This simple question of ‘when is my baby ready for solids?’ creates a huge amount of confusion. Let’s dig into the answers with up to date evidence and also bust some myths!
I was SO excited to get my first baby eating-not as anxious as my mother-in-law. But, that’s a whole other story! Fast forward nine years to my fourth baby and I’d realised there really is no rush! You have the rest of your life to feed them.
Start introducing solids at ABOUT six months
But the exact timing of when to begin eating solid foods depends on your baby. So what seems like a simple question suddenly gets confusing! Chances are you’ve already come across conflicting opinions about starting solid foods.
From self-styled weaning experts to heated threads in online groups to unsolicited advice from family and friends you’ll soon find out (if you haven’t already) that everyone’s an expert on the best time to start solids. You may have heard four months, six months, or sometime in between.
So, why is there so much confusion about the timing of solids?
Here’s what the experts say about the timing of solids
There’s no point someone on the internet thinks is the best time to start solids. Let’s look at what the real experts recommend. And we’re not interested in what one lone expert says, but instead what groups of experts say. Groups of experts come together to develop evidence-based guidelines where they gather and examine ALL of the available evidence (not just one or two studies) about the best time to start solids.
So, let’s take a look at some recent guidelines.
The World Health Organisation and UNICEF
The WHO (World Health Organization) recommend the introduction of nutritionally adequate and safe complementary (solid) foods at six months together with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.
This recommendation is based on a consideration of the optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding.
Complementary foods (solids and liquids other than breast milk or infant formula) should not be introduced before four months but should not be delayed beyond six months.
Most infants should not start solid foods (complementary feeding) until around the age of 6 months, having achieved developmental readiness.
Best Practice for Infant Feeding in Ireland (Food Safety Authority)
The health guidelines provided by the HSE (from your PHN/health visitor) are based on this document. And they recommend that the introduction to solid food or weaning should take place at about six months of age. The recommendations are the same for both formula-fed and breastfed babies.
They also mention that it is safe to start weaning after 17 weeks, but the exact timing will depend upon your baby’s signs of readiness. (FSAI 2012)
Summary of recommendations on when to introduce solid foods to your baby’s diet.
|SACN||About 6 months||Yes|
|FSAI||About 6 months||Yes|
|ESPGHAN||Between 4-6 months||Yes|
|Self-styled ‘weaning expert’||Around 5 months||No|
Reasons why experts recommend not starting solids before four months of age
Your baby’s kidneys and gut are not mature enough to handle food
Breast or formula milk provides everything your baby needs
Introducing other foods or drinks can displace more nutritious milk
Adding solids too early can increase the risk of obesity later on
It can increase their risk of food allergies
More prolonged exclusive breastfeeding may be associated with a reduced risk of tummy bugs and respiratory infections
And why ‘food before one is not just for fun’!
The catchy rhyme ‘food before one is just for fun’ isn’t strictly true. It should certainly be fun! But introducing solid foods at around six months is needed to provide your baby with more energy and iron-rich foods. Milk is still significant to your baby’s nutrition, but it’s not enough all on its own. Your baby also needs to develop its chewing skills.
Plus introducing different textures to your baby stimulates the development of muscles involved in speech and the development of your baby’s mouth.
Introducing potential allergens before your baby’s first birthday also helps to prevent food allergies. How cool is that?
How will I know EXACTLY when my baby is ready for solid food?
Why is it AROUND six months?
Because there’s no one perfect age for first foods, every baby is different. The best approach is to watch your baby for signs that they are ready for solid foods.
Three clear signs show that your baby is ready for food other than breast milk or formula. And you will need to see all three signs together. It’s rare to see these three signs together before six months.
NO 1: Your baby can sit upright with minimal assistance and hold their head up.
Have you ever tried to eat with your chin on your chest? It’s not easy, and it’s a choking risk. So your baby needs to be stable in their core with good head control so that they can eat safely without risking choking.
Can your baby sit for a few seconds without help or with minimal support and hold their head up well?
NO 2: They have good hand-eye coordination.
You’ll see your baby look at toys and teethers, pick them up and bring them to their mouth. If they can’t do that, then they’ll struggle with baby led weaning and finger foods.
Your baby shows signs of good hand-eye coordination. Yes or no?
NO 3: They can swallow food.
Have you ever seen funny videos of parents trying to spoon-feed babies who are just spitting it all back out? It’s great for YouTube but not for your baby! Pushing all of the food out with their tongue like this shows that their tongue-thrust reflex is still very active.
Your baby’s tongue-thrust reflex usually fades between four to six months. Trying to feed a baby whose tongue thrust hasn’t faded is frustrating for both of you. You can check by putting your finger on your baby’s bottom lip, and if they stick their tongue straight out, chances are they’re not quite ready yet.
Are the guidelines different for breastfed babies and formula fed babies?
No, these signs apply to all babies, whether they are breastfed or drinking infant formula. And regardless of whether you’re planning on offering purées or baby led weaning.
When is a premature baby ready for solids?
If your baby was born early (before 37 weeks), you could start solids begin sometime between ‘corrected age’ 4 and 6 months. But make sure that your baby is showing all the signs of readiness.
What if I think my baby is ready for solids and then realise they’re not after I’ve started?
Don’t worry. You might mistakenly think your baby is ready and a few days in realise they’re not. If your baby is under six months, then stop, wait until six months and start again. Just because you started doesn’t mean you have to plough through.
Although, once your baby is six months of age it’s important to keep offering new foods. No pressure though, eat new food together, relax and let your baby get playful with new food. How much food they eat isn’t important.
Breast milk and infant formula continue to provide lots of baby’s nutrition throughout the first year.
Now, let’s bust some common myths about the timing of solids
I read online that the best time to start is at 5-5.5 months so my baby can build up to three meals by six months.
There’s a chance that some babies might be ready at five months. But not all or most babies. And this isn’t a good reason to start a baby who isn’t showing all the signs of readiness. It’s not a race! You can start solids at six months and still build up slowly to three meals a day by about seven months. Starting solids is about introducing new tastes and food textures and not about how much food your baby eats.
When you do start introducing solid foods at about six months move quickly from first tastes to a wider variety of foods, particularly foods high in iron. There’s no need to spend weeks and weeks offering only rice cereal (baby rice) or various combinations of fruits and vegetables. It’s a commonly held myth that you need to offer new foods singly before offering more complicated meals of soft food.
I’ve heard that if you start solids early, then your baby is more accepting of new flavours.
Research doesn’t support the existence of a ‘critical window’ for the acceptance of solid foods between 4 and 6 months. Starting solids at around six months of age is not associated with difficulty in baby’s accepting foods later on.
Certain foods like green vegetables can be harder for baby’s to like, so it’s worth offering them regularly, especially at the beginning. Sweet foods like sweet potato will be devoured but that doesn’t mean that you want to offer the same foods all the time.
Is it better to introduce solids early to prevent allergies?
Unless your baby is high risk and a health professional has advised you to start before six months, there’s no need to start before your baby is showing all the signs of readiness. On the other hand, once you do start solids at six months, aim to begin introducing potentially allergenic foods as soon as you can to help prevent food allergy.
Potential allergens include cow’s milk in an exclusively breastfed baby. Infant formula contains the same proteins as cow’s milk.
LEARN MORE >>> How to introduce potential allergens quickly and safely
My baby is watching me while I’m eating, does this mean he’s ready?
Not necessarily. It’s normal for babies to be interested in new things and in what you’re doing. And this sign alone doesn’t tell you that your baby is ready for baby food. Your baby is interested in everything you do. But are they ready to wear make-up or take the car for a spin?
Remember breast milk or infant formula provides all your baby’s essential nutrients until six months. The only vitamin and mineral supplementation your baby needs is a baby vitamin D3 supplement if they’re exclusively breastfeeding or drinking less than 300mls infant formula.
My baby is waking up at night when she previously slept through. Surely some solids will help her sleep a bit longer at night, that’s what my mother keeps telling me!
There’s no evidence to suggest that introducing solids help babies sleep any better. There are lots of reasons why babies wake at night, that often have nothing to do with hunger. They may be going through a growth spurt and wanting extra milk feeds. Offer extra milk until they’re ready to begin solid food.
One study showed that babies who started solids at three months slept for an average of 17 minutes longer than those who were only just starting solids. The differences between the groups got smaller after six months. Think about the reasons above for not starting before four months. Is it worth 17 minutes extra sleep?
WATCH THIS >>>Babies and sleep-what to expect
My little man is a buster. Everyone says he needs more than milk due to his size.
Milk can undoubtedly provide enough energy for a baby up to 6 months of age, even if your baby is big and growing quickly. Milk is a much better source of energy than first baby foods. Think about it, how could a little bit of broccoli (or even porridge) provide more calories and protein than breast milk or formula milk?
So your baby doesn’t start solids simply because he is big. He’ll get the energy he needs from his milk. Also, being bigger doesn’t mean that your baby is developmentally ready for solid foods.
My little girl always has her fists in her mouth, and I think she’s trying to tell me she’s ready for food.
To be able to eat food, your baby needs to be able to move her tongue to the back of her mouth and swallow. If your baby is chewing on her fist, this does not tell you she can swallow. However, this is normal behaviour for a small baby, and she could just be teething!
Wait for the reliable three signs of readiness before introducing solids.
My baby has reflux, and someone suggested that starting solids might help.
There’s no evidence to support the theory that introducing solids can improve symptoms of reflux. For some babies, more solid foods may improve symptoms, for others, first solid foods can make symptoms worse, and for many, it makes no difference.
In my experience, a great way to prevent over-feeding (which leads to worsening of symptoms) is to introduce solids with finger foods (baby led weaning) rather than spoon-feeding. Remember your baby needs to be six months for finger foods.
MORE INFORMATION >>> Understanding reflux
People online talk about a baby having an open gut before six months and that it’s dangerous to start solids before then.
Babies are born with what is known as an ‘open gut’. An open gut means that the cells that line the gut have little gaps between them so substances can pass more easily into the bloodstream. But we know that these gaps close up quickly after birth. And that from 4 months onwards the gut is mature enough to handle first foods.
Take home message about the timing of solids
So to sum up, watch your baby and not the clock!
Before you start offering solids ask yourself these THREE simple questions:
1. Can your baby sit for a few seconds without help or with minimal support (and hold their head up well)?
2. Does my baby show signs of good hand-eye coordination?
3. Has my baby’s tongue thrust started to fade?
If you can answer, YES to all three then Ready, Steady, Wean!
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