Parenting tips: Weaning 101 (baby's first foods)

Some babies take to solids easily, while others may need a bit more encouragement. It’s important to remember that all babies are unique. As with most things, they’ll learn and grow at their own pace – so don’t worry too much about what your friends’ babies are eating!

Current World Health Organisation (WHO) advice is that babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months - where possible.

Baby being spoon fed during weaning

What is weaning?

Weaning is when babies start eating solid foods - although by ‘solid’ we mean mush. This is to prepare them for eating the same kind of foods we eat  (though with no added salt or sugar before 12 months old). As with everything baby related, not every child will be ready at the same time, so it’s important to start slow and go at your baby’s natural pace. Trust your instincts and take your cues from your own tiny human. And, of course, speak to a healthcare professional if you have any concerns.

The six month guideline is due to them needing extra nutrients that they can’t get from breast milk or formula from around this time. They’ll need more iron, zinc, omega-3 and vitamins C, A and D.  (We discuss foods to introduce later in this post). Between 6-12 months, they’ll gain around 2-3 ounces a week. That’s a lot of growth for their little bodies, so they’ll need plenty of nutrient dense foods. Eating solids also involves biting and chewing which helps develop muscles for speech development.

It’s called ‘weaning’ as the change is gradual. Soft foods are introduced alongside their normal milk. They’ll still need around 500-600ml of breast milk or formula a day, but can also start to drink water that’s been boiled then cooled. It’s advised that you introduce foods one at a time so that you can check for allergies.

How do you know when your baby's ready for weaning?

Although six months is the recommended age to start weaning, it doesn’t work for everyone. There may be reasons you are advised to either start earlier or delay. As long as you do this with medical support and guidance, that’s fine. The Association of UK Dieticians recommends that babies should not have any solid foods before 17 weeks (to ensure that their digestive systems are developed enough).

There are lots of cute signs that your baby may make to show they are aware of, and interested in solid food. For example, their eyes may follow your fork from plate to mouth - they may even mimic you and open their mouths. Grasping and putting more things in their mouth may also be a sign.

Here are some more physical signs your baby may be ready to start their weaning adventure:

  • They don’t seem satisfied with their normal feeds, and are needing them more frequently
  • They can sit in a high chair and hold their head up well
  • They open their mouth when food comes towards them and seem eager to eat
  • They turn their head away from your breast or their bottle
  • They can coordinate their hands, eyes and mouth (they can look at the food, pick it up and put it in their mouth by themselves).

It’s important to try to stick to the six month guideline, but if you’re considering starting slightly earlier, you should always discuss this with your healthcare professional. It’s a myth that starting solids early will help your baby sleep through the night (sorry) - but sometimes they may need a little extra milk before six months.

Spoon-fed or baby-led? What’s the difference?

The two main types of weaning are basically what they say on the tin. One is where you feed baby with a spoon, and the other is where their food is placed in front of them and they're given free reign with their fingers. There's no right decision here; in fact, 90% of parents use a combination of both methods!

Spoon-fed weaning

Weaning baby being spoon fed

Spoon-fed weaning, as the name implies, is where you feed your baby using a spoon. Typically you will start with bland foods like baby rice mixed with their usual milk, or steamed, puréed fruits and vegetables. You then move on to thicker foods, introducing ‘lumps’ gradually after establishing a good routine on purees. And again, all babies cope with lumps at different times, so if you try and it doesn’t work out, just try again in a few weeks.

Advantages of spoon-fed weaning

  • It may be easier for them to begin with smooth food as it’s closer in texture to milk.
  • You can keep track of what and how much they’re eating as most of it ends up in their mouth!
  • You can ensure they’re getting the right mix of nutrients.
  • It gives them more time to get used to more solid foods
  • It’s a lot less messy than the alternative.

Disadvantages of spoon-fed weaning

  • Food prep can take a long time.
  • It makes meal times a bit less sociable as you can’t eat with them – you’ll generally end up feeding them and then feeding yourself.
  • It may be more difficult to introduce lumpier foods as they can get used to smooth textures.

Baby-led weaning

Baby using finger-led weaning

Baby-led weaning is where your baby feeds themselves with their fingers, right from the start. You place soft, manageable bits of food on their plate/tray, and let them feed themselves (or throw it on the floor, of course).

The term was first coined in 2003 and has become increasingly popular ever since. It’s believed that this is because in 2002, the WHO changed their guidelines from exclusive breastfeeding until four to six months, to the current recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding until six months. As babies are much more developed at six months than four months, they are generally more skilled at feeding themselves.

Advantages of baby-led weaning

  • It may help to improve their eating patterns, as they eat if they’re hungry and don’t eat if they’re not. It’s been found to help with healthier weight gain.
  • Meal times can be sociable right from the start as they can eat at the same time as the rest of the family.
  • They’re introduced to different textures from a young age, meaning they’re less likely to reject lumpier textures.

Disadvantages of baby-led weaning

  • It can get very messy.
  • As it doesn’t all go in their mouth, you may feel like you’re wasting lots of food.
  • You can’t completely monitor how much or what they’re eating.
  • It can be time consuming as they may take a while to eat, and you’ll need to watch for choking while they find their limits.

You'll need to find which weaning method works best for you and your baby. You may even find that a combination of the two works!

If you wanted to get started with baby-led weaning, check out this guide from Baby Journey for more tips and recipes.

Tips on introducing new foods

Transitioning to solids is a big step for your little one - and you! It can take time but they will get there eventually. Plus, good routines will help them develop a healthy relationship with food which will stand them in good stead for life.

To make it easy, and safe, here are some tips to get your started:

  • Make sure they’re sitting upright (ideally in a high chair).
  • Be patient and go at their pace. Stop when it seems they’ve had enough and don’t force them to eat something – if they don’t seem to like it, try again another time.
  • Let them sit with the family at meal times to show them how you eat.
  • If you’re taking the spoon-fed approach, try not to disguise certain foods. This will ensure that they get to try everything, and will grow up eating a more varied diet. (For example puréed mango and broccoli may cover the taste of the broccoli).
  • Give them quiet encouragement as they eat but don’t over-excite them. They can become overwhelmed when lots of things are going on and you don’t want to distract them from their food.
  • Cut foods into small pieces, removing all skin and bones.
  • Keep a food log to ensure they’re getting the right nutrients. This can also help to spot any allergies.

What to feed them

Bowl of pureed baby food

Start by offering small amounts of food, alongside their usual breast milk or formula. Try:

  • Mashed, puréed or soft vegetables (broccoli, sweet potato, parsnip, carrot, cauliflower, etc.).
  • Mashed, puréed or soft fruit (pear, banana, peach, avocado, mango, plums, etc.).
  • Baby rice or cereal mixed with breast milk.

As they get used to different textures and flavours, start introducing:

  • Cooked eggs
  • Meat, fish and poultry
  • chickpeas and other pulses
  • Bread and rice
  • Oats
  • Soft, pasteurised cheese
  • Smooth nut butters
  • Tofu (from 8 months)
  • Pasta (from 8 months)
  • Lentils (from 8-10 months)

By introducing foods gradually, you can look out for any allergies that they might have. Possible signs of allergies include:

  • Bloating
  • Increased gas
  • Rash
  • Diarrhoea
  • Vomiting

If you notice these, avoid giving them that food again until you discuss it with your doctor or health visitor.

Baby in high chair with food around mouth

Foods to avoid

  • Cow’s milk before 12 months (can lead to iron deficiency anaemia)
  • Honey before 12 months (can lead to infant botulism)
  • Hard foods or food with skin that can be a choking hazard such as nuts, popcorn, whole grapes, olives, raw carrot, apple, sausages, etc.
  • Sugar (including fruit juice), as this can cause tooth decay.
  • Artificial sweeteners as they’re not nutritious and can encourage a sweet tooth.
  • Salty foods (salt can be bad for their kidneys). You should avoid using stock cubes and gravy granules in their food.
  • Artificial additives
  • Unpasteurised cheeses
  • Shellfish and fish that can contain mercury (shark, marlin, swordfish)
  • Raw or partly cooked egg (unless they have the red British Lion Quality stamp)
  • Tea or coffee (caffeine can affect iron absorption)

We hope this has helped you to understand how you can start introducing solids to your baby’s diet. Let us know what weaning foods your baby loves. It’s an exciting time watching your little one develop so fast and begin a love of family food time. Good luck!

Weaning infographic