I responded to a question about weaning this evening in a facebook group, and my rather long response looked a little like the blog post I’ve been meaning to write on the subject for ages, so I thought I should use it as a starting point. The question was whether diarrhoea and nappy rash could have been caused by recent weaning, just before six months, on to three small meals a day (of rice, veg and fruit) and drinks of water. The (only slightly) early weaning was on the advice of a paediatrician, as the baby had lost weight, so it is entirely understandable but it is very likely to have caused the problems that the baby is now having.
I have been through variations of this theme with most of my children and could write a book on the subject, so it’s quite hard to know where to start. The story of their weaning is inevitably entangled with their breastfeeding stories, and I’m not ready to write those yet. It’s been over eight years but when I think about writing about my first breastfeeding experience, I just can’t do it and I realise I still haven’t got over it. I’ll write it one day. Anyway, Owl was being bottle-fed by the time he was weaned, so it’s a separate story for him in some ways. I followed some bad advice from a health visitor and a nurse who both told me to wean at four months so I did. I did the whole baby rice and puree thing, obviously, as he was too young to feed himself. It didn’t occur to me that he was therefore too young to need solid food. At best it was utterly pointless and I don’t like to think about the harm it might have done.
Monkey was breastfed exclusively for six months and I continued to feed him until he was two. When I weaned him, I started with baby rice and purees but was more relaxed about it. As he was able to sit up in a high chair, within a short time I was giving him some food to play with as well as offering some on a spoon. I noticed that when I gave him pieces of carrot he ate them and was less interested in the carrot puree that I offered at the same time. So I gradually went over more to baby-led weaning, though not entirely. I sometimes gave him “baby food”, home-made or shop-bought, if what we were eating was not suitable, or if we were out and about, but most of the time he had lots of food to play with and just ate what he wanted.
Rabbit was also breastfed exclusively for six months and I carried on feeding her until around 23 months, though she fed very little after 21 months. I did baby-led weaning as she was very independent and not interested in mashed up food. I don’t remember if I made any purees for her or not, though she had shop-bought baby food from time to time when we were out. By this stage, I had worked out that it was necessary to taste them and rule out any that were horrible (at least 90% of them.) Why did this not occur to me the first time round? Most of the nice ones were fruit purees and she didn’t mind those!
Tiddler was exclusively breastfed for six months and is still feeding now at 2.5 years. I really did not want to wean him early, as there are so many health risks associated with it and no proven benefits, but it was hard to have the courage of my convictions when he failed to gain weight between four and five months. He was otherwise thriving and developing normally, but had been ill at some point in the month. He may have lost a bit of weight then gained it back but I wasn’t sure. My (lovely) Health Visitor suggested weaning early but didn’t put any pressure on. (She knows I’m a breastfeeding counsellor with strong opinions!) I did give it some consideration, but my gut feeling was that it wasn’t a good idea. I spoke to the Infant Feeding Advisor for two of our local hospitals and she said that the foods it is safe to give before six months (fruit, veg, rice) are all significantly lower in calories than breast milk so it would not be likely to improve weight gain. I found this helpful as I hadn’t considered it before. She also said, as I already knew, that breastfed babies often plateau or even lose weight at this stage and it was nothing to worry about as long as there were no other concerns. I’m very grateful for her input as it gave me the confidence to continue feeding Tiddler in the way I believed was best for him. When I weaned him at six months, I did baby-led weaning most of the time with a bit of spoon-feeding here and there, because he quite liked it, though it was mainly things like soup and yoghurt and he only had baby food occasionally. It was mainly if he’d slept through a meal and I wanted to give him something quickly. But of course he didn’t really need it and another breastfeed would have been better. If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t bother with baby food at all. Looking back it seems to me to have been completely unneccessary. It only took four babies to teach me that. I guess I’m a slow learner.
To go back to the original question, I felt that the diarrhoea and nappy rash were quite likely to have been caused by early and fairly rapid weaning, and that going back to exclusive breastfeeding for a little while would be very likely to solve the problem. I also suggested that baby-led weaning might be beneficial as the baby would be less likely to have diarrhoea if she was able to choose what and when to eat. I then went into breastfeeding promotional literature mode a little I think, and wrote the following: “Babies have an amazing ability to know what they need and also have great appetite control, so they are likely to eat only what they can digest. At first, they will mostly play with the food and then eat very small quantities, which means that their digestive systems get used to it gradually. Breastmilk should be the main source of nutrition until 12 months, with other foods being mainly for fun and getting used to new tastes.”
I hope what I wrote was helpful, but it’s hard to know. It’s hard to avoid being part of the “breastfeeding mafia” (and its baby-led weaning subdivision.) On the one hand, I have seen it from both sides and can say from experience I firmly believe that exclusive breastfeeding to six months, baby-led weaning and extended breastfeeding are far better than the alternatives, including the watered-down version of breastfeeding that is often promoted by health professionals. On the other hand I know how it feels to give up breastfeeding and feel terrible about it, and also to wean early and then regret it. I am always afraid of adding to anyone’s distress and it sometimes stops me from saying what I think. Tonight, for some reason, I felt I should say something. I subsequently found out that the mum who asked the question had spoken to a breastfeeding counsellor who was very rude and really upset her. That is so sad to hear, although I’m afraid I’ve heard it before so I’m not surprised. I think for me it is a reminder that whatever my soapbox subjects are (breastfeeding, baby-led weaning, home education, Christianity, to name but a few…) the thing to remember is that people have feelings and they can be hurt, or they can be blessed and encouraged (which I know is Christian jargon but I’m tired and I can’t think of a better way of putting it.) It’s good to be passionate about what you believe but it’s also important to be nice to people!
I seem to have gone off-topic at the end here somewhat, so in case you’ve come here specifically looking for information about weaning, I’ll link to my favourite site for breastfeeding advice, which might be more useful.