Complementary feeding or weaning

Complementary feeding (commonly known as weaning) means introducing a variety of foods gradually to a baby, alongside the usual milk feeds, until he or she is eating the same healthy foods as the rest of the family. The weaning stage is an opportunity to emphasise eating a well-balanced diet including a variety of foods and help parents set up good eating habits and a healthy diet for life for their children.

When to begin weaning

Research recommends weaning babies should begin at around six months. This is due to the developmental readiness of babies’ digestive systems and their kidneys and in the first six months of life it is best for a baby to get all their nutritional needs from breast milk (or formula milk if not breastfeeding).   However, while feeding practices are changing, most mothers in 2010 were not following the UK guidelines, since three-quarters of mothers (75%) had introduced solids by the time their baby was five months old. Weaning at six months, rather than earlier, means a reduction in the risk of asthma, eczema, digestive problems, allergies and obesity in later life. Weaning is also easier at six months because there is no need to puree food.  Signs that an baby is ready to start weaning include:

  • Baby can stay in a sitting position and hold her head steady
  • Baby can reach out and grab things accurately; for example, look at food, pick it up and put it in her mouth all by herself
  • Baby can swallow food. Babies who are not ready will push their food back out so they have more on their face than in their mouths 

It is important to emphasise when discussing with parents when to begin weaning that the change in guidance for weaning is based on evidence. The six-month guidelines may be different from the advice women followed with an older child or what they have experienced with friends and in their own families, and therefore they may require a change in practice.

As feeding an infant contributes substantially to the bonding and attachment between parent and child, moving to solid foods is a change to the parent-child relationship and should be treated sensitively. Emphasis should be on providing a variety of foods with different colours and textures and avoiding foods that are inappropriate for babies and young children. To support the transition parents can be advised to:

  • choose a time of day when they are relaxed
  • mix feeds between breast or formula milk and solids to gently introduce new feeding
  • make sure they have plenty of time – many babies are slow to eat at the beginning
  • allow the baby to feed themselves, using fingers as soon as they show interest
  • eat together with baby to help them feel more included and helps develop social skills.

See Fun First Foods for more information (external link)


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