07 Apr 2011

Weaning – has anyone got a clue?!

No Comments Weaning

Just when you thought being a parent couldn’t be any more difficult….weaning guidelines were surely put on this earth to baffle and stress you entirely. Your Health Visitor says one thing, GP says something else, internet forums and mum’s groups are awash with different advice, and the latest best-selling parenting books don’t agree either.

The weaning debate

The current debate lies in the ideal age of the baby to introduce food. All babies only need milk for the first few months of their lives. Many years ago, babies were introduced food very early, but in 2003 the Department of Health issued a statement recommending weaning to start only at 6 months of age. This was advice was mainly given to encourage breastfeeding for at least 26 weeks; the World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months to reduce infant mortality and morbidity from gastroenteritis in developing countries.

In 2008, evidence was gathered on weaning healthy term infants and a statement produced by the respected European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN), recommending:

• Exclusive breastfeeding for around 6 months is a desirable goal
• Weaning onto solid foods should begin by 6 months but not before 4 months
• Breastfeeding continues throughout weaning particularly the early stages
• Introducing gluten* between 4 and 7 months while breastfeeding may reduce the risk of coeliac disease, type 1 diabetes and wheat allergy
• High allergen foods such as egg and fish do not need to be delayed until after 6 months as there is no evidence that this will reduce the likelihood of allergies

Weaning should not be delayed beyond six months of age as this increases the risk of nutrient and energy deficiencies. Iron deficiency anaemia and rickets is more common in infants weaned after 6 months. (See my upcoming article on iron.) This advice has been endorsed by the British Dietetic Association Paediatric Group.

The real problem is that various academic and medical institutions still can’t agree on the ideal age to introduce food. As a dietitian, I believe that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to weaning is impossible. I advise breastfeeding for as long as reasonably possible, and to introduce weaning foods somewhere in between 17 and 26 weeks of age. Being in tune with the individual baby is really important – watching for signs of readiness to wean and taking the baby’s lead is vital.

Happy weaning!

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