The volume of often contradictory information on parenting, particularly about diet and weaning, can be confusing, so Frances Gleeson asked the experts for clarity.
The volume of often conflicting information on sleep patterns, breastfeeding, formula milk, and weaning can be confusing. I know this from my own first year of parenthood. Jennifer Zamparelli, actor and radio presenter, agrees:
[quotes]“I have three sisters and I was one of the last ones of my friends getting pregnant and I was being flung advice left, right, and centre. You’re just bombarded with so much information. I think the biggest advice is look at the recommended guidelines by the experts and then do what’s right for your baby.
"What I mean by what’s right is what keeps you sane and keeps your baby happy. It’s not a race. From your mother, to your sister, to your friend, they’re all going to give you advice. Take all that with a pinch of salt.”
“Or lack of a pinch of salt, as the case might be,” paediatric allergy specialist and weaning expert, Michelle Gray, says.
What they both emphasise is the importance of time: time for yourself, time with your baby, and time for the different stages of weaning to solid food.
“On Florence (now three), I was stuck in my own little bubble and I thought ‘I’m going to go back to work after 10 weeks and it’s going to be fine’ and I met another lady who works in media, who just had a baby, Lucy Kennedy, and she gave me a piece of advice. She said, ‘Jennifer, you will never get that time back. Take the leave, take the time out.’ And I thought, ‘No, I’ll be fine’.
"Ten weeks after I had Florence, I went back into studio and my boobs were still leaking from breastfeeding and I always regretted not taking the time out. There’s always plenty time for working. But you’ll never get those early stages with your baby again: the breastfeeding, the weaning stages; just enjoy it, if you have the opportunity to do it.”
Michelle agrees: “Try to relax and enjoy the time. Your baby will naturally progress through the stages, if you just take your time. You have from six to 12 months to go from thin puree, to a thicker puree with soft lumps, to a more chopped consistency.”
The progression to solid, and chewable foods has been linked to speech and language development. Is there truth in that?
“Absolutely”, says Michelle.
“We focus a lot on the nutritional aspect of weaning, but a huge part of it, as well, is developing the muscle in the mouth and that process we take for granted, when we eat our own meals, of pushing the food to the back of our mouths with our tongue and forming a bolis. That’s what they’re actually trying to learn to do, because they’re used to getting a constant supply of breast milk or formula milk.”
Time is also a factor during meals, and phones and laptops should be set aside. Michelle says: “We would advise: turn off the TV, put away the phones, just you and your baby. All the distractions?
"Get them away. It may be harder to manage for working parents, but a baby will be cautious when you’re introducing new food, even more so if they’re sitting on their own, but if they see their siblings eating the same food, they will follow their example. So, if you can turn off the devices, sit down as a family and enjoy your meal.”
Jennifer says: “I got great tips off Michelle, because, sometimes, I’m a devil for putting on the TV to distract her (Florence) to get it into her and it’s more important for her to see what she’s eating.”
A few years ago, the recommended weaning age was six months, but this has changed to between four and six months.
A search of ‘weaning’ online throws up the ‘Virgin gut’. Michelle hasn’t come across the term and is sceptical about its scientific validity, but says there is some truth in what it relates to — the permeability of the infant gut.
This leads me to gluten and whether or not there is a correlation between its introduction in the infant diet and the development of coeliac disease later on. Michelle says the rate of coeliac disease in Ireland is high and it is recommended that gluten-containing foods be introduced step by step, when weaning starts.
“In the first week, give one portion of gluten every day. The second week give two portions of a gluten-containing food, and the third week give three, and by the fourth week they can have a portion of gluten-containing foods with all their meals. That could be their bread, their Weetabix, some of the baby rices and Milupa cereal, as well; small portions of gluten getting slowly into the diet. Research suggests that this will lower the risk of coeliac disease,” Michelle says.
Breast and formula milk are sweet and babies naturally have a sweet tooth: “Babies will devour any kind of sweet food. If you first give them fruits, like apple and pear, you could find it a little more difficult introducing savoury foods.
"One of my top tips would be to introduce your savoury and bland foods first, your cauliflower, your broccoli, dark green vegetables, your potato and your Milupa pure baby rice. The 5-7-month period is the key period for taste development and that’s when you want to get vegetables into the diet,” Michelle says.
She also recommends soft finger food in the seven- to nine-month period, for taste, texture, and motor skills.
Jennifer identifies with the challenge of sweet foods: “Florence was great until she had her first bloody ice cream and it was all down hill from there.” But she has found creative ways around it: “I make ice pops with carrot and orange juice and try and do alternative things like that, but, again, you want her to know what she’s eating. Michelle gave me a great tip: To try and reward her with activity, instead of something sweet or dessert, after her dinner.”
Portion sizes are also something to be conscious of and Michelle recommends Safe Food Ireland’s portion size guide for children aged one to five, which is available to download (https://www.first1000days.ie/safefood-portion-size-guide/).
She also suggests three meals a day, with two to three healthy snacks in between, as a rough guide.
She says that it is normal for a child to go through fussy periods, and while you should not force particular foods, persistently reintroduce them. She also urges parents not to give a child an alternative meal, if they reject their dinner, because they will not learn to tolerate the variety of tastes early on. She advises not leaving plates of food around for grazing and recommends a maximum milk intake of 300-500mls daily.
So, if Jennifer were to step into the head of her professional alter ego, Bridget, what advice would she give? “She’d probably throw on a crispy fried pancake. I wouldn’t be going into her head for any advice. Oh, the 1980s. It’s amazing how we’re all still alive, isn’t it? I remember getting into a car; there wasn’t even a seatbelt. I wouldn’t go into Bridget or Eamon’s head for any advice. They don’t even know how many kids they have.”