Baby using a spoon to feed himself while practising weaning

It’s fascinating to see what cultures around the world are doing with regards to baby weaning practices. Even more interesting is looking at ‘pure’ culture weaning practices. In order to do this, we need to go back a century before commercial and economic influence took over the science of weaning.

Weaning is the process of gradually introducing solid food to a baby other than milk. This process only takes place in mammals as only mammals produce milk. We consider a baby fully weaned once it is no longer fed any breastmilk or bottled substitute.

When should you starting weaning your baby?

How and when to wean a baby has been a very controversial topic for decades now. Even experts in the field are divided and this creates a lot of confusion. For many years, the consensus has been to feed an exclusive milk diet until six months of age. Until recently this was thought to offer protection against allergies. Even further delaying the introduction of high-risk allergen foods like egg and peanuts until two years was thought to reduce allergies of these foods. The research showed a totally different outcome and delaying the introduction of these foods and delaying solid introduction has shown to hold no protection against food allergies. Interestingly, early introduction that is between 4-6 months of age may actually decrease risk of allergies in high risk babies.

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How did our forefathers (or foremothers) get weaning right?

The incidence of allergies was lower, picky eating non-existent and breastfeeding rates were much higher than current rates. Yes, the world is a different place. The last 100 years + has seen exponential increase in technology and speed of life. Two income families are the norm and not the exception, and access to information is easier than ever before.

In many cultures around the world, weaning would start with the introduction of feeding the baby food that had been pre-chewed by the parent along with continued breastfeeding – this practice is known as pre-mastication. Interestingly the foods most commonly introduced in this way were protein foods.

The practice was important in that it naturally gave a baby an improved protein source in addition to preventing iron deficiency. The pre-chewing of food also gave the baby long-term immunological benefits through factors in the mother’s saliva.

As time went on, baby (normally between 5 and 7 months) would sit supported) on the mother’s lap while she was eating and there is evidence of a baby reaching out to take food off the mom’s plate. These days we call this baby-led weaning.

Baby sitting on the floor feeding himself watermelon while practising weaning

What can we learn from these ancient weaning practices?

Reports of some older weaning practices indicate that food access largely determined what babies were weaned onto. Subsistence living was the most common practice so babies were fed foods from the land and the introduction of seasonal foods was the norm. Protein, fruits and vegetables were the common foods to wean babies onto.

Grains were used more from the toddler age and the main source of starch was from vegetables and fruits. Fats appeared to form a part of the infant diet as some ancient feeding utensil remains of babies indicate fatty residue. This could’ve come from the crushing of nuts and seeds as well as fat from animal proteins.

Milk appears to have been an important part of a baby and toddler diet up until 3 to 4 years of age. There is evidence of both breastmilk being drunk for that duration as well as other mammal milks like cow, camel and goat milks.

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What does this tell us about weaning a child today?

Weaning has come full circle and what our ancestors knew instinctively we now have learnt through endless studies, trial and error and – unfortunately – a lot of confusion. Let’s go back to simplicity and keep it fun and simple. Trust your ‘momstinct’ (mommy instinct) and enjoy building a wonderful foundation of food and feeding.

Some ancient nuggets that are still relevant today:

  1. If you are eating something healthy and your little one looks interested, offer it even if it means squishing it between your fingers or giving it a little chew first.
  2. Milk is still a very important food to give in the first year and for next 2-3 years thereafter.
  3. Introduce protein-rich foods early on in the weaning journey to decrease allergy risk as well as improve nutrition outcomes.
  4. Avoid over-blending and puréeing foods. A simple mash is fine.
  5. Allow early autonomy for your little one to explore foods on your plate through seeing, touching, smelling and should he wish, tasting.

Enjoy this weaning journey. Millions have done it before you and millions will do it after you. You are NOT alone.