Current guidance is that you shouldn’t introduce solid foods until a baby is around six months old.
But babies develop at different rates, so how do you know when to start with your individual baby?
It boils down to your baby being developmentally ready to eat something other than milk. A baby’s digestive system takes time to mature enough to be able to cope with food. According to the research evidence (and NHS guidelines), there are three key signs that a baby is ready for more than milk:
1. The baby is able to stay in a sitting position and hold their head steady. In other words, they don’t slump if you put them in a highchair.
2. They have developed enough co-ordination to be able to look at food, pick it up and put it in their mouth.
3. The baby’s gag reflex has faded and they can swallow food. Babies who aren’t yet able to swallow will get more food round their face than in their mouths.
The signs of readiness can be hard to read though because there is so much else going on at this stage in a baby’s life. It is common for babies to start waking more frequently in the night at around four months (this is thought to be linked with rapid developmental changes). This can be taken as a sign that the baby is hungry for food. However research shows that introducing solids early does not make babies sleep longer at night.
Chewing fists and wanting extra milk feeds are other normal baby behaviours which can be mistaken for signs that it is time to get going with solids.
Other baby exploits which can potentially be confusing are the baby grabbing for food or copying other people eating. Babies love to watch and imitate the people in their lives, so this is not necessarily a sign of interest in food. However if your baby takes food off you and then manages to eat some of it, that is a pretty clear indication that the concept of food appeals to them!
There are some specific circumstances where it can be appropriate for solids to be introduced earlier than six months, for instance if your baby was born prematurely. There is some information on weaning premature babies from the charity Bliss here: www.bliss.org.uk/weaning. Health professionals should be able to guide you about the best way forward if you need to start early.
Sometimes parents can feel under pressure to start solids earlier than feels right for their baby. Common reasons for this are if friends with babies of a similar age have already started on solids or because family members think it is time for the baby to be weaned (historically, babies were given solid food earlier than six months).
But it’s your baby, and you know them best, so it’s up to you to decide when they are really ready to be introduced to the exciting world of food.