For the first six months of life, a baby does not need any food or drink other than breastmilk - it is the perfect food! However, around six months of age, babies tend to become curious about solid food. When parents first start introducing solids to a baby, the baby might even start grabbing food and putting it in his mouth – or might even “self-wean” and start refusing breastmilk altogether!
Many parents have questions about the balance between breastfeeding and introducing solids. For example, how can you get your baby to try new foods, while still keeping up with breastfeeding for the recommended amount of time?
It’s great to allow your baby to try new tastes, starting at the age of six months. However, six-month-old babies – even the most precocious solid food grabbers – still need breastmilk. The most important thing to remember is that breastmilk is a nutrient dense food and should be the primary source of your baby’s nutrition throughout the entire first year of the child’s life while his body and brain are growing so rapidly.
Ideally, if you want to introduce solids at six months, this does not mean you should give up on breastfeeding. Instead, you should complement breastfeeding with solid foods – start feeding your baby some solid foods at six months, but try to keep breastfeeding for a year or longer.
So, the simple answer is that introducing solids does NOT mean bye bye to breastfeeding at all!
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about introducing solids, weaning, and whether (or how long) to keep breastfeeding.
What is Weaning?
Weaning is the process of switching a baby from milk to solid foods, with the child eventually stopping breastfeeding altogether. It is ideally a slow process and in fact, weaning cold turkey can be harmful to the baby and to the mother. A baby forced to give up breastmilk too suddenly might be confused as to why he is suddenly deprived of milk and may end up with stress related colic, while moms may suffer from breast engorgement or added tension because of the baby’s crying.
Introducing solids and weaning are two completely different things – weaning is often related to introducing solids, but it’s possible to do one without the other; you can introduce solids to the baby without weaning the baby.
When is the Right Time to Introduce Solids?
The World Health Organization suggest that weaning can ideally be started when the baby reaches six months of age. This is when the baby’s digestive system has fully matured enough to process solid foods. So it’s fine to start partially weaning a six-month-old – but this does not mean that parents should stop breastfeeding altogether at six months. Instead, you can use six months as a milestone to begin introducing some solid foods and then gradually reduce the number of daily breastfeeding sessions over time.
Another reason to keep breastfeeding is that many solid foods popular with babies, like fruit or cereal, don’t provide enough fat. Breastmilk is full of healthy fats and micronutrients that are important for babies during the first year of life while their brains and bodies are developing so rapidly, so it’s important to keep making breastmilk the central part of your baby’s diet, even if he loves solids too. Also, many babies’ digestive systems are still developing after six months – so even if the baby loves to eat solids and is excited to try many solid foods, the baby’s body might not fully be ready for an exclusive diet of solid foods.
There are a few indicators that might show that the baby is ready for solid foods, such as:
- Physical readiness: Babies are often ready for solids when they are strong enough to sit up by themselves, when their teeth have started to come in, and when they have sufficient small motor skills to pick up small objects.
- Curiosity about food: If the baby shows interest in what you’re eating (by looking, reaching, or imitating grown-up “chewing” motions), or if the baby is willing to swallow a small taste of food without spitting it out, these are signs that she might be ready to try solid foods.
- Growth spurt: If your baby has been growing fast, or nursing more frequently, or acting a bit more sociable and communicative at a more advanced level, these can all be signs that the child is ready for solid foods.
Why Should I Start Feeding Solids?
Especially for parents who have been dedicated to breastfeeding, there might be some apprehension as to whether the child is really “ready” for solid foods, or if introducing solids might disrupt the breastfeeding routine. However, there are a few benefits of introducing solids, even while continuing to breastfeed. Solid foods can help the baby get enough iron and Vitamin D, and can expose the baby to new flavours and textures of food. If you’re concerned about which solid foods are “right” for your baby, just follow the baby’s example – see what the baby likes. Start with mild foods like mashed-up banana or simple rice cereal, and then try more “adventurous” foods depending on what the baby prefers.
How Can I Continue to Breastfeed While Introducing Solids?
Keep in mind that you should try to avoid abrupt weaning. Don’t expect – and don’t try to create a situation where – your baby will give up breastfeeding forever upon their first experiences with solid food. Instead, consider solid foods as a supplement to your ongoing breastfeeding routine.
One way to avoid confusing your baby and prevent abrupt weaning is to breastfeed your baby first, and then (an hour later) offer solid foods. This way, your baby is still accustomed to taking in breastmilk as the main source of food, and does not get “trained” to fill up on solids.
As your baby gets more used to eating solids, you can add small meals or snacks of solid foods between breastfeeding sessions. After one year, if you’re still breastfeeding, you can switch this arrangement and start to use solid foods as the baby’s main nourishment, with breastfeeding as a “snack” between meals throughout the day.
Should I Spoon Feed My Baby, or Let Him Self-feed?
It’s natural to want to spoon-feed your baby, especially in the early days after introducing solids. However, for the most part, once your baby has gotten used to eating solids, it might be best to let the baby self-feed by reaching out/grabbing their own food – even if it is messier!
Research from the British Medical Journal has suggested that babies who are left alone to self-feed with finger foods are more likely to have healthier body weights as adults. The reason? Spoon-fed babies tend to be fed pureed blends of food that have higher sugar content, leading to a lasting preference for sweet foods that might contribute to being overweight later in life.
What Should We Feed Babies When Introducing Solids?
There are a variety of options for nutritional “first foods” for babies, such as bananas, pears, applesauce, squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, avocadoes, peaches, or rice and barley cereals. Look for iron rich foods – many baby cereals are enriched with iron, which is important to supplement the iron in the mother’s breastmilk.
Try to feed your baby healthy, clean “whole” foods – avoid salt, sugar, chocolate, caffeine and chemical additives. Especially if you have any family history of food allergies, it’s important to avoid any common allergens like cow’s milk, corn, wheat or egg whites. You can gradually introduce these foods over time or get allergy testing to see if your baby has any food allergies or sensitivities.
Other “first foods” to definitely avoid are common choking hazards, like grapes, whole berries, popcorn, hot dogs (or chunks of meat), hard foods like apple slices, raw carrots, or dry cereal, or sticky foods like peanut butter. Basically, just use your common sense and keep in mind that baby’s mouths are small and their teeth are still coming in – so they cannot handle the “heavy duty” foods like cookies or whole nuts or potato chips that grown-ups love to eat.
Introducing solids is a fun time of life, because you can start to see how your child responds to different flavours and textures of food – but remember: introducing solids does not mean giving up breastfeeding. Go ahead and keep breastfeeding for as long as the baby wants to feed.
What has been your experience with introducing solids? Leave a comment to share your story, or join us at the Medela Facebook page.