A preface to this post – I am talking here about babies who do not have a medical need to be weaned early and who are not under the care of a medical professional
‘Aha!’ many people might be saying, ‘Those are clear signs that she needs food! Milk isn’t enough for her any more! And she’s so interested in watching you eat, she’s desperate to do it too!’
What if I told you that all of those signs above are completely normal developmental processes for a baby of Alice’s age? And that none of them – that’s right, NONE – have anything at all to do with a ‘need’ for solid food and milk not being enough for her?
You (or people around you) might not be convinced – so let’s look at why Alice is doing those things.
Staring intently at anyone eating food in the near vicinity
This is an age full of wonder for babies – they can see more clearly than they have before (in terms of distance, sharpness, and colour), and everything is just so EXCITING! Everything. Including me doing the hoovering – but Alice sure as heck isn’t going to spring up and start doing my hoovering for me (which is disappointing, I’m not going to lie).
She stares intently at me whether I’m eating a piece of toast (suitable for a baby of weaning age and something I’d happily hand over) or drinking cider (definitely not suitable for a baby of weaning age and not something I would consider handing over).
In short, she’s interested in anything and everything anybody does because she’s learning about the world and its processes – and babies learn best by modelling (which leads nicely onto my next point).
Tracking the food as it moves towards my mouth and opening her mouth as I open my mouth
As I just said, babies learn by modelling – that is, they learn by copying what we do. All Alice is doing here is imitating the action of me opening my mouth to put something in it – nothing more, nothing less.
Grabbing anything and everything and stuffing it into her mouth, where she furiously gnashes it with her gums
If I pick up an object, and feel it with my fingers and palm of my hand, I learn a lot about that object – whether it's rough or smooth, whether it's hard or soft, whether it's rigid or flexible, whether it's warm or cold. But – if I then put that object to my lips and into my mouth, I learn lots more about those things. Why? Because my lips and mouth have a far greater concentration of nerve endings in and around them – so they’re much more sensitive. Babies use their mouths to explore objects in great detail – and that’s all Alice is doing. Exploring. Not trying to eat. Also – she’s teething. Anything near her mouth is fair game.
The three things above have nothing to do with hunger
If I was to ask Alice, ‘When you’re hungry, what stops it? Where does your food come from?’ She would answer (if she could), ‘Milk’ or ‘Boobs’. And a bottle-fed baby would say, ‘Milk / a bottle’. Those are the things that a baby links with the feeling of being hungry. Not food. That banana that they’re staring at you stuffing in your mouth? They don’t connect that with hunger at all. Or eating. To them, it isn’t even food. It’s just an interesting object that you’re exploring with your mouth.
Being more fussy and unsettled in the evenings / breastfeeding more often / waking up more often at night
Ah, the witching hours. I have (not so) fond memories of this from the fourth trimester. Which actually wasn’t that long ago. But we’ve had a good 4 – 8 weeks of more settled behaviour in the evenings. Less cluster feeding, less crying inconsolably unless a boob is firmly in her mouth (and then maybe some crying because the boob is in her mouth). She’s even started sleeping a little more and we’ve started seeing a bit of a pattern emerge.
But this past week, we’ve been back to the unsettled behaviour again. It starts at about 4pm (which is brilliant, seeing as I have two older children to feed and get to bed) and continues until she conks out on me at about 8pm. Then she wakes after a couple of hours and starts again.
She’s also started breastfeeding more often during the day, and is waking up more often at night for a feed (we had a couple of weeks where she went 11pm – 7am without a feed, something neither of my other two babies did, but now we’re back to wake ups at around 2am and 5am. Although I'm not going to moan about that as it’s still pretty good).
So what does that mean?
I’ve lumped the ones above together as they are all linked. And here’s a hint – it’s got nothing to do with my milk 'not being enough for her any more'. There are a couple of things going on:
1. Lots going on for Alice in terms of her development, which is exciting but also unsettling. She can see a lot more. Her understanding of the world is coming on in leaps and bounds. Her physical development is racing ahead – she can almost roll, she can almost sit up, she can grab objects. Her neurological development is also moving quickly. Change is extremely scary for babies – and they feel safest in a loved adult’s arms (and the milk is a pretty big comfort to them too).
2. The fabled 4 month sleep regression (which is tied to the point above – Pinky McKay has an excellent post about why it should be called a sleep progression. Link at the end of this post)
3. A growth spurt. So, she is hungry. And breastfeeding isn’t like a warehouse but rather a factory. So she feeds more to communicate to my body to up its milk production. So by feeding responsively, my milk production will increase to meet her needs. Problem solved. Similarly with a bottle fed baby, I’d increase how much milk I gave. But what about those who say that them guzzling milk is a sign that milk isn’t enough any more? Well, let’s take a look at the basic composition of milk. At its most basic, it’s made of: fat and protein. Lots of calories. Absolutely brilliant for growth (and babies are growing at their fastest in the first year of life). And milk has loads of that (as well as nutrients) packed into a small volume – which is perfect for small tummies. Now – if I give Alice the kind of thing that people typically start their babies off with (when spoon-feeding / pureeing), so let’s say some pureed carrot / other veg - what is that made of? Plenty of vitamins / minerals. But what about calories? What about fat? What about protein? Basically – not a lot (if any). Especially not in the volume that fills a baby’s tummy.
The weaning guidelines
All of the above are false signs of readiness to wean. They are signs that people will pick up on as signifying that their baby is ready for solid food. But they mean nothing of the sort.
The recommended weaning age is 26 weeks (6 months) – that’s a WHO guideline as well as an NHS one. And yes, guidelines used to be different and have changed – but the last change (from 4 months to 6 months) was in 2003, 15 years ago. Guidelines change as our technology and research (and our ability to analyse and understand that research) changes. Guidelines are based on our best current scientific knowledge. So they may change in the future, yes. But that’s not to say that we should disregard current guidelines based on what research told us over 15 years ago.
I can also hear some voices saying, ‘But the pouches / jars in the shops says 4m+ on them – so it’s fine to give it to my baby. They wouldn’t sell it if it wasn’t.’ One word – money. Unfortunately, corporations don’t care about their consumers (well, they care that you’ll give them your money, but that’s about it). The simple reason why they are allowed to do this is because when the first guideline of 4 months was introduced (in the 1970s), a law was passed so that ‘baby milk substitutes’ couldn’t be marketed as being suitable for babies under 4 months of age. When the guideline was updates in 2003 to 6 months, the law wasn’t changed (but there are movements happening to change this and hopefully it will in the near future).
There is an international voluntary code of conduct – but it’s voluntary, so they don’t have to adhere to it. Even those we perceive to be more ‘ethical’ brands don’t stick to the code of conduct. Why? Because they’re not looking at simply losing two months of sales – they’re looking at losing a ‘lifetime' of sales from consumers (research shows that once consumers become tied to a brand, they will keep buying it). Also – plenty of things are sold to us that aren’t safe. Cot bumpers pose a suffocation risk – but they’re still sold. And cigarettes come with a whole host of health issues – but they’re still on sale as well.
And if you were weaned early (as many of our generation were) or if you weaned your child early and ‘you / they are fine’ - that doesn’t mean that weaning early hasn’t / won’t cause issues further down the line. It might not. Or it might. The recommended weaning age reduces the risk. Early weaning increases it. As with many things, what it comes down to is the level of risk that is acceptable to you.
True signs of readiness to wean
So if the things listed above aren't signs Alice is ready for food, how will I know when she is? That’s a whole other post in itself. But in a nutshell, when she reaches recommended weaning age, I’ll see signs from her that she is ready – and if she’s not quite ready, I’ll wait a little longer until she is. There’s no magic switch that flicks over on the day she turns 26 weeks. But there are physical developmental stages that she needs to have met before giving her food is safe (both for her digestive system, and in terms of choking), and when she reaches those, she’ll let me know.
And in the meantime, I’ll just keep boobing her as and when she wants milk. And actually, that’s the easy way out – the mess and faff of weaning is something I’m not in any rush to get to!
Our weaning workshop covers all of this and much more, including how to tell when your baby is ready for solid food, baby-led weaning vs spoon-feeding, and the practicalities of weaning in a baby-led way
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The myth of baby sleep regressions by Pinky Mckay
Sarah Holmes is a CalmFamily consultant based in Jersey. She is also a co-director of CalmFamily CIC.