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Weaning

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Introducing solids into your baby's diet is a vital step in ensuring all their nutritional needs are met, therefore allowing adequate growth and development. Many parents worry about when the best time is to start weaning as there is so much conflicting information out there. The weaning process should not commence before the baby is 4 months of age/17 weeks and not later than 6 months/26 weeks. Whenever you decide to wean your baby, it's important to understand that weaning is a gradual process that calls for patience and understanding from both you and your child.
Early weaning (less than 4 months) is not recommended since research shows a link with the development of food allergies and intolerances as well as possible obesity during childhood. Therefore for the infant's safety and later growth and development, all expert groups advise milk, either breast milk or formula milk, as the infants sole source of nutrition during the first 4 - 6 months of life.

The weaning period is seen as a 'window of opportunity' in that a variety of foods can be offered along with different tastes, textures, flavours along with rougher  food consistencies in the later stages. It is important for the infant to meet 'the key milestones' during this critical time to prevent any faddy eating later on. When solids are introduced before six months you are only getting the baby used to different tastes and textures and their main nutrition is still being provided by the milk. The amounts of solids taken are built up slowly then over many weeks.
This is a completely new mystifying experience for your baby. Although sucking is a natural reflex, babies need to be ready to learn the new skill of pushing food to the back of their mouth with their tongues and swallowing. When starting the weaning process try to make it a special time between you and your baby rather than a chore. Choose a time of day when you can give plenty of time and energy to the task and that you are not liable to be distracted. Midday is usually considered a good time to start and if possible try to feed your baby at the same time daily to establish a routine. As babies are used to food coming in a steady stream they can find the gap between mouthfuls frustrating so it is a good idea to offer some milk before feeding so that they are not frantically hungry.

Despite all the guidelines the best indicator of when to start solids is your baby. If your baby was sleeping well at night-time and begins waking earlier or during the night it is a good indicator your baby is ready for solids to be introduced.

Other indications may include:
. Your baby sitting up and holding his or her head up. This means your baby will be able to sit in an upright position for feeding.
. If your baby is looking at or trying to grab food it could mean he or she is ready to move on to solids.
. If your baby is irritable when finished their milk feed and appears to be still hungry this is another indication that they may need more feed.

Initially your baby will only have a tiny amount of food and more than likely will spit it back out but remember this is a new experience for them and it's going to be messy! Just offer them a few spoonfuls and remember to chat and smile with them while feeding.  After a few days your baby will begin to get used to this new experience and the texture of food and will have learnt how to swallow foods. Once you and your baby have become more confident and used to this new feeding regime you can try gradually incorporating solids into other mealtimes.

Initial foods to introduce can include pureed fruits and vegetables along with mashed potato or baby rice. Avoid adding butter, salt or salt derivative, sugar or any other processed addition to your baby's foods. Babies' taste buds are much more astute than ours and they can detect sweetness in vegetables that we cannot. Begin by offering a few teaspoons daily and aim to increase the portions and the types of food offered over a few weeks. The initial consistency should be pureed and as the weaning progresses aim to mince/mash the foods then in final stages a choppier consistency should be well accepted. Home prepared foods are great and it can be a good idea to get a good balance between offering home prepared foods with commercial infant foods to avoid fussiness in the future.

Following the six month stage, gluten can be introduced into the diet along with beaker cup use. Try to give very diluted unsweetened juices in the beaker cup (one part juice: four parts water) rather than very sweetened juices.  Parents should be aware that the 'types' of foods offered in the first year of life can in fact lay the foundations for their later food preferences. So frequently offering sugary foods such as biscuits, chocolate along with sweetened desserts is a pattern the infant will become accustomed to, and so will preferentially develop a taste for sweet rather than savoury foods.

Ideas for first weaning foods include;
. Baby rice;
. Baby porridge (this will contain gluten so avoid giving until 6 months or more);
. Rusks;
. Puree fruit e.g. apples, pears;
. Mashed potato or sweet potato with formula or breast milk
. Pureed vegetables e.g. broccoli, carrot, cauliflower, spinach, courgette, turnip,   peas, beans and parsnip;
. Pureed meat, pureed chicken;
. Melted cheese after 6 months
. Yoghurt, custard, fromage frais after 6 months

Don't be afraid to combine flavours. There are great ideas in cookbooks including combinations like pear and butternut squash mixed together or another one that babies often love is banana and avocado mixed together which provides lots of calories and vitamin E. Be careful that you don't force your own tastes on your baby. E.g. if you don't like parsnip do offer it to your child to give them an opportunity to develop their own likes and dislikes. Exposing your child to lots of tastes from early on will help reduce the risk of a fussy eater later on.

Once your baby is eating a wider range of foods you can start introducing lumpier textures. Chewing and swallowing lumpier food is linked to speech development so is an important milestone. By 7-8 months your baby will start to pick things up with her thumb and finger and transfer objects from one hand to another. This is a good time to encourage your baby to start feeding themselves by offering them finger foods between meals as snacks. Slices of banana, fingers of toast, baby rusks or cubes of cheese are good examples to start off with. It will be quite a messy so be prepared! Remember you don't have to wait until your baby has teeth. Some babies don't get their first tooth until they are 18 months and others may start at 3 months. Every baby is different. Sit with them while you offer them finger foods and never leave your child unattended at this feeding stage in case they begin to choke.

At this stage your child should be eating three meals per day. The quantity of their intake will vary but your baby will be able to enjoy a wide variety of tastes at this stage. Try to make mealtimes a sociable occasion and let your child join you at mealtimes instead of them eating alone. Once a baby reaches 12 months they should be having a similar diet to the family and partake in all mealtimes. As babies have smaller stomachs than us and they do eat smaller portions so try to include regular healthy snacks in the diet for energy. About a third of their daily calories will come from snacks so make sure they offer some nutritional value.

Good tooth friendly snacks include;
. Vegetable sticks
. Fruit (frozen fruit can be good if they are teething)
. Cheese
. Mini-sandwiches
. Mini-muffins
. Dried fruit
. No added sugar rusks or biscuits
. Toast fingers with houmous or cream cheese and many more.

Although all nutrients are important in your Childs diet iron deficiency is common among Irish toddlers. Children are born with a 6 month supply of iron in the diet and that is one of the reasons it is important to start the weaning process no later than 6 months. Iron requirements until the age of two are very high especially from 6-12 months. Although green vegetables and pulses are great sources of iron red meat is an excellent source and mixes well with root vegetables, potatoes and pasta. Sometimes babies don't like the texture of meat initially but after a few exposures to it they get used to the new chewier texture. Try to include a variety of iron rich foods like beef, lamb, spinach, kidney beans and lentils into the diet and incorporate them in to the family diet. Remember kids learn from example and if you don't eat a healthy balanced diet there is a good chance your child won't either!

Once you start weaning try to establish a routine. The initial period is important as future feeding behaviours are established during the weaning process including the schedule or routine of the infant's meals/feeds, which can in turn affect later feeding behaviour. For example if an infant is accustomed to eating at irregular times and on demand, rather than having a routine and established daily meal schedule, this will program them to continue this 'grazing' pattern throughout infancy and childhood potentially leading to stressful mealtimes!

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