Breastfeeding has life-saving advantages for a newborn, hence the recommendation that mothers breastfeed a baby exclusively for the first six months of life.
What this translates into, according to the World Health Organisation, is that a newborn should not be given infant formula, water or anything apart from breast milk until s/he is six months old, following which alternative foods must be introduced.
According to a General Practitioner, Dr. Goke Emmanuel, by the time a child is six months old, the mother should introduce him/her to alternative foods. The physician notes that though many mothers sometimes think it is okay to wean their child earlier by introducing the baby to solid foods at about four or five months, he says this is totally not advisable.
He counsels that before a baby could be introduced to alternative food, the parents must be aware of certain ‘signs.’
What are these signs?
Experts counsel that it is not safe to introduce your baby to solid food before s/he gains control over the neck and head; and also before the child could sit unaided.
Emmanuel says a normal, healthy baby would start sitting unaided by age six months, during which s/he also has full control over the neck and head movement.
“These, in addition to other factors, are what should encourage a mother to introduce solid food to her baby at six months old,”
Again, he notes, a healthy child must be seen to be gaining weight as appropriate since birth.
“It is dangerous to wean an underweight baby, as there may be underlying problems that are preventing the baby from gaining weight.
“It is even the reason we do not encourage mothers to introduce their babies to solid foods without first discussing it with the doctor. Before you take any decisions about your baby’s feeding, please, talk first to the doctor,”
A paediatrician, Dr. Ifeoma Ejimofor, says a baby that is due for weaning should be ‘mature’ enough to reach for objects and bring them to his/her mouth.
“That way, you know that if you place his/her food in front of him/her, s/he would eat reasonably unaided. This is necessary because, in most cases, this period is also the time many working mothers take the baby to daycare, hence the need to ensure that the baby will fare well if s/he has to feed on his/her own,”
Why six months is important
But then, why should you wait till six months to wean your baby? Ejimofor says there are many medical reasons why a baby may not be given alternative foods before age six months.
She says one of such reasons is that a baby’s digestive system is not mature enough to accommodate solid food before s/he clocks six months.
“Many people do not know their family’s medical history; as such, a baby born into a family where people have medical history of suffering from one allergy or the other; or where coeliac disease is common, introducing such a baby to solid food before six months is not advisable. So, wait till six months in order to forestall avoidable health problems,”
the paediatrician counsels.
Again, experts suggest that babies that are weaned earlier than six months of age are more likely to suffer tummy upsets, diarrhoea and vomiting. Ejimofor pleads:
“On their own, any of these conditions is serious for a baby; imagine a baby experiencing two or more of these because of unguarded weaning exercise. Let’s give our babies a chance at healthy life.”
Experts also note that a baby needs to have lost the ‘tongue-thrust’ reflex before s/he could be weaned.
“All small babies have this reflex, which means they instinctively push out anything on their tongue to protect against choking. Before a mother commences the weaning process therefore, this reflex needs to diminish, so that the baby doesn’t instantly push out the food that is put in his/her mouth,”
the physician says, noting that the reflex usually starts to fade between four and six months.
Ejimofor and Emmanuel warn mothers that milk is enough to take care of a baby’s dietary needs in the first six months of life, and that every healthy mother is capable of making enough milk to meet the baby’s food needs within that period. Emmanuel says,
“Research shows that babies can get all their nutritional needs from breast milk for the first six months of their life. Neglecting to give your baby this all-important food is like robbing your child of potential good health.”
The physicians also warn that when we talk of weaning, it does not mean taking the baby off breastmilk once s/he starts taking breastmilk.
“Rather, the idea is that in addition to baby milk, a baby can be introduced to solid food at six months. Breastfeeding is recommended to be continued till the child is about 18-24 months old,”
the physicians counsel.