Weaning begins when a baby takes anything other than their mother’s milk, typically around the middle of the first year of life with the introduction of solid foods. First foods are only complementary and breast milk remains the baby’s main source of food to best meet their needs for nutrition and energy intake.
Babies need to achieve certain skills in order to begin solid foods safely. Babies are born with reflexes that drive breastfeeding. As they grow, these reflexes become integrated and they have more choice and control over how they feed. Eating involves the whole body, not just the mouth. We watch for signs of readiness to determine if they are ready for trying out solid foods or whether to wait just a little longer until they develop those skills.
Skills of readiness
Head control - your baby can turn their head side to side comfortably. This allows them to have a choice in taking in a food or not as well as be able to safely swallow food without choking.
Sitting up unassisted on their own- They should be able to move into and out of a sitting position all on their own. This requires good control over their pelvis, which controls their core which helps them control their head.(2) It is a perfect example of how the body works as a whole during eating.
Tongue thrust is no longer present - This reflex protects the baby from foods they are not ready for. The tongue pushes them back out to protect against choking. As your baby grows and is ready for solid foods, the tongue will no longer push foods out , but rather begin to be able to move foods around in the mouth.
Pincer grasp is developing - your baby will begin to be able to use their thumb and index finger rather than their whole hand for picking up a piece of food, bringing it to their mouth.
Reaching for your food - Your baby will likely show interest in your food before they have reached all the skills of readiness for food. They are curious about what you are having and will reach for it. They may reach out of interest. This is not an indicator to gauge starting solids readiness all on its own.
Structural development - as your baby reaches the middle of their first year of life, their jaws and tongue become better able to manage eating foods. Providing your baby teething toys that encourage their tongue to move can help prepare them for eating as well. Your baby will stick out their tongue extension) and move their tongue side to side (lateralization) while playing with a teething toy which will come in handy for being able to move food from side to side in their mouth as they gnaw, gum and chew it into smaller bits before swallowing.(1)
How to begin baby-led weaning
The family dinner table is a great place to practice baby-led weaning. Some parents choose to take the foods the family is eating and gently blend them all together and feed them to the baby with a spoon also letting them feed some to themselves.
You can choose to skip the purees altogether and serve foods that can be mashed with a fork or your baby can pick up and use their teeth and gums to chew, gnaw and shred the food. These food choices are more likely to be whole foods and not processed, which is important for growing strong teeth free of decay.(3) Soft foods do not require the jaw muscles to work very hard and contribute to development of a more narrow jawline.
When your baby is involved at family mealtimes, they will enjoy playing and exploring the feel of the food, the smell and the taste. It may get messy and that is alright. Your baby is learning and growing!
Child-led weaning after one year
Continuing to nurse provides your older child with benefits nutritionally and emotionally. As your baby explores their world even more, learning to walk and run, they are also developing a sense of individualism. Your toddler may crawl in your lap and want to nurse, reassure themself all is well and then hop down to go on exploring. Allowing your child to be dependent on you in this way has shown to support your child being more independent when they get older.(4) Continued breastfeeding is one way to bond with your growing baby and form strong attachments that will later contribute to other healthy attachments and resiliency. Not to mention, nursing your toddler is the quickest way to soothe them when they fall down and get bumps and bruises while playing.
When will my child wean?
The natural age of weaning is a debated topic. Historically, children were not weaned before 12-18 months old and not until at least 3 years old in some cultures.(5) Anthropologists have looked at weaning through a lens of the child having gained four times their birth weight, tooth eruption and the child’s age being at least six times the length of gestation. Breastfeeding plays a big role in the baby’s immune system development. Around 3.5-4 years old, the immune system is thought to be fully developed. Natural weaning can be a broad range happening anytime between 2.5 years old and 7 years old.(6)
Weaning looks different for each parent child dyad. Some people allow their older baby to nurse as often as they choose. Other parents decide to have some rules around nursing. Breastfeeding is a relationship and you and your baby’s needs are both important. Communication is important between you and your toddler or older child.
As your child gets older, they may begin to skip nursing sessions during the day or even go a day or more without nursing. Nighttime is still typically the last nursing to fade especially if you co-sleep. Many families say they aren’t even sure when exactly it happened if they follow the child’s lead completely. Weaning is gradual and doesn’t follow a clock or calendar.
Weaning happens. Children grow and they become independent and move on to new stages of life. Each stage of nursing can pose challenges and amazing rewards and benefits for the parent, the baby and the family as a whole. Talking with other parents who are like minded or who are also nursing an older child can really help you to feel supported and share the stories of adventures in nursing an older baby.(7)