Introducing solid foods to your baby
Introducing solid foods to your baby
While many parents feel excited about introducing solid foods to their little ones, they often have questions about when to start, what foods to give and how to feed in a way that is safe and supports healthy development.
This article will tell you more about the WHEN, WHAT and HOW of giving your baby solid foods. The information below is based on the latest research and guidance from the UK Department of Health and Social Care and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Is there a difference between ‘weaning’ and ‘complementary feeding’?
You may have noticed that ‘weaning’ is now often called 'complementary feeding'. Both terms refer to the process of introducing solid foods into a baby’s diet. However, ‘complementary feeding’ is now preferred by most health bodies, as this term highlights that breastfeeding ideally should continue alongside the introduction of solid foods to provide additional nutrients to meet your baby's needs.
WHEN to start
When should I introduce solid foods?
Key message 1: Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for around the first 6 months
Breastmilk provides all the energy, nutrients and fluids that your baby needs in order to grow and develop healthily during the first 6 months of life*.
Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first 6 months because of the many benefits for both mother and child – you can read about these here. When breastfeeding is not possible, or not chosen by the mother, infant formula is the only appropriate substitute for breastmilk. This should be an infant formula based on cows' or goats' milk, unless you are directed to use a different kind by your GP or other healthcare professional.
*A vitamin D supplement of 8.5 to 10µg (micrograms) of vitamin D per day is recommended for exclusively or partially breastfed infants up to 12 months. Infants who are formula fed should only be given a supplement if they are having less than 500ml (about a pint) or infant formula a day (see supplement section here for more information).
Key message 2: Introduce solid foods at around 6 months, alongside continued breastfeeding for at least the first year.
Introducing foods other than breastmilk before 6 months is associated with increased risk of gastrointestinal and respiratory infections. Leaving complementary feeding too late (longer than 6 months) may mean your baby doesn’t get enough of all the nutrients they need to grow and develop healthily. This is because stores of essential nutrients, such as iron, decline from birth, and by 6 months they need to be replenished with food. Complementary feeding is a gradual process of moving from a milk-only diet to family foods. The UK Department of Health and Social Care and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend starting complementary feeding when your baby is around 6 months old. Breastfeeding alongside complementary feeding for at least your baby’s first year of life is recommended, as this continues to benefit the health of both mother and baby.
If your baby was born prematurely, speak to your midwife, health visitor, paediatric dietitian or GP for advice about when to start complementary feeding, as premature babies can have different needs.
What are the signs my baby is ready for solid foods?
Most babies are developmentally ready for solid foods by around 6 months. Babies develop at different paces, and some may show signs of being ready for solid foods before others.
Some parents can worry about whether milk feeds are enough to satisfy their growing baby and move on to complementary foods too early. If your baby is younger than 6 months and seems hungrier than usual, try breastfeeding more often, or offering more milk at each bottle-feed.
There are three clear signs that your baby is ready for their first solid foods, which tend to appear together at around 6 months of age. They will be able to:
- Stay in a sitting position and hold their head steady
- Coordinate their eyes, hands and mouth, meaning they can look at food, pick it up and put it in their mouth
- Swallow food (rather than spit it back out)
Other normal behaviours that do not necessarily mean your baby is ready for solid foods include:
- Waking up in the night when they have previously slept through
- Chewing fists
- Wanting to breast feed more frequently or for longer
WHAT foods to offer
Like walking and talking, babies need time and opportunity to learn about eating food. This includes developing chewing skills, as well as becoming familiar with the flavours of different foods. The aim of complementary feeding is to gradually introduce your baby to a wide range of new tastes and textures, so that by the age of one year they are enjoying a varied and healthy diet. It is important to include some iron-containing foods in those you offer to your baby to help meet their needs (see below).
How much food should I offer?
Key message 3: Start by offering small amounts of food and gradually increase the amount, so by 9-12 months your baby is eating three healthy meals a day, plus some healthy snacks.
Gradually, you should increase the amount your baby eats so that solid foods start to replace some of their milk. Aim to have your baby eating three healthy meals a day and some healthy snacks by 9-12 months. When you begin complementary feeding your baby will still be getting most of their nutrients and energy from milk, so at this stage you only need to offer small amounts of food and your baby does not need three meals a day. It is normal for your baby to be less interested in food on some days than others, so try not to worry about how much they are eating at the start of complementary feeding.
Breast or formula milk should be their main drink up the age of 12 months (see drinks section below), with breastfeeding continuing for as long as you and your baby wish.
Should I offer pureed, lumpy or finger foods?
Key message 4: Smooth purees and mashed foods are a good start, but move to lumpier foods as soon as your baby is ready. Soft finger foods can be given from the start of complementary feeding.
Soft finger foods can be offered from the start of complementary feeding and are a good way to encourage your baby to explore new foods and start feeding themselves. Finger foods should be big enough so that when it is grasped by your baby some of it remains sticking out from their fist and soft enough for them to easily chew up (e.g. well-cooked carrot sticks). Pieces about the size of an adult’s finger are ideal. Aim to gradually introduce your baby to a wide variety of tastes and textures. Smooth purees and mashed foods are good to start with, but you should soon move to lumpier foods to help your baby get used to different textures.
Never give your baby small pieces of foods that could cause choking and always make sure to stay with your baby while they are eating (see safety section below for more details). Babies should be eating family foods by 12 months.
What types of foods should I offer?
Key message 5: Appropriate complementary foods to offer from 6 months include vegetables and fruit, starchy foods, protein foods and dairy products.
From 6 months, your baby can be introduced to most foods (but there are some exceptions - see 'foods to avoid' below).
First foods (from 6 months):
- Pureed or mashed vegetables and fruit are great first foods; you might also want to offer these as finger foods (make sure to cook them if they are hard).
- Offer a wide variety of vegetables and fruit, and try offering those with a savoury flavour first, such as courgette, green beans and broccoli. This can help your baby learn to accept vegetables and fruit and can increase the likelihood that they will eat these foods during later years. However, you may need to offer foods several times before they are accepted and so try to be patient.
- You can also offer small amounts of protein foods (such as meat, fish, lentils and eggs), starchy foods (such as porridge and rice) and dairy products (such as unsweetened yogurt).
Next foods (from 6+ months):
When your baby is ready, you can try a wider range of foods and dishes. Continue to offer vegetables and fruit, starchy foods, protein foods and dairy products, to make sure your baby gets all the nutrients and energy they need and to familiarise them with foods that are part of a healthy, balanced diet. Some examples of foods from these food groups are given in the table below.
It is important to regularly offer iron-rich foods from the beginning of complementary feeding. Good sources of iron include red meat, such as pork, beef or lamb. Pulses, such as beans and lentils, as well as tofu, green leafy vegetables, nuts (do not give whole) and eggs also provide iron, but this is less well absorbed. However, vitamin C from vegetables and fruit can help your baby to absorb iron from non-meat sources, so it is a good idea for vegetables and fruit to be given at mealtimes. This is particularly important for babies eating a vegan or vegetarian diet (see here for more on vegetarian and vegan diets).
What about the idea of ‘stages’?
Many of the latest guidelines on complementary feeding no longer describe it in terms of ‘stages’. Instead complementary feeding can be thought of as a journey, with different tastes and textures gradually introduced over time, so that by the age of 12 months your baby is eating three meals a day, which include a variety of foods from the major food groups, in addition to some healthy snacks.
The graphic below illustrates the complementary feeding journey from 6-12 months. To view a bigger version of this graphic, click here.
What foods should I avoid?
Key message 6: Sugar and salt should not be added to complementary foods, and foods that contain these ingredients should be avoided.
- Sugar – frequently consuming sugar-containing foods and drinks can lead to tooth decay. Avoid adding sugar to foods, as well as giving foods and drinks with added sugars, such as biscuits, cakes and fruit squash to your baby.
- Salt – babies under one year should have less than 1 g (less than ¼ tsp) of salt per day as their kidneys cannot cope with very much salt. Foods prepared at home should have no salt added. While most baby foods do not contain added salt, other processed foods (e.g. crisps, gravy, soups) do, so it is important to check the label and avoid foods high in salt.
The following foods should be avoided during complementary feeding:
- Honey – honey should not be given to babies under one year because there is a risk it can contain bacteria that can cause a serious illness called 'infant botulism'.
- Shark, marlin and swordfish – these types of fish should not be given because the levels of mercury they sometimes contain can affect the developing nervous system.
- Whole nuts - should not be given to children under 5 years of age because of the risk of choking. Current advice states that crushed or finely ground nuts, and peanut or other nut butters, can be given from 6 months of age, but it is a good idea to consult a health professional before offering these foods if there is a history of allergies (asthma, eczema, hayfever or other food allergy) in your baby or their immediate family (see allergy section below for more information).
- Raw shellfish – raw shellfish should not be given to babies as they are at an increased risk of food poisoning.
- Unpasteurised milk or products made from unpasteurised milk (e.g. some soft cheeses).
Should I be concerned about food allergies?
A food allergy results from the immune system overreacting to a food. The reaction can be immediate (within 30 minutes of eating) or delayed (hours to days after eating), and be mild-to-moderate (e.g. digestive issues such as loose stools and vomiting) or severe (i.e. anaphylaxis, which includes breathing difficulties, and can be life threatening).
There are some foods that may trigger food allergies and it is important not to introduce these before 6 months. These include:
- milk (other than breastmilk and infant formula)
- wheat [and other cereals containing gluten (e.g. rye, barley and oats)]
- fish and shellfish
From 6 months, these foods can be introduced gradually. Start with very small amounts (e.g. half a teaspoon) and introduce one at a time, so that any reactions that may develop can be spotted.
There is research to show that babies who have not eaten peanuts or eggs during the 6-12 month complementary feeding period are more likely to develop an allergy to the food. So, it’s a good idea to introduce these foods from 6 months and to regularly include these foods in your baby’s usual diet once they have first been introduced to them.
Whole nuts should not be given to children under 5 years because they are a choking hazard; peanut butter is a safe alternative. Eggs produced under the British Lion Code of Practice (these are stamped on the shell with a red lion) are at very low risk of carrying salmonella and can be safely eaten lightly cooked (or raw) by babies and young children.
Babies at higher risk of food allergy
An allergy to a specific food is more likely to develop if your baby has other allergies, such as asthma, eczema, hayfever or other food allergies, or if a close family member (parent or sibling) has any of these conditions. If this is the case, it is a good idea to speak to your GP or health visitor before introducing your baby to allergenic foods.
If you suspect your baby does have a reaction to a food, do not continue to feed the food to your baby and consult your GP or health visitor.
If the reaction is severe, immediately call 999.
What drinks can I give my baby?
Key message 7: Breastmilk (or formula) should be your baby’s main drink until 12 months of age.
- Breastmilk (or formula) should be your baby’s main drink up to 12 months of age.
- First formula is suitable up to 12 months and although follow-on formula can be introduced after 6 months of age, this is not necessary as research shows that it offers no additional health benefits over first formula.
- Whole cows', goats’ or sheep’s milks are not suitable as a drink until after 12 months of age, but can be used in cooking from 6 months.
- Semi-skimmed milk is not suitable for babies and infants under 2 years of age, and skimmed and 1% fat milks are not suitable as a main drink until your child is 5 years of age. This is because they do not contain enough calories and vitamin A to support your child's needs.
- Babies under 12 months of age should not be given other types of milk, such as condensed or evaporated milks, nor should they be given rice, oat or almond dairy-free alternatives as drinks, because they are not energy or nutrient rich enough for babies.
- Soya-based formula should be used only under the instruction of a GP. Soya-based drinks can be introduced after 12 months of age.
- Water is the best alternative to milk as a drink. From 6 months you can give your baby fresh tap water, but avoid bottled water as the mineral content can be too high.
- Unsweetened fruit juice contains natural sugars and is acidic; it can cause tooth decay if given too frequently. You can give your baby unsweetened fruit juice after 6 months of age, but always dilute it well, serve in an open cup and restrict to mealtimes to reduce the impact on teeth.
Drinks to avoid
- Drinks containing added sugars, such as squashes and fizzy drinks, are not suitable for babies, neither are diet drinks. These should be avoided because they can be damaging to teeth and may contain ingredients (e.g. caffeine) that are unsuitable for this age group. They also have very few nutrients and can fill your baby up meaning that they can miss out on important nutrients from food.
- Tea and coffee should not be given to babies. They also contain caffeine, and can reduce the amount of iron and other nutrients absorbed from food, especially if they are given with meals.
Bottles and cups
- From 6 months of age, babies should be encouraged to drink from a free-flow cup. For bottle-fed babies, aim to have stopped using bottles by the time they are 12 months old. This is to help protect your baby’s teeth.
Can my baby be given only vegetarian or vegan complementary foods?
With appropriate care, a varied vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients your baby needs for growth and development. The principles of complementary feeding are the same for vegetarian as for non-vegetarian babies. However, a vegetarian complementary diet may provide less energy and be lower in some important nutrients, such as iron, compared to a non-vegetarian complementary diet. So, it is important that you give your baby other sources of the nutrients that would be provided by meat or fish (see below).
You should speak to your GP or health visitor for advice about providing only vegan complementary foods, as it can be difficult for young babies to obtain all the energy and nutrients they need. You should take care to plan your baby's diet carefully so that nutrients typically obtained from animal products, such as iron and calcium, are included. Check with your health professional.
Nutrients to pay particular attention to in the diets of vegetarian and vegan babies include protein, iron, calcium, omega-3 fats and vitamin B12.
- For protein, you should give pulses (e.g. beans, lentils, chickpeas), other meat alternatives, such as tofu, dairy foods and eggs (for vegetarian babies).
- Fortified cereals, pulses, green leafy vegetables, such as curly kale and watercress, wholegrain foods and dried fruit provide iron. It is a good idea to give vegetables and fruit alongside foods that contain iron, as the vitamin C will help your baby to absorb more iron.
- Foods that contain omega-3 fats include flaxseed and rapeseed oils, soya products such as tofu, walnuts (do not give whole as they are a choking hazard), and eggs enriched with omega-3 fats (for vegetarian babies).
- Vitamin B12 can be found in eggs, cheese and milk (for vegetarian babies), fortified foods such as breakfast cereals and yeast extract (choose a lower salt version). As there is a limited number of vegan foods that contain vitamin B12, it may be necessary to give vegan babies a vitamin B12 supplement (check with your health professional).
- Calcium is found in dairy products (for vegetarian babies), and in green leafy vegetables, sesame seed paste (tahini) and smooth almond butter, white and brown bread, and fortified soya products (e.g. soya yogurts). For babies introduced to only vegan complementary foods, talk to your health visitor or GP about using soya formula as a drink, and to replace cows' milk in recipes such as rice pudding, or in soups.
Does my baby need supplements?
Key message 8: Babies consuming less than 500 ml/day of infant formula should be given a daily supplement containing vitamins A, C and D.
- Vitamin drops including vitamins A, C and D are available through the Healthy Start scheme for some families. See www.healthystart.nhs.uk/ for further details or speak to your health visitor. It is recommended that you give your child a daily supplement containing vitamin A (233 µg) and vitamin C (20 mg) from the age of 6 months to 5 years.
- It is also recommended that from birth to one year of age, your baby should be given a daily supplement containing 8.5-10 µg of vitamin D.
- If you are giving your baby at least 500ml (about a pint) of infant formula per day, you do not need a vitamin supplement as vitamins A, C and D are already added to the formula. However, if your baby is having formula milk in smaller amounts, it is advisable to give them a supplement of vitamins A, C and D.
- Babies receiving a vegan complementary diet may need additional supplements, including vitamin B12. Consult your health professional for more information.
HOW to feed
I’ve heard about ‘responsive feeding’ and ‘baby-led weaning’, but what are they?
There is increasing interest in how you offer complementary foods and the affect this can have on babies’ development. Methods you may have heard of are ‘baby-led weaning’ and ‘responsive feeding’.
1) Responsive feeding
Responsive feeding is encouraged by the World Health Organization and describes a way of feeding that emphasises looking out for, and responding to, your baby’s signs of hunger and fullness. It also emphasises feeding in a way that is warm, patient and encouraging, and without pressurising your baby to eat. Evidence indicates that this approach can encourage babies to eat appropriate amounts of food and that it supports healthy growth.
Some signs of hunger and fullness you might want to look out for in your baby:
|Age||Hunger signs||Full signs|
2) Baby-led weaning
Baby-led weaning shares some of the features of responsive feeding, such as not pressurising babies to eat, but here the emphasis is on the baby entirely feeding themselves with finger-sized pieces of family foods from the start of complementary feeding, without the need for spoon-feeding and purees. Although not many studies have looked at the effects of baby-led weaning, evidence suggests that this approach may reduce fussy eating and increase enjoyment of food without negatively affecting the baby’s diet quality or growth.
How can I encourage my baby to like healthy foods?
Key message 9: Repeatedly offering your baby a wide variety of foods that are part of a healthy, balanced diet, will help them accept and gradually learn to like these foods.
Some babies need to be offered a food several times before they are willing to taste it, so don’t give up if they reject it the first time. Once they’ve tried it, keep offering it as this will help them gradually learn to like the food. The experiences babies have with food play an important role in the development of their food preferences, and therefore what foods they are likely to accept or reject during complementary feeding and beyond. Here are some ideas about how to help your baby learn to like foods that are part of a healthy, balanced diet:
- Give your baby plenty of opportunities to explore new foods. You may find that by letting them touch, smell and lick foods, they will be more willing to eat them.
- Offering a wide variety of tastes and textures helps your baby learn about foods and means that they will be less likely to reject unfamiliar foods.
- Try to make mealtimes as relaxed and enjoyable as possible, and do not to pressure your baby to eat.
- Babies learn about eating from watching those around them, so try to be a healthy eating role model. You can do this by eating with your baby and consuming the foods and drinks that you would like them to eat and showing a positive attitude towards healthy eating.
How can I help protect my baby’s teeth?
Babies’ teeth usually begin to emerge around the time of the start of complementary feeding (from 6 months). Here are some ways you can help protect them from decay:
- As soon as your baby’s first tooth emerges, start brushing at least twice a day with a small smear of fluoride toothpaste (containing at least 1,000 ppm fluoride).
- From 6 months of age, babies should be encouraged to drink from a free-flow (non-valve) cup. For bottle-fed babies, aim to have stopped using bottles by the time they are 12 months old.
- Do not add sugar to complementary foods and drinks, and avoid those with added sugar.
How can I make sure my baby is safe during complementary feeding?
Key message 10: To reduce the risk of choking, always stay with your baby while they are eating and never offer small round foods
Always stay with your baby when they are eating. Remember to keep your baby sitting in an upright position, well supported (e.g. in a high chair) and facing forwards, when feeding solid foods. This will help to reduce the risk of choking. There are a number of things you can do to reduce the risk of your baby coming to any harm during complementary feeding:
- Cook hard fruit and vegetables, such as raw apple and raw carrot, before offering as finger foods. Small round foods, such as grapes and cherry tomatoes, should be cut into smaller pieces rather than given whole. Foods with skin (e.g. sausages) or bones (e.g. fish) can also be a choking hazard. Care should be taken to remove any stones, pips, skin and bones before feeding these types of foods to your baby.
- Initially offer foods that may trigger food allergies one at a time in case of a reaction (see here for more details).
- Remember to defrost frozen food in the fridge or in a microwave on the defrost setting, and do not refreeze. Food should be heated thoroughly until it is piping hot all the way through. Let it cool down and make sure you check the temperature before giving to your baby. Food should not be reheated more than once. Throw away any leftover food that isn't eaten.
Last reviewed December 2018
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