Complementary feeding (weaning)
During the first year, a baby grows more quickly than at any other time in his or her life. This rapid period of growth means that babies need a lot of energy and nutrients to ensure that they can grow well.
In this fact sheet:
- What is complementary feeding?
- Why should we start this?
- When should I introduce complementary feeding?
- What kind of foods should be used?
- What about drinks?
- Is it okay to use commercial baby foods?
- Should I give my baby...
- Is it safe to wean onto vegetarian or vegan diet?
- Does my child need supplements?
- Table of weaning stages
- Download as a PDF
What is complementary feeding?
When they are born babies only need breast milk, or a suitable formula milk. But as they get older, they need to have other sources of nutrition to help with growth and development. Complementary feeding (often called weaning) is the introduction of solid foods into the diet of a baby who is drinking breast milk or formula milk. It is a gradual process but, by the time they are one year old, most children will be eating chopped, mashed family food.
Why should we start this?
We need to introduce complementary feeding to children so they are able to get all of the nutrients they need. Biting and chewing also help to develop the muscles needed for speech development. At or around six months old, a child’s body stores of some nutrients, such as iron, start to run out.
Therefore, it is important that when cow’s milk is introduced as the main drink at one year of age, babies should be eating a varied diet, which meets their nutritional requirements.
When should I introduce complementary foods to my child?
The Department of Health (DH) recommends exclusive breastfeeding until your baby is six months (26 weeks). Introducing solid food should start around this time. Some parents may wish to introduce solid food earlier, and four months (17 weeks) is the earliest age that you should start this. Pre-term babies need to be introduced to solid food according to their individual needs, and the dietitian and medical team looking after your child can help you with this.
What kind of foods should be used?
Solid foods are often introduced in stages. The ages are approximate and will depend on when you first start weaning your baby – every baby is different and will develop at their own pace. It is important to keep offering different tastes and textures during your baby’s first year. The DH recommends that fruit, vegetables and baby rice are appropriate first foods.
What about drinks?
Breast-fed babies do not need any additional drinks, but formula-fed babies may need some extra (cooled boiled) water in hot weather. There is no need for babies to be offered juices, as natural sugars can cause tooth decay. After six months, you should offer your baby regular breastfeeds. If formula feeding your baby they should be offered 500-600ml of suitable infant formula.
Is it okay to use commercial baby foods?
It is best, and often great fun, for children to be introduced to the foods that the family eat. Children who only eat commercial baby foods, such as those bought in a jar/packet/pouch may not like family foods once they are offered. However, some commercial baby foods can be incorporated into the diet initially, and many parents find them convenient.
Should I give my baby...
Salt? Up to seven months, a baby should eat less than 1g of salt per day (breastmilk and formula milks contain the right amount of salt). Between seven months and one year, 1g of salt per day is the maximum. Salt should not be added to foods, and salty foods, such as bacon, cheese and some processed foods, should be limited.
Sugar? Avoid adding any sugar to foods and drinks for babies.
Honey? Babies under one year should not be given honey. It can contain bacteria which could hurt them.
Nuts? Babies can have nuts from around six months old, if they are finely ground. Children under five years old should not have whole nuts because of the risk of choking and inhalation.
Gluten? There is no need to avoid gluten, it can be introduced anytime between 4-12 completed months.
Eggs? Eggs can be introduced from around 6 months. Eggs, with a red lion stamped on them, or the words “British Lion Quality” on the box, are fine for your baby to have raw (for example, in homemade mayonnaise, uncooked cake mixture or homemade ice creams) or lightly cooked. Eggs that don’t have this should be cooked until both the white and yolk are solid. If the red lion stamp cannot be confirmed this should be avoided.
Cheese? Babies can eat pasteurised full-fat cheese from 6 months old, including hard cheeses like mild cheddar cheese, cottage cheese and cream cheese. Babies and young children shouldn’t eat mould-ripened soft cheeses, such as brie or camembert, or ripened goats’ milk cheese and soft blue-veined cheese, such as roquefort. There is a high risk that they might contain a bacteria called listeria. Due to this, it is safer to avoid all cheeses made from unpasteurised milk. Labels on cheeses can be checked to make sure they’re made from pasteurised milk. However, these cheeses can be used as part of a cooked recipe as listeria is killed by cooking e.g. baked brie.
Is it safe to wean onto a vegetarian or vegan diet?
Children can grow and develop normally on a vegetarian or vegan diet, but you will need to give more attention to make sure their nutritional needs are met. Vegan children will also need vitamin B12 supplements. Vegetarian and vegan diets can be high in fibre, and this can lead to lower energy (calorie) intake, and reduced absorption of some important minerals, such as iron and zinc. Speak to your health visitor or a paediatric dietitian for advice on a vegetarian or vegan diet for your baby.
Does my child need supplements?
Vitamins A and C - The UK Health Department recommends that all babies aged six months onwards should be given a supplement containing vitamins A and C unless they are drinking 500ml (about a pint) of infant formula a day (infant formula has vitamins added to it). You can continue to give young children a supplement containing vitamins A, and C until they are five years old, as this will help to make sure that they are getting enough of these vitamins.
Vitamin D - In addition to this, it is also recommended that all babies under one years old are given a daily supplement containing 8.5-10mcg of vitamin D, unless they are drinking 500ml of infant formula a day.
After this, you may want to consider continuing to give your child a daily supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D, especially during autumn and winter. This is especially important when they are learning to eat a variety of foods and if they are fussy eaters.
Table of weaning stages
Babies are ready for solid foods when their digestive systems are developed enough to cope – this is usually at around six months. But every baby is an individual so if you think yours is ready earlier, speak to a member of your health visiting team. Finger foods are foods cut up into big enough pieces for your baby to hold in their fist and stick out at the top. They should not be small enough that they may cause your baby to choke. A piece about the size of your own finger is a good approximate. This will help your baby to learn to chew.
The introduction of complementary foods is a crucial stage in your baby’s development, but it can also be a fun one. Introducing new foods at the right time will help your baby develop and grow into a healthy child. This stage gives you, as parents, the chance to make a positive impact on your child’s diet for life.
Further information: Food Fact Sheets on other topics including Breastfeeding and Children - Healthy Eating, are available at www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts
If you need more advice on weaning, speak to your health visitor or doctor, or asked to be referred to a paediatric dietitian.
Download as a PDF.
This Food Factsheet is a public service of The British Dietetic Association (BDA) intended for information only. It is not a substitute for proper medical diagnosis or dietary advice given by a dietitian. If you need to see a dietitian, visit your GP for a referral or: www.freelancedietitians.org for a private dietitian.
To check your dietitian is registered check www.hcpc-uk.org
Written by Elaine Farrell, Dietitian. Reviewed by Jacqueline Lowdon, Dietitian.
© BDA May 2019. Review date May 2021.