I’m confused! When is my baby ready for solids?
This blog was originally published in May 2018 and updated in June 2020 by Caroline O’Connor, Registered dietitian and lactation consultant
The simple answer is at about six months. But the exact timing depends on your baby. So what seems like a simple question suddenly gets confusing! Chances are you’ve already come across conflicting opinions about when your baby is ready for solids. From self-styled weaning experts to heated threads in online groups to unsolicited advice from family and friends you’ll soon find out (if you haven’t already) that everyone’s an expert on the best time to start solids. You may have heard four months, six months, or sometime in between.
So, why is there so much confusion about the timing of solids?
Here’s what the experts say about the timing of solids
In this paragraph, we’ll look at what the real experts recommend because it’s irrelevant what someone on the internet thinks is the best time. And we’re not interested in what one lone expert says, but instead what groups of experts say. Groups of experts who come together to develop evidence-based guidelines where they gather and examine ALL of the available evidence (not just one or two studies) about the best time to start solids. So, let’s take a look at some recent guidelines.
The World Health Organisation and UNICEF
Recommend the introduction of nutritionally-adequate and safe complementary (solid) foods at six months together with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond. This recommendation is based on a consideration of the optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding.
Complementary foods (solids and liquids other than breast milk or infant formula) should not be introduced before four months but should not be delayed beyond six months.
Most infants should not start solid foods until around the age of 6 months, having achieved developmental readiness.
Best Practice for Infant Feeding in Ireland (Food Safety Authority)
The information provided by the HSE is based on these guidelines. And they recommend that the introduction to solid food or weaning should take place at about six months of age. The recommendations are the same for both formula-fed and breastfed babies. They also mention that it is safe to start weaning after 17 weeks, but the exact timing will depend upon your baby’s signs of readiness. (FSAI 2012)
Summary of recommendations on the timing of solids
|SACN||About six months||Yes|
|FSAI||About six months||Yes|
|ESPGHAN||Between 4-6 months||Yes|
|Self-styled weaning expert||Five months||No|
Reasons why experts recommend not starting solids before four months of age
- Your baby’s kidneys and gut are not mature enough to handle food
- Breast or formula milk provides everything your baby needs
- Introducing other foods or drinks can displace more nutritious milk
- Adding solids too early can increase the risk of obesity later on
- It can increase their risk of allergy
- More prolonged exclusive breastfeeding may be associated with a reduced risk of tummy bugs and respiratory infections
And why ‘food before one is not just for fun’!
The catchy rhyme ‘food before one is just for fun’ isn’t strictly true. It should certainly be fun! But introducing solid foods at around six months is needed to provide your baby with more energy and essential nutrients like iron. Milk is still significant to your baby, but it’s not enough all on its own. Your baby also needs to develop their chewing skills. Plus introducing different textures to your baby stimulates the development of muscles involved in speech. How cool is that?
But, how will I know exactly when my baby is ready for solids? Why around six months?
Because there is no one perfect age, every baby is different. The best approach is to watch your baby for signs that they are ready. Three clear signs show that your baby is ready for food other than breast or formula milk. And you will need to see all three signs together. It’s rare to see these three signs together before six months.
Three sure signs your baby is ready for solids
Number 1: Your baby can sit upright with minimal assistance and hold their head up.
Have you ever tried to eat with your chin on your chest? It’s not easy, and it’s a choking risk. So your baby needs to be stable in their core with good head control so that they can eat safely without risking choking.
Number 2: They have good hand-eye coordination.
You’ll see your baby look at toys and teethers, pick them up and bring them to their mouth. If they can’t do that, then they’ll struggle with self-feeding finger foods.
Number 3: They can swallow food.
Have you ever seen funny videos of parents trying to spoon-feed babies who are just spitting it all back out? It’s great for YouTube but not for your baby! Pushing all of the food out with their tongue like this shows that their tongue-thrust reflex is still very active. Your baby’s tongue-thrust reflex usually fades between four to six months. Trying to feed a baby whose tongue thrust hasn’t faded is frustrating for both of you. You can check by putting your finger on your baby’s bottom lip, and if they stick their tongue straight out, chances are they’re not quite ready yet.
Are there different guidelines for introducing solids to a breastfed baby?
No, these signs apply to all babies, whether they are breastfed or formula-fed. And regardless of whether you’re planning on offering purées or baby-led weaning.
When is a premature baby ready for solids?
If your baby was born early (before 37 weeks), you could start solids begin sometime between ‘corrected age’ 4 and 6 months. But make sure that your baby is showing all the signs of readiness.
But, what if I think my baby is ready for solids and then realise they’re not after I’ve started?
Don’t worry. You might mistakenly think your baby is ready and a few days in realise they’re not. If your baby is under six months, then stop, wait until six months and start again.
Now, let’s bust some common myths about the timing of solids
I read online that the best time to start is at 5-5.5 months so my baby can build up to three meals by six months.
There’s a chance that some babies might be ready at five months. But not all babies. And this isn’t a good reason to start a baby who isn’t showing all the signs of readiness. It’s not a race! You can start solids at six months and still build up slowly to three meals a day by about seven months. Starting solids is about introducing new tastes and textures and not about offering large amounts of food. And when you do start moving quickly from first tastes to a wider variety of foods, particularly foods that are high in iron. There’s no need to spend weeks and weeks offering different combinations of fruits and vegetables. It’s a commonly held myth that you need to offer every food singly before offering more complicated meals.
I’ve heard that if you start solids early, then your baby is more accepting of new flavours.
Research doesn’t support the existence of a ‘critical window’ for the acceptance of solid foods between 4 and 6 months. Starting solids at around six months of age is not associated with difficulty in baby’s accepting foods later on.
Is it better to introduce solids early to prevent allergies?
Unless your baby is high risk and a health professional has advised you to start before six months, then there’s no need to start before your baby is showing all the signs of readiness. On the other hand, once you do start solids at six months, aim to begin introducing potentially allergenic foods as soon as you can.
My baby is watching me while I’m eating, does this mean he’s ready?
Not necessarily. It’s normal for babies to be interested in new things and in what you’re doing. And this sign alone doesn’t tell you that your baby is ready for food. Your baby is interested in everything you do. But are they ready to wear make-up or take the car for a spin?
My baby is waking up at night when she previously slept through. Surely some solids will help her sleep a bit longer at night, that’s what my mother keeps telling me!
There’s no evidence to suggest that babies who start on solid foods sleep any better. There are lots of reasons why babies wake at night, that often have nothing to do with hunger. They may be going through a growth spurt and need a little extra milk until they are ready to begin solids. One study showed that babies who started solids at three months slept for an average of 17 minutes longer than those who were only just starting solids. The differences between the groups got smaller after six months. Think about the reasons above for not starting before four months. Is it worth 17 minutes extra sleep?
My little man is a buster. Everyone says he needs more than milk due to his size.
Milk can undoubtedly provide enough energy for a baby up to 6 months of age, even if your baby is big and growing quickly. Milk is a much better source of energy than first solid foods. Think about it, how could a little bit of broccoli (or even porridge) provide more calories and protein than breast or formula milk? So your baby doesn’t start solids simply because he is big. He’ll get the energy he needs for his milk. Also, being bigger doesn’t mean that your baby is developmentally ready to start eating.
My little girl always has her fists in her mouth, and I think she’s trying to tell me she’s ready for food.
To be able to eat food, your baby needs to be able to move her tongue to the back of her mouth and swallow. If your baby is chewing on her fist, this does not tell you she can swallow. However, this is normal behaviour for a small baby, and she could just be teething!
My baby has reflux, and someone suggested that starting solids might help.
There is no evidence to support the theory that starting solids can improve symptoms of reflux. For some babies, it may improve symptoms, for others, it can make symptoms worse, and for many, it doesn’t make a difference either way.
People online talk about a baby having an open gut before six months and that it’s dangerous to start solids before then.
Babies are born with what is known as an ‘open gut’. An open gut means that the cells that line the gut have little gaps between them so substances can pass more easily into the bloodstream. But we know that these gaps close up quickly after birth. And that from 4 months onwards the gut is mature enough to handle solids.
Take home message about the timing of solids
So to sum up, watch your baby and not the clock!