We interview first-time mum and author of Young Gums book and blog Beth Bentley on how she set out to create a platform for parents to feed their babies and themselves in a positive and healthy way.
Originally from Wales, Beth grew up in Chester, and over the past ten years has worked as a brand strategist for global food and wellness brands. A strategist at the Department of Children, Families and Young People Beth advises on early childhood health and wellbeing policies. She is currently beginning training as a nutritionist. Beth is currently awaiting arrival of her second baby (and a whole new weaning adventure).
What inspired you to write a book about weaning?
As a first-time mum I felt overwhelmed and confused by the conflicting, often contradictory advice I was receiving. And I felt disappointed in the nutritional standards of a lot of commercially-prepared baby food. I decided to try cooking most of my baby’s food, but my search for fresh, modern sources of recipe inspiration that I could relate to was a little fruitless – there are plenty of great resources to inspire family cooking when your child is slightly older, but I found very few weaning-specific resources that I felt were relatable and relevant, written to a high enough nutritional standard. My local circle of mum-friends urged me to start writing my own recipes, and put them online somewhere. I began the Instagram feed as my first baby turned six months’ old, those women were my first followers, and it all just blew up from there!
What is the ideal age to start weaning your child and what are your five top tips?
Six months is the ideal age to wean your child.
- Keep it simple, keep it real. Offer simple, real foods – vegetables, fruits, unrefined grains, pulses, fish and meat, smooth nut butters, a little organic dairy. Babies don’t need specially-formulated enhanced and fortified foods. Give them natural, real, nutrient-dense food.
- Eat together. Babies learn by watching, so why not bring them to the family table from the very start? A weaning baby can safely eat an astonishing array of foods so as soon as you feel happy to, you can start sharing the same meal. Modify theirs by mashing/blending some or all of it, and modify yours by adding salt, chilli, and anything else you fancy. My book is full of easy, baby-safe ‘one family, one meal’ ideas like coconut curries, burrito bowls, fish stew, pot roast and noodle soup.
- The best of both. The book’s based on the opinion that we don’t need to choose between finger foods and spoon-feeding. There are good things about both modes of feeding so why not expose your baby to both…even in the same meal!
- Go big, early, with flavour. The most striking thing I learned throughout all my research, study and meetings with experts, was quite how broadly a weaning baby can safely eat. It’s a myth that babies need, and like, only mild, bland, repetitive flavours. There are many reasons to give them big flavours while they are young and curious. My book is based on finding safe, appropriate ways to do this.
- Enjoy it. This is a magical, funny, and fleeting stage of new parenthood so try not to let it be shadowed by feeling pressured or guilty about what your baby is or isn’t eating. How we feed our babies is a bone of contention from day one (breast or bottle?) and weaning is surrounded with so much conflicting advice that it’s easy to feel a bit confused and overwhelmed. Weaning often coincides with other big changes like teething or returning to work. I try to take the pressure off by giving parents ways to make cooking a creative and fun experience that’s full of tiny victories. I write as if I’m talking to a friend and I take a really balanced view on home-cooking vs. buying pre-prepared baby food: a lot of shop-bought food isn’t as nutritious as I’d like it to be, as a parent myself, but it’s a very useful aid when you’re pushed for time or travelling, so it definitely has it’s place in busy modern family life. I just urge other mums and dads to put it in its place – as convenience food, not the backbone of our baby’s daily diet.
What is the feeding philosophy behind the book?
One family, one meal: taking inspiration from many ancient world food cultures where the baby was invited to the family table as early as possible rather than eating a separate diet.
There’s also a strand in the book about One Hand Cooking – recipes so quick and easy that you can cook them without even putting your hungry baby down.
Why can’t I wean my baby before 6 months?
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines have remained unchanged since 2003: for around the first six months of life, a baby will receive all required nutrition from breastmilk or correctly made-up formula. It’s not advised to offer food before 4 months of age as the kidneys and digestive system aren’t considered mature enough, and neither is it recommended to wait very much longer than 6 months of age because at this point the growing baby’s birth stores of iron deplete rapidly. If your baby was premature the guidelines may apply differently, so seek your doctor’s advice.
What are the signs they are ready for solid food?
WHO recognise these three signs as indicators of your baby being ready to eat:
- Baby can sit up independently, holding head steady.
- Baby has hand-eye coordination to look at an object, pick it up and put it in their mouth.
- ‘Tongue-thrust’ reflex has relaxed. Babies are born with an evolutionary protection mechanism. The tongue automatically pushes things out of the mouth in case they’re dangerous. This reflex relaxes when the baby’s ready to learn to chew and swallow, but it can be trick to assess. Touch a spoonful of food to the baby’s bottom lip. Either the tongue will immediately push it away or the baby will open their mouth. It might take several attempts over a few days, but you’ll know when you see it. Gagging and spitting out is normal. It tends to be loud (and messy), as the baby coughs, spits and repositions the food in their mouth. However, choking can be near-silent, so ensure you baby is always with an adult while eating and drinking and understand how to handle choking. Your doctor or healthcare practitioner can demonstrate.
WHO states that these behaviours are normal developmental stages and not indicators that it’s time to wean (unless accompanied by all three of the above): chewing fists, reaching for something a parent is eating, waking more often at night, sudden cluster-feeding (if breastfeeding) or seeking larger/more frequent bottle feeds.
WHO says ‘around six months’ as some show readiness a little ahead, and others after. I like the advice of American infant nutrition expert, Ellyn Satter: ‘Go by what your baby can do, not by their age.’
The other reason that around six months is considered the optimum time for solid foods is to do with a key mineral: iron. Babies are born with only about 6 months’ supply and after this must find it in their diet. Modern commercial weaning foods, like baby rice, are often chemically fortified with iron for this reason. Or you can skip the packets and cook with foods naturally iron-rich like lean red meat, green vegetables and pulses.
When should I start to reduce milk feeds, and how best to do so?
Be led by your baby. It will happen naturally as the child becomes more used to eating solid food (and therefore relying less and less intensely on milk for their nutrition). The timing of this gradual transition will be different for every baby but as solid food becomes an established part of their everyday routine you will at some point notice your baby beginning to seek milk feeds less often, ending breastfeeds sooner than usual, or perhaps not seeming quite so interested in their bottles – maybe not finishing the bottle or seeming distracted/losing interest. Milk will remain a major source of your baby’s nutrition for a long while yet – current NHS advice suggests roughly 400-500ml/day at 12m steadily decreasing down to 350ml/day by the time your baby turns two. And if your baby is under the weather – teething, perhaps, then their appetite for milk may shoot back up. So there’s no need to rush. Your baby will let you know when it’s time to gradually taper milk feeds down.
What are the best foods to start with and which ones should I avoid?
Start with simple, tiny one-ingredient meals that are low-stress and inexpensive for you, and give you the chance to observe your baby for any possible reactions. Look to no-cook/quick-cook things like avocado, banana, porridge (blitz raw dry whole oats in your blender to make simple homemade baby porridge that can be quickly heated and stirred with any milk to create a smooth porridge). Gradually begin to combine these foods together, then introduce little extras like a tiny bit of organic unsalted butter, a mini-pinch of cinnamon or nutmeg, a squished berry, a tiny amount of smooth almond butter, a teaspoon of cooked brown rice, a splash of canned coconut milk, or bit of mashed hard-boiled egg. Once you’re confident giving little combinations like this, the real fun can begin…recipes!
What advice would you give to parents that are worried about choking?
Regardless of how you feed you baby, we all need to know what to do it things go wrong. Educate yourself about the difference between gagging and choking. Gagging is loud and happens often when learning to eat. The gag reflex is much further forward in the mouth in a weaning baby than in an older child or adult, and as babies are still learning to move food around in their mouths, lots of mistakes happen with food coming back out again and messy, loud spit-ups. But choking can be practically silent, and can happen very quickly. It happens where food goes into the baby’s breathing system rather than down into the stomach, and needs immediate, decisive parental action. Learn the ‘back-strike’ technique and infant CPR. Do not be reticent to call 999 immediately if you think it’s happening – nobody will think you’re being an overcautious new parent, and at the least you’ll have an expert on speakerphone to guide you. New parents are advised to keep our phones handy, and of course never leave our babies alone with food or drink.
What is your favourite family recipe?
I have a soft-spot for the Moroccan Tagine in my book, because it’s the very first meal we ate as a family. My older baby still loves it, and I think we will probably start here again when our new baby girl is ready to learn to eat. Then there’s the Pyjama Pancakes – so-called because it’s become our Sunday morning family tradition since our weaning journey began. They’re so easy, nutritious and quick, and I adapt them to whatever seasonal fruit I have to hand, all year round. I also love the baking recipes and the ice lollies because they are things you and your baby can make together – certainly during later weaning your baby can squash a banana to go in the blender for ice lollies, or hold a wooden spoon to help you mix up some muffins. I love cooking with and for my babies – it doesn’t feel like a chore, it’s actually a joy. It’s something creative, a little victory during a long day of mumming.