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What is Weaning a Baby?
To an infant, few things are more important than food. And starting when a baby is only a few months old, he or she goes from consuming exclusively liquid breast milk or formula to eating some solid foods. Making the change involves a process called weaning.
"Weaning involves gradually decreasing a typical food in favor of a different food," says Cheryl Hardin, MD, a pediatrician at Texas Children's Pediatrics in Houston. Weaning a baby is going from liquid breast milk or formula to solid food
How to Start Weaning a Baby
Depending on a baby's age, weaning can also mean switching from one type of liquid nutrition to another. For example, weaning breastfeeding for a baby who is younger than 12 months will involve introducing formula. "Babies younger than 12 months shouldn't drink whole cow's milk," Hardin says.
She adds that this is often a good time to introduce a sippy cup as part of weaning off the bottle. "And babies who are breastfed exclusively and weaning breastfeeding can often go right from the breast to a cup," she says.
Hardin says the best time to start weaning depends more on development than age. "The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends weaning breastfeeding at four to six months," she says. "Babies can receive great nutrition in their first few months with breast milk or formula. But by four to six months, a baby is ready for weaning," she says.
Signs It's Time to Wean a Baby
First be sure to check with your child's pediatrician before weaning off formula or weaning breastfeeding. Hardin and other pediatricians advise watching for specific signs a baby is ready to be weaned from the breast or bottle.
The following are signs it's time for weaning a baby:
- The baby wants to breastfeed or drink formula often.
- The baby has doubled his birth weight.
- The baby seems interested in solid food you're eating.
- The baby mouths his hands and toys.
- The baby opens his mouth when he sees others eating.
- The baby can sit without support.
- The baby can hold his head upright and steady (this shows swallowing muscles are strong).
If your baby shows these signs, and your doctor says it's OK, you can start to introduce solid foods.
There is no typical timetable for weaning a baby. "Depending on the baby, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months," Hardin says. She suggests starting weaning by eliminating one of the baby's liquid feedings. "If a baby is feeding on demand, replace one of those feedings with solid food," she says.
What Are the Best Foods to Start Weaning a Baby With?
In terms of the types of solid food to introduce when weaning a baby, the guidelines recently changed. Hardin's advice follows AAP guidelines for weaning. The AAP now says solid foods -- cereals, fruits, veggies, and meats - can be given in any order.
"We used to tell parents to save meats until later," Hardin says. "But we've found babies benefit from meats early on because they are rich in iron." The AAP agrees that breastfed babies may benefit from baby foods with meat because they contain iron and zinc.
Whatever solid food you decide to start with, Hardin says that it's best to start with single-ingredient foods. Cereals should be single-grain oatmeal, barley, or rice cereal instead of mixed. And it's not a good idea to mix fruits, vegetables, and meats with other solid foods.
Hardin says another good rule to follow when weaning a baby is to try a new solid food every four to five days and watch whether your baby has any kind of reaction. For example, if the new solid food is applesauce, and your baby gets a rash or diarrhea, you will know the applesauce is most likely the cause.
Hardin also tells parents to pay attention to their child's emotional reactions. "Some go with the flow, which makes the weaning process easy. Others have a harder time adjusting to a new routine. Either way, parents should try to be sensitive," she says.
Whether you're weaning off breastfeeding or formula, it can be trying for both mom and baby. The better prepared you are, the more smoothly things will go. And remember that there's no hurry: In the early months of weaning a baby, solid foods are meant to complement nutrition. A baby's primary source of nutrition will still be breast milk or formula.
Medically reviewed by Margaret Walsh, MD; American Board of Pediatrics
Cheryl Hardin, MD, Texas Children's Pediatrics.
The March of Dimes: "Feeding Your Baby."
The Mayo Clinic: "Solid Foods: How to Get your Baby Started."
The American Academy of Pediatrics: "Switching to Solid Foods."