aim for wholegrain cereals to boost fibre, limit fatty and sugary foods, eat some protein and dairy foods, and have a portion of oily fish each week.
For babies, these rules don’t strictly apply, but if you're having a balanced diet as a family, that will help your baby to enjoy a balance too, so that by the time she’s a year old and eating family foods with you, everyone can benefit.
The chart below gives a guide to introducing foods for the first year, with appropriate textures at each of the stages of weaning. The ages given are just a guide, and if you think your baby is ready for the next stage, it’s fine to move on.
Once your baby is having two to three meals most days, try to offer something from each of the food groups at most meal times. Some useful recipes for different stages of weaning include:
Stage one (around 6-9 months)
Try introducing thicker consistency textures with some lumps; soft finger foods can also be introduced at this stage.
Stage two (9 - 12 months)
Try introducing mashed, chopped and minced consistencies and textures, along with more finger foods.
Stage three (12 months plus)
Try introducing mashed or chopped family foods and a variety of finger foods.
Food groups for all stages:
- fruits and vegetables
- rice, pasta, potatoes, yam, bread and cereals
- meat, fish, pulses and eggs
Adapted from the British Dietetic Association Food Fact Sheet.
A word on foods to avoid
While most foods are fine, there are a few foods that shouldn’t be given to your baby, including honey, cow’s milk (as a drink) and whole nuts. Honey and cow’s milk are fine from 12 months and if eggs are served runny, they should always have the Lion Mark. Whole nuts are a choking risk, but ground nuts (such as peanut butter) can be given safely unless your child has an allergy to nuts. Other foods to be careful about include salt and sugar: don’t add any salt or sugar to foods for your baby, and it’s a good idea to limit these for the whole family too.
Very few children develop a food allergy, but it’s important to introduce those foods which might cause an allergic reaction after they reach six months. The foods most likely to trigger a reaction are cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, gluten, nuts, peanuts, seeds, fish and shellfish, and these should be introduced in small amounts one at a time so that any reaction can be quickly spotted.
If you have a family history of allergy, eczema, asthma or hay fever, mention it to your GP or health visitor, and you may need to be careful when first giving your baby foods that contain peanuts. Even if you think that your baby has a reaction to certain foods, don’t simply avoid foods without the advice of a health professional, or your baby might not get all of the nutrients he needs.
For more information, read our guide on allergies in children with advice from Allergy UK.
A final word on supplements
Most of the nutrients your baby needs can come from their food and drinks. However, we know that food isn't a good way to get all of the vitamin D needed. Babies over six months should be given a vitamin supplement, usually as drops containing vitamins A, C and D, such as the Healthy Start vitamins that are free for some families. Your health visitor can help you to find out if you are eligible for free drops, or can suggest places where you can buy them.
You may also be interested in our following guides:
Dr Frankie Phillips is a registered dietitian and public health nutritionist specialising in infant and toddler nutrition with over 20 years' experience.
Have you got any questions? Or experiences you would like to share? We'd love to hear from you below...