For first-time parents already facing myriad new experiences, the question of when and how to wean their baby can provide further cause for consternation. Under current guidelines, the World Health Organisation recommends breast feeding for the first six months to ensure optimal growth, development and health. However, there is significant support for the idea that the individual needs and development of the baby should play a defining role in determining when solids are introduced.
Once parents have determined that it is the right time to introduce a baby to solid foods, the adventure begins. While weaning techniques and specific ingredients vary across the globe, rice or grain porridge and fruit or vegetable purées are common starting points in many countries.
In China, a rice porridge called xifan is often given to babies before introducing soft, mashed vegetables to the diet, while in South Africa the most frequently puréed foods are sweet potato, butternut squash, pears, apples and guava. It is also common to give babies diluted rooibos (red bush) tea, an ancient, caffeine-free herbal tea that contains high levels of antioxidants and is believed to help relieve stomach cramps and colic in infants.
Caroline Kanaan Kamel is a registered dietitian and nutritionist based at the Advanced Nutrition Centre (ANC) in Dubai's Healthcare City. The mother of one from Lebanon was inspired to start teaching baby-feeding classes after she had her first child and was, because of her professional background, besieged by questions from fellow new mums about what they should be feeding their babies.
During these weekly two-hour sessions, Kamel provides recipes, gives cooking demonstrations, answers questions and advises on all aspects of the weaning process - from when it should begin, to which ingredients should be introduced first and which should be avoided (salt and sugar, for example).
Kamel says that when weaning, sweet potato, carrot, apple and pumpkin purées are an ideal starting point, as are finely mashed bananas and avocados. Making the cooked purées is a simple process: the individual ingredients need to be peeled and chopped before being steamed until soft (to minimise loss of nutrients) and then blended.
"When you first start introducing the baby to ingredients, it is important to do so singularly, as this will allow you to easily identify any allergies and isolate the cause of the problem," she says. "After that, you can begin to combine different flavours." In the early days, Kamel suggests adding a little water to the purées, so that they are very smooth and slightly liquid; as time passes and the baby becomes accustomed to eating, the texture can be left chunkier.
She advises using organic products and recommends the following portion sizes: "When babies are first given solids, they will eat somewhere between a teaspoon and a tablespoon per meal; this should increase to around three-quarters of a cup by the time they are eight or nine months old."
Asia Hildebrand lives in Dubai and started to wean her daughter Layla on to solids at six months old, as per WHO guidelines. "This was also when she really started to develop an interest in food and notice that people around her were eating," she says. Hildebrand and her husband referred to books by Annabel Karmel, the UK's best-selling author on baby and children's food and nutrition, and they used the recipes and weaning calendar in her now classic Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner book. Plain yogurt and puréed apple were both instant hits with Layla.
Kaya Scott, another Briton leaving in Dubai, says that when she started to wean her son Felix, she was surprised at how receptive he was to different flavours and how much he ate. After chatting with friends and family and reading up on the subject - The River Cottage Baby and Toddler Cookbook and books by Gina Ford and Annabel Karmel proved particularly helpful - she began by feeding him "Baby's First Four Grain Porridge" (made from a blend of quinoa, whole-grain millet, rice and amaranth) from the Plum range, as a nutritious alternative to powdered white rice.
"After a few days of porridge, we tried Felix on pear purée and then every couple of days would introduce a new flavour," Scott says, adding that, "although I'm not a rigid 'Gina Ford' mum, I did use her weaning book as a guide - she also recommended alternating between sweet and savoury flavours, so that he wouldn't get a taste for only the sweet stuff. I think this is one of the reasons why Felix loves his food today and isn't fussy."
Anita Ramesh is originally from Malaysia, but has been living in Abu Dhabi for two years. She says that although she did read a number of weaning books before her daughter was born 10 months ago, when it came to introducing Clara to solid foods, she followed her mother's lead. "We started off by giving her really small portions of congee, just as my mother did for my brother and me. Gradually, I began to add various other ingredients to the porridge, such as softly boiled carrots and potatoes or poached chicken pieces," she says.
Similarly, Ganda Nair's son may have been born in Bur Dubai, but his early eating experiences reflect his parents' Indian roots. "When Jacob was about seven or eight months old, we started adding spices to his food. Nothing overly spicy or harsh, just little portions of mashed sweet potato flavoured with cumin and cinnamon or finely puréed lentils with a tiny pinch of coriander."
While the ingredients may vary, the common theme here is that all these parents recognise the importance of preparing food from scratch, rather than relying on pre-made jarred food. Scott says that this was very important to her and her husband. "Some people have laughed at us for being a bit obsessed and making everything ourselves, rather than just heating up the contents of a jar, but we cook a lot anyway and it was actually zero hassle to throw whichever fruit or vegetable we were eating into a steamer and blitz it up."
Kamel's baby-feeding classes are designed to demonstrate just how easy this is. "Purées are incredibly easy to make and provide a great basis. They can be combined in all manner of ways and ingredients can, of course, be added according to personal taste or cultural preferences," she says.
At around the seven-month mark, Kamel recommends introducing babies to proteins such as lentils, chickpeas, rice cereal, millet, salmon and chicken and combining them with different flavoured purées. "Avocado and apple work well together, as do sweet potato and salmon and as the baby starts to eat more, lentils and rice are a good way of adding bulk." She also suggest keeping the fridge well stocked with ripe bananas and avocados, as they can simply be mashed up with a fork to produce instant, nutritious baby food. "Avocado is a great ingredient to feed babies: it contains plenty of healthy fats, is a good source of carbohydrates and can easily be blended to a smooth texture."
As a mother herself, she is realistic about the time constraints facing new parents. "Obviously, it's not feasible to make everything from scratch all the time, but I really do recommend cooking up a batch of different purées once a week and then freezing them individually. That way you've always got options."
For more information about the baby-feeding classes, call Caroline Kanaan Kamel on 04 3622 982. Classes are Dh350 per person