The Weaning Debate

Many mothers are faced with the dilemma of when to start weaning their babies and when to eventually stop breastfeeding completely. They receive advice from many different sources depending on their family history, culture and socialization and all these may prove either useful or overwhelming to the mum.

Weaning is the gradual process of introducing other sources of nutrients to an infant while replacing breastfeeding. While breastfeeding is the most ideal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development, weaning introduces solid foods to the baby’s diet which become increasingly important as the baby grows and gets more active.

The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding to an infant up to six months of age and continued breastfeeding with appropriate complimentary foods for up to two years of age or beyond. For the first six months of an infant’s life, breast milk is enough to sustain their nutritional needs. However, as they grow older, infants’ nutritional needs cannot be sufficiently sustained by breast milk alone. For instance, after six months, the baby’s natural iron stores that they received in the womb will have depleted and they need iron rich foods in their diet. It is therefore important to supplement breast milk with a healthy balanced diet so as to meet the baby’s nutritional needs.

But when exactly should you introduce solids to your baby’s diet? Although six months is recommended and it is important that all mothers strive to achieve this, it is not always obvious or easy or practically possible in reality. Baby experts advise that it is important to look out for the signs that your baby is ready for weaning. Some of these signs include your baby sucking their fists, taking an interest in what you are eating, appearing to be unsatisfied after a milk feed, demanding for feeds more frequently and/or starting to wake up for more feeds more than before. These signs and change in patterns will alert you when your baby is ready for some solid food. Weaning should begin when both the mother and baby are ready for it and when all efforts have been made to push as close as possible to the recommended six month period.

It is also important to note that the introduction of solid foods should not be delayed for longer than six months as the energy needs of the baby exceed those provided by breast milk. Nonetheless, weaning does not mean that the breastfeeding should stop all together. Breastfeeding should continue up to a period of 2 years of age where possible. According to WHO, breast milk provides up to 50 per cent of the calories for an infant after six months as well as higher quality nutrients than complementary foods. It also provides infants with protection against childhood infections and reduces the risk of chronic diseases later in life. Moms however should not crucify themselves should the need occur to cease breastfeeding earlier than the two year period. A variety of factors may cause earlier than recommended weaning including health issues, unavoidable mother to child separation or an unresponsive child. Mums should therefore make decisions and rest assured for as long as they have made choices in the best interests of their children they should be at peace.

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