This is probably one of the most common questions we get asked every week! So, I thought I would try and explain the reasons behind this advice so that you can really understand the science and research behind this recommendation.
Since 2001, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended that babies should start being introduced to solid foods from around 6 months of age. (We will discuss the ambiguity of the word “around” later on).
These recommendations were then taken on by the majority of health organisations around the world and have been used write their weaning guidelines for their own citizens. (Appendix 1)
Did you know that during the 16th and 17th century, solid foods were introduced at around 8-9 months (alongside breastfeeding for 2-3 years)
Industrialisation then had a huge impact on the world and women began to work more and more in the growing cities which meant that breastfeeding declined quite rapidly.
This then paved the way for parents to find alternatives to breastfeeding and so began to introduce solid foods earlier and earlier.
Paediatricians also started to become involved on advising on weaning as did self-appointed “parenting experts” who developed strict ideas about solid foods. Amy Brown writes in her book “Why Starting Solids Matters” about a physician named Walter Sackette who
“recommended that babies be given cereals whilst they were still in hospital (at 12 noon and 12 midnight as “this is the handiest time for nurses in the hospital to get out on the floor and teach mothers how to give this cereal)!”
Sackette also advised that “by nine weeks, baby could be offered bacon and eggs, just like Dad”!
Thankfully, we know that this isn’t an acceptable, safe or healthy way to start weaning our babies in the 21st century and in 1994, the first official set of weaning guidelines were published in the UK.
These stated that solid foods should be introduced at 4 to 6 months. We then saw the second and most recent set of guidelines change in 2001 to recommending a further delay in complementary feeding to around 6 months. It is worth noting that these recommendations have not changed in 18 years.
Why is this now the current advice? Well, we are lucky that we have access now to lots and lots of research and this is what this advice is based on, scientific research. There have been many many studies undertaken looking at the recommended age for weaning and on evaluation of these studies, extensive research and medical papers, the results concluded the following: -
1. That based on a huge systematic review of extensive research that there was no harm in waiting until 6 months.
2. That this delay in waiting until 6 months might reduce infections including respiratory infections.
3. That babies were clearly growing and developing perfectly well at 6 months therefore breastfeeding and formula feeding was absolutely adequate in terms of nutrient intake.
4. That babies who were introduced to solids at 6 months had fewer gastrointestinal infections
5. Those mums who were breastfeeding lost more pregnancy weight If they waited until 6 months before introducing solids.
6. Solid foods being introduced too early meant that they tended to displace the protective antibodies found in breast milk.
There were no credible research papers which found that it was beneficial to start earlier than 6 months and so the recommendations to wean at 6 months were publish and today, these are the guidelines we follow.
Going back to those official guidelines of “around 6 months” and what that word “around implies” and we can question what that actually means. The reason why it is slightly ambiguous is that we also know that around 6 months, babies start displaying the physical signs that they are ready developmentally to digest food safely and efficiently.
These include being able to sit up and hold their head steady, having the hand to mouth co-ordination to bring food to their mouth and that they are not pushing food out of their mouth with their tongue. And, as all babies are different and develop at different rates, then some children might be physically ready before 6 months.
One of the key messages is that the milk feeds that your baby is receiving is providing them with the best sort of nutrition that they need during this massive stage in development.
Don’t forget, by the time your baby has reached 12 months, they would have tripled their weight. And so, to ensure that they have the right nutrient intake to cope with this, waiting until 6 months seems logical. We don’t want our babies filling up on purees too early, this will simply fill their tummies with foods containing minimal nutrition. This means that this volume of food will have on a knock-on effect on their milk intake. They will then start displacing their milk feeds and potentially missing out on important nutrients from their milk.
At Happy Tums, we really want to ensure that when we discuss weaning, that we emphasise that we also know this stage of introduction of solids by the term “Complementary Feeding”. This means, we are complementing our babies milk feeds with food and with added nutrients - we are not weaning them off milk, even at 6 months. And so, why rush!?
This isn’t a race. This isn’t a competition. This is about learning a new skill, something they are going to do for the rest of their lives, something which we can take at our babies’ pace and something we can do with them.
Weaning is so much more than just introducing foods, it is about setting them up with a life skill, it is about providing them with the healthiest start in life, it is about providing them with the best nutrition possible to keep them healthy throughout their lives. It is about educating them directly and indirectly about food and nutrition and it is about showing them just how vital a healthy diet and a healthy attitude to food is.
And so, if the recommendations are there, shall we not just follow them!? They all make sense to me and I hope they do to you. And believe me, if you can hold off weaning until 6 months, you won’t be fighting the mess, chaos and extra organisation which comes with introducing solids to your baby until you absolutely have to! And if isn’t a reason to wait, I don’t know what is 😊
Current guidelines on weaning across the world.
UK DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH:
“Breastmilk is the best form of nutrition for infants. Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first 6 months (26 weeks) of an infant’s life. Six months is the recommended age for the introduction of solid foods for infants. Breastfeeding (and/or breast milk substitutes, if used) should continue beyond the first 6 months, along with appropriate types and amounts of solid foods”.
AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS:
“Babies should be exclusively breastfed for about the first 6 months of life. This means your baby needs no additional foods (except Vitamin D) or fluids unless medically indicated.
Babies should continue to breastfeed for a year and for as long as mutually desired by the mother and baby. Breastfeeding should be supported by your physician for as long as it is the right choice for you and your baby. Solid foods need to be introduced to ensure that your baby gets proper nutrition around six months of age”
EUROPEAN SOCIETY FOR PAEDIATRIC GASTROENTEROLOGY HEPATOLOGY AND NUTRITION (ESPGHAN)
“Exclusive or full breast-feeding for about six months is a desirable goal. Complementary feeding (i.e. solid foods and liquids other than breast milk or infant formula and follow-on formula) should not introduced before 17 weeks and not later than 26 weeks.”
AUSTRALIAN DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH:
“Breastfeeding provides babies with the best start in life and is a key contributor to infant health. Australia’s dietary guidelines recommend exclusive breastfeeding of infants until 6 months of age, with the introduction of solid foods at around six months and continued breastfeeding until the age of 12 months – and beyond, if both mother and infant wish.”
NEW ZEALAND MINISTRY OF HEALTH:
“Breast milk (or infant formula) gives babies all the nutrients they need up around 6 months old. From 6 months babies start to need food as it provides extra sources of nutrients such as iron. Also, babies have usually grown and developed enough to start eating solid food. Breast milk (or infant formula) is still very important.