Weaning is defined as “progressive transfer from the first milk diet to family diet of many foods”. Shifting from breast milk to solid food for babies can be a tricky process because it needs proper timing and the gradual introduction of appropriate food sources in order to “accustom” the baby to learn new food textures and tastes. It is also through weaning where babies learn to swallow and chew food. However, there are risks involved in weaning children. It is said that Queen Anne lost 18 children through infections caused by improper weaning methods in the 1700s. Thus, the timing of the first introduction of solids is an important confounding factor for subsequent health. Alder et al. (2007) revealed that infants introduced to solid food before 4 months had higher levels of cardiovascular risks such as increased body fat and had “more wheezy respiratory illness”.
The Committee on Medical Aspects of Food in its Report of the Working Group on the Weaning Diet(Department of Health and Social Security, 1994) recommended that the majority of infants should not be given solid food before the age of 4 months. Also, the World Heath Organization (2002) recommended exclusive breast-feeding until 6 months. Delaying the introduction of solid food until after 4 months may confer benefit in families with a history of atopy or gluten enteropathy (celiac). After years of intensive research, the experts determined that the best time to introduce solid food in a baby’s diet is at 6 months.
If the baby is weaned to solid foods earlier than 4 to 6 months, they will have an inability to take in solid food because they could only do sucking and not drinking. They may have extrusion (gagging) reflex that would eject solid foods and they may experience problems with their head control. Also, their gut permeability will be high because they are not ready to process foreign proteins that may cause them allergies. At this age, babies still have no salivary or pancreatic amylases and their kidneys might not cope with high solute load. Supplements can also decrease iron absorption from milk and increase infection. They may also have a strong risk of bacterial infection, develop coeliac disease from gluten intolerance or be induced to obesity because of overfeeding. On the other hand, weaning the baby later than 6 months would also have problems like “breast addiction”, where babies don’t learn about foods’ taste, smell and texture, so it becomes very hard to introduce food later. Introducing solid food later than 6 months would also exhaust the baby’s iron stores because milk is not a good source of iron for gut hygiene reasons. Energy and protein intake will also become inadequate, while other nutrients may not be supplied by milk alone.
When starting solid foods at 6 months, mothers should first use gruels, mashed potatoes, and purées. Rice is recommended but gluten should be avoided as long as possible (including biscuits and rusks). It is also important to keep sugar and fat reasonably high. Choking on large lumps is still a danger at this age. Pipped, seeded or skinny fruits, nuts or highly spiced foods need a mature digestive system, good teeth and the ability to avoid accidental inhalation. After six months a mix of foods is necessary to provide sufficient energy, trace elements (especially iron and zinc) and vitamins. Vitamin C is needed daily as it is not stored in the body. Sodium levels will be excessive if unmodified cow’s milk is given as the only milk source from birth; cow’s milk protein is also difficult for the child under one year to digest and, if given as the main food, is thought to be one of the common causes of iron deficiency anaemia in this age group (McGregor 2000, p. 112). In fact, salty foods should be restricted for the first few years of life as sodium intake has been implicated in the onset of hypertension in adulthood. Also, mothers should avoid high nitrate/nitrite content foods like bacon, ham, hot dogs and spinach because of the risk of methaemoglobinaemia. Hygiene in handling baby food can also be essential to avoid infection. High infection risk foods include cooked rice, cream, meat, milk and egg dishes.
Babies still have undeveloped digestive system and this is why people should be careful in giving them solid food. The key should be the right timing and gradual introduction of solid food. When done properly, the weaning process may help babies eat properly to promote good health in later life.