This is a fantastically complicated and contentious issue, isn’t it? Debates rage on parenting forums about when is the best time to wean your baby and why, and mothers are given heaps of conflicting advice from the very people who ought to all be saying pretty much the same thing.
Even best-selling authors of baby books, like Annabel Karmel, are saying outright that mothers should ignore the current government guidelines to delay the introduction of solids until babies are around six months old.
The excuse given for opposing what the UK Department of Health (DoH) recommend is that their guidelines have been drawn from what the World Health Organisation (WHO) say and, apparently, WHO guidelines are only relevant for people living in developing countries.
Karmel, and others, think that it’s just about having the resources and equipment to be able to sterilise things properly, and that if you don’t start introducing solids before six months, then your baby will never learn to like new flavours.
I don’t actually understand that argument. There are plenty of things I hated as a child that I love now (I started solids before six months as per the advice at the time), and I see my children’s own tastes changing all the time (all mine had solids at around six months).
But Karmel is missing the point. It is not just about sterilisation, it is about the development of babies digestive systems and how they react not just to pathogens (germs and bugs) but to allergens as well.
Even if we are privileged enough to live in a culture where we have high quality health care, free at the point of delivery, that doesn’t negate the potential effects on babies’ guts of introducing solids too early. And these risks are potentially life-long: allergies, obesity and diabetes.
Is it really worth it? What is the point of introducing solids before six months? Well, according to popular belief, it’s because babies seem to be ready before then, and mothers’ instincts are telling them that it’s the right time.
But the problem is that we have had so many years of being told what the ‘signs of readiness for weaning’ are, that for many of us our instincts have been well and truly buried. We have been told that babies are ready for food when they start grabbing at things and putting them to their mouths, but this is just a sign that they are 4-5 months old.
We are told that watching us while we eat is a sign that they’re ready, but they watch us going to the loo, walking and driving cars, and they’re not ready for that yet.
And, this is often the hardest one to accept, we are told that babies being cranky and starting to wake more often is a sign that breast or formula milk is no longer enough and they now need solids. But actually it’s a sign that they are having a development spurt which is stressing them out, and they need to suckle more to enable them to relax, and also to increase your milk supply to their new needs. It usually passes in a few days to a couple of weeks, and then you get your happy smiley baby back.
Really, the best way to tell if your baby is truly ready for solids (and it will be different ages for different babies) is to let him lead the way. Just as you can trust that he knows how much milk to take and how often, he will know when his mouth and gut is ready for solid foods. When Gill Rapley did her research into baby-led weaning, she found that most babies began to actually eat solid foods at around six months.
As with so much when it comes to parenting, in general, the more we parents try to second guess our babies and interfere with their natural development, the more stressful and worrying it is for us. And it often is counter-productive, creating new problems and sometimes slowing things down.
Pureeing food, and pushing it, however gently, into your 4 month-old baby’s mouth is totally overriding all his natural instincts to protect himself and his gut until he is ready for that food, and, whatever Ms. Karmel says, there is simply no need to do so. Working with your baby is so much simpler – maybe a bit messier, but definitely simpler and easier.
But this post isn’t about baby-led weaning, but about the age at which weaning should start, and why the six-month guidelines aren’t just for developing countries, and the reason is simply because babies know best, and, as Rapley’s research has found, babies usually tell us they’re ready for solids at around six months…which is kind of the time that all the research into babies’ guts says they’re ready too. Clever, aren’t they, those babies?