At what age should you start weaning your baby?

Your four month old baby is chewing his fist and waking through the night - Grandma insists it's time for solids but the baby books say, 'not yet'.

So you do a bit of research into what the professionals say... and the plot thickens.

While current Government advice cautions "breast is best" until your infant is six months, a recent study from London's Institute of Child Health appears to suggest earlier weaning might be better.

The report, led by consultant paediatrician Dr Mary Fewtrell and published in the British Medical Journal in January, sparked national headlines asking whether exclusive breast-feeding for six months could be damaging babies' health by leading to iron deficiency and higher risks of celiac disease and food allergies.

So, with such confusing advice, what's a baffled new parent to do?

Paediatrics professor John Warner of Imperial College, London, argues "rigid" guidelines don't work and that it's far better to "take the cues from our babies."

[See also: Breastfeeding alone may not be best for babies]

"The guidance should be about helping people to respond appropriately to the messages they get from their baby, react accordingly and take advice from a professional," Dr Warner told the Daily Mail.

Dr Fewtrell herself agrees a less prescriptive approach might be preferable: "We are [suggesting that] the age at which infants need or want solid foods is likely to vary from infant to infant, as with any other developmental milestone."

She said current UK advice is based on a 2000 World Health Organisation report but that, while later weaning may still be better for less developed countries where access to clean water and safe foods is limited, new data suggests the advice may be less relevant here.

"There is sufficient evidence of both benefit and risk associated with six month exclusive breastfeeding for infants in developed countries to merit a review of the data and the original recommendation."

As a result, the Government has asked the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition to review its policy on infant feeding, and to report back later this year.

[Video: How to buy a nursing bra]

But, for now, there are several signs a new parent can look for to establish whether their little one is ready to eat solid food. As the NHS Birth to Five guide sets out, these include the ability to:

  • Sit upright and hold their head steady

  • Co-ordinate their eyes, hands and mouth so that they can "look at food, pick it up and put it in their mouth by themselves"

  • Swallow food - babies who are not ready will push it back out

On the flip-side, there are some signs commonly mistaken for a readiness for solids that health professionals say are "normal baby behaviours and not necessarily signs of hunger", including fist chewing, night waking when they have previously slept through and demanding extra milk feeds.

In any case, it is best to start slowly and cautiously with weaning, say experts, letting your baby touch and play with food, starting by offering just a few teaspoons once a day and never forcing the baby to eat.

As Birth to Five adds, "they will still be getting most of their nutrition from breast milk or infant formula" so the best advice is to relax, have fun - and always go at your baby's pace.

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