Breastfeeding

Introducing solid foods

In 2001, the World Health Organization issued a global public health recommendation that infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health. Thereafter, to meet their evolving nutritional requirements, infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods while breastfeeding continues for up to two years of age or beyond. Exclusive breastfeeding from birth is normally physiologically possible except for a few medical conditions, and unrestricted exclusive breastfeeding results in ample milk production (World Health Organization). 

From the introduction of solid foods to eventual weaning can take weeks, months or even years, depending on what suits individual babies and women but ideally includes a gradual decrease in breastfeeding.

Many of the women we spoke to saw the introduction of solid foods as an exciting developmental milestone in their baby's growth. They said that it was fun to watch their baby exploring new tastes and textures while getting used to food in their mouth. Several also acknowledged that it indicated the “beginning of the end” of breastfeeding and marked the point at which their baby no longer needed just them (see 'Managing weaning, including thoughts and feelings').

Some women viewed the introduction of solids as additional to breastfeeding with their baby still getting most of their nourishment from breast milk (including readily absorbed vitamins and minerals). Others viewed it as a time to replace breast milk with other foods and to cut down on the frequency of breastfeeding. Either way, the women introduced solid foods to their baby gradually over a period of time.

The age at which the women we spoke to began giving their baby solid food varied considerably. It appeared to depend on their (both mother's and baby's) individual preferences. Because of the adoption in 2003 by the UK Departments of Health in England, Wales and Northern Ireland of recommendations for exclusive breastfeeding to six months, and the consequent change in the appropriate age to begin solids from four to six months, there was a little confusion for some women. Several with older children had followed advice to begin solids at four months and continued to do this with subsequent babies while others began earlier babies at four months and later babies at six months or even older. Several women talked about their baby wanting to breastfeed more frequently around this time and a few spoke of being confused between a growth spurt when their baby fed more frequently to build up their milk supply (see 'What daily life is like with a breastfed baby') and an indication of readiness for solid foods.

Some women introduced solids foods because of advice (or even pressure) from their health visitor once their baby attained the recommended age. Others were more relaxed and followed their baby's lead. There was a variety of behaviours that some women thought indicated that their baby was ready for solids while others said that these same behaviours were not a sign of readiness. One of these behaviours was the stage at which their baby watched them, began to reach out for things and put these into his/her mouth which most women interpreted as a clear sign of interest in food. However, one woman said that this was often misinterpreted as a desire for other foods. Another said that her baby wanted whatever she had and put it into her mouth, whether or not it was food.

Several women thought that waking at night, increased frequency of wanting to breastfeed, a slowing of weight gain or biting were signs of readiness for solids. For some women, introducing solid food at these times reversed the trends while for others, solid foods made no difference at all (see 'Monitoring baby's growth').

A wide variety of food was used as baby's introduction to solids including fruit (especially banana and apple), vegetables (especially carrot), cereals (especially baby rice and porridge mixed with either expressed breast milk or infant formula) and dairy products (such as yoghurt and cheese). While many women used baby rice, several were scathing about it, saying that it had fewer calories (“empty calories”) than breast milk (see 'Monitoring baby's growth'), was revolting, and looked and tasted disgusting. One woman called it wallpaper paste (see Interview 28 above)!

Most women introduced new foods gradually and one at a time so that they could identify what caused any allergic reaction that their baby might have. One woman said that it was a “trial and error” process to see what her daughter liked (see Interview 42 above). Some women bought proprietary baby foods, some prepared and pureed foods especially for their baby and others simply gave their baby bits and pieces of the family meal (see Interview 51 above) or finger foods.

The women who held off introducing solids until the baby was older said that it was much easier and that there were a number of advantages such as:

  • their baby was readier for solid food, able to sit upright and capable of coping with and enjoying finger foods 
  • their baby was less likely to develop allergies and could be given a wider range of foods without concerns about things like wheat 
  • and there was no need to prepare or purchase special foods because their baby could have some foods from the family meal.

A few women felt pressured (by health professionals and peers) to introduce solids even though their baby was not interested, was happy and was healthy. Some women who followed their health visitor's advice to introduce foods at a set age said that their baby wasn't ready or was even distressed so they waited until she/he was older but did not admit it. Others said that their health professionals were supportive of delaying solid foods until the baby was ready. One woman said that her daughter had taken solids without trouble as a baby but then refused most foods as a toddler.

Last reviewed September 2015.
Last updated September 2015.

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