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Catapulted into weaning-age confusion

Kate Richards
So there I was, armed with the research "evidence" to fend off the grandparents' subtle and not so subtle hints that four month old Ben should be having solid food by now. With impeccable timing, a huge media storm erupted claiming that exclusive breastfeeding could be dangerous. What to do?!

My first thoughts were a mixture of
confusion, scepticism, and relief that maybe with some "proper" food in his tummy, Ben might sleep longer at night. I had a close look at the news story to find out for myself what had changed.

Well it actually seemed very little. No new research had been carried out, but a team of experts from the UCL Institute of Child Health in London, UK, had published their opinion on weaning in the British Medical Journal.

They questioned the current World Health Organisation advice for mothers to exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first for six months of life. The authors, Dr Mary Fewtrell and her team, think this may not be in the best interests of every baby.

They say the research shows that earlier weaning - between four and six months - could reduce the risk of anaemia, coeliac disease and food allergies, and encourage wider food preferences later in life. Basically, they want a reappraisal of the evidence, and possibly a change in the official advice.

Once I read the details, I felt a lot better. The headlines, such as the Guardian's "Six months of breastfeeding alone could harm babies", had panicked me a little. It seems to be a particularly controversial area that can apparently boost newspaper sales if presented in a sensationalist way.

My friends and I have admitted to a sense of relief that maybe we can call the shots rather than having to follow the strict calendar-based advice. Lots of parents get a feeling that their baby is ready for solid food before six months, which puts them in a tricky position, not knowing what to do for the best.

My next move is to investigate the signs that a baby might be ready for weaning, while continuing to breastfeed. I'll probably also check with a health visitor before going ahead. The signs I know about so far are:
  • When the baby can hold his head up
  • When the baby can sit well when supported
  • When the baby makes chewing motions
  • When the baby has doubled his birth weight
  • When the baby is curious about what I'm eating

But it would still be good to have these confirmed in a leaflet given to parents at about four months. Hopefully the official guidance will soon be brought in line with the most reliable evidence, and we can all have something to stick to (or rebel against!).

I agree with Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet, who said: "It is quite hard work trying to exclusively breastfeed for six months without introducing solids. If that turns out not to be correct advice, we'd like to know as soon as possible."

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