Now that Rory has just turned a year old, she's eating three meals a day alongside breastfeeding three to four times a day. I've been lucky with her, because she loves her food and eats anything I put in front of her. So much so, that I've felt she can take or leave breastfeeding and I have worried whether or not she is getting enough milk to provide her with the nutrition she needs. I plan to continue breastfeeding for now, but much less than we were doing a few months ago. She's rarely interested in breastfeeding during the day unless it's in a dark room before a nap, and I'm relieved to be giving up that battle entirely. I don't feel ready to wean her off breast milk completely, and as current guidelines say there are health benefits to babies to continue until they are two, I plan to keep going throughout this year as long as we both want to.
I wanted to write a bit about our weaning journey so far, because it's something that I've had some ups and downs with over the last six months as we've gone through each stage. I've found books on weaning to be a helpful source of information, but on the flip-side they can also be a source of anxiety and pressure to conform to a set of guidelines rather than providing support. All babies are different and all families are different, and it's easy to forget that we are all just winging it and doing our best as we go along. We need the confidence to use trial and error and a whole heap of trusting ourselves and our instincts to take on each challenge of early parenthood without feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.
Our weaning journey so far...
When Rory was about four and a half months old, she developed an overnight interest in what I was eating and drinking. She started grabbing food from my plate, diving at my water bottle and trying to take anything and everything out of my hands. I hadn't thought much at all at that stage about starting the weaning process, because I had been planning to wait until she was six months old - when it's recommend to begin. I'd been to a free weaning workshop a few months earlier, so I knew the basics of starting to introduce food to your child and how to read the signs of when they are ready. Sitting up straight, being able to grab things and put them to their mouths and showing an interest in food are all good indications. She was clearly showing all of them, and much earlier than I had assumed she would. I felt a little overwhelmed to be honest, when she developed such a sudden interest in food. It was exciting, sure, but it was also another thing to think about on top of all the other needs she already had. I started to give her small pieces of baby-safe foods when she showed an interest - mostly banana and avocado - so that she could try things. At this point, she was still pushing her tongue out a lot and not able to really eat anything, but she seemed happy to be trying new tastes and textures. We carried on in this way for about another month, until Rory was five and a half months old and we felt she was ready to start the weaning process properly.
At first, determined to go with a 'baby-led' approach to food, I gave her finger food like avocado, banana, sweet potato and some steamed veg to try. She was keen, but would play with it more than actually eat it. I got frustrated with the mess, the food waste and how slow the process seemed to be. It was disheartening to spend time preparing food that ended up on the floor, or cleaned up by the dog. She started losing interest in breastfeeding during the day, and it was a a battle to get her to focus and drink enough milk to keep her full. She'd get hungry more regularly, and she wasn't eating enough solid food to counteract the reduction in breastmilk. Combine that with a big development phase, a sleep regression, teething and a cold and we had a pretty challenging few months. At first, I felt stressed about it. I had been so in love with the idea of letting her explore food on her own terms and in her own time, that I had put pressure on myself to stick to this approach instead of spoon feeding her purees. I naively assumed she would gradually increase her food intake while decreasing her milk intake at the same rate, but in reality the switch was pretty sudden for her for a while. I decided to start trying her on some pureed and mashed food that I would feed to her with a spoon. It made me feel like my efforts weren't going to waste, and neither was as much of the food. Things got a lot better. She ate more, stayed fuller for longer and it finally felt like we were getting somewhere. I had a good system of making a range of purees in batches and freezing them, so I always had food for each meal and to take out with us if we weren't going to be home for a mealtime.
Between six and nine months, I gradually started introducing more finger food and trying to cook meals that were suitable for her to eat. She got more interested in feeding herself, so I cut down on the purees until she started refusing them altogether at about nine months. It took me a while to get into the swing of things, finding the recipes she liked and getting into the habit of batch cooking things like lentil dhal, butternut squash curry, black bean chilli and ratatouille to freeze so there was always food for her. Some days I felt like her personal chef and it was exhausting! After about a month we got into a groove, and since then, she's been eating three proper meals a day which on the whole she feeds to herself. Sometimes she demands to be spoon fed like she's a little baby again, so I oblige until inevitably she changes her mind by the next mealtime.
Some tips if you're starting on your own weaning journey...
What are good foods to feed them?
In theory, anything you can make soft to eat is good for babies to try. Neutral tastes like avocado are a good start, then porridge, banana, steamed potatoes and vegetables all go down pretty well. Steer clear of anything that can cause allergies initially (eggs, dairy, nuts for starters), and begin with single foods so you can easily identify anything that may have upset them. Gradually combine different tastes and textures, add spices and make food a little more interesting as their appetite grows. Avoid sugar and salt. Weaning books are very helpful with suggested schedules for introducing new tastes and textures, some even have checklists and stickers so you can work your way through all the foods. Prepare yourself for some pretty drastic changes in nappy contents, and their digestive systems in general. I found books like 'Ella's Kitchen, the Purple Book' so helpful for slowly building up the complexity of what I was feeding Rory, and for recipe ideas too.
What about nutrition?
After six months, a baby's iron stores can begin to deplete a little. Breast milk is low in iron, so it is important to keep in mind that they need solid food to provide it. Calcium is also something they start to need at this age as well. That said, babies all develop at different rates so if your baby is just not interested in food at this point it's not something to stress about. Just talk to your health visitor or doctor and they can reassure you about the nutritional needs of your baby.
As I'm raising Rory vegan, for the moment anyway (I'll write more about this at another time) I am concerned about her nutrition so it's something that is high on my agenda. I wanted to be as informed as possible about the right foods to give her, and introduce them early so by the time she really needed the nutrients those foods were already a part of her diet. Lentils, beans, oats, spinach, broccoli and tofu are all nutritious foods that Rory is used to eating, and I try to add new things all the time so she is getting a variety of vitamins and minerals. That said, I've no doubt that the fussy toddler stage is just around the corner!
Useful feeding tools:
- a bowl and spoon. I like the Bambu feeding bowl and spoon set.
- a sippy cup, one that is suitable for 4+ months
- ice cube trays to freeze puree, and freezer bags to store frozen puree
- a hand blender, to make purees
- a steamer (totally not necessary, but I found it so useful for making purees and soft food)
- reusable pots to store food in the fridge and to take out and about with you. I just discovered these reusable pouches which look great, although I haven't tried them myself.
- a bib. Hippychick are the best ones I've found. They're good quality, clean easily and do up well around the wrists and neck to protect baby's clothes. I don't like the towelling ones at all, and the cheap ones from Ikea aren't great either.
Some books I recommend:
- Baby-led Weaning, by Gill Rapley & Tracey Murkett
- The Baby-led weaning cookbook (fun story, Rory was actually part of the photoshoot for the next book!)
- River cottage Baby & Toddler Cookbook (more recipes for older children, but I like their approach to wholefoods)
Starting your baby on solid foods can be frustrating, especially if you go the baby-led route. It's slow, requires a lot of patience, there's plenty of mess and wasted food. My two cents is to read up about the different schools of thought behind weaning, but ultimately take your cues from your baby and what they enjoy. Do what works for you and your family, and trust that over time you will all settle into the habit of taking mealtimes together. Stay relaxed, don't put too much pressure on yourself or your baby and try and enjoy the process. Oh, and buy some stain remover. Happy weaning!