Parents view weaning their babies onto solids foods as an exciting but challenging time, a new report by Safefood has found.
The introduction of solid foods to an infant's diet should take place when they are around six months of age. It should not take place before 17 weeks as a baby's digestive system and kidneys are immature and may not be able to handle anything other than milk.
Solids also need to be introduced by 26 weeks in order to meet the infant's energy and nutrient requirements. These recommendations apply irrespective of whether the child is breastfed or formula fed.
However, the report noted that many infants are not weaned in accordance with these recommendations. Evidence suggests that 18% of infants in the Republic of Ireland are weaned before 17 weeks, while this figure rises to 35% in Northern Ireland.
The report also highlighted the many challenges faced by parents, including:
-Confusion over which foods to choose at the weaning stage
-Varying opinions and advice from family and friends, including grandparents, about what to do.
It also noted that weaning can bring up feelings of embarrassment, inadequacy and guilt for parents, with many finding the process stressful. Parental confidence is key when undertaking weaning, but many first-time mothers in particular lack this.
"Participants who expressed feeling less confident felt that they could not ask their health professional questions because they felt they were expected to know about weaning already and so were embarrassed to ask.
"Also, some participants feared being judged by others when feeding their infants in public. They felt that they would be criticised for doing something wrong or that others would comment on their feeding decisions, which would lead to them regretting their own weaning decisions and making them feel guilty," the report stated.
According to Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan of Safefood, another worrying factor was ‘the reliance on commercial baby foods rather than confidence in their own home cooking'.
"The misconception that commercial baby foods are likely to be healthier than home-cooked foods demonstrates a need for greater awareness and understanding of marketing, packaging and labelling. In addition, further emphasis on the need to avoid inappropriate foods in all forms, for as long as possible into childhood and regardless of whether they are marketed to young children, is necessary," the report said.
Safefood reminded parents that babies who are breastfed can continue to be breastfed while weaning, and up to two years of age and beyond. There is no need to move from breast milk to formula milk when introducing solid food.
Safefood also offers the following advice to parents who are weaning their infants onto solid foods:
-Always stay with your baby when he/she is eating to make sure he/she does not choke
-Never add any foods to your baby's bottle, including rusks, as this can cause choking and can damage teeth
-Avoid foods and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar as they encourage unhealthy food preferences which persist through life
-From six months, babies should be introduced to drinking from a cup or beaker. Tap water can be offered to your baby in a cup at meal and snack times. Cow's milk (full fat) can be offered as a drink from one year onwards
-Use foods that you would normally eat as a family - there is no need to go out and buy special weaning foods. However, be mindful of the salt content when making family meals, especially when adding stock or gravy granules to dishes
-While commercial baby foods can be convenient for when you are out and about, this should be the exception and these products should not used every day
-Allow plenty of time for feeding, particularly at first. Until now your baby has only known food that comes in a continuous flow from a nipple or teat. Your baby needs to learn to move solid food from the front of the tongue to the back in order to swallow it. The food tastes and feels different and it is bound to take time, so do not be surprised if your baby initially spits the food out or appears to dislike it. It will take time for baby to become used to new tastes and textures
-Encourage babies to be involved at mealtimes by eating a variety of foods, and holding finger foods and spoons. Also encourage them to try to feed themselves
-Avoid distractions at mealtimes such as televisions, phones or tablets. Mealtimes are an ideal opportunity to interact with your infant.
The Safefood report on weaning can be viewed here