It’s been so long since I’ve had (what felt like) the time to type out a blog post! The last edition was during my pregnancy, and our beautiful daughter is now an 8 month old. Go ahead, slap my wrists, I deserve it… Good, now that that’s out of the way… Allow me to share our experience with baby-led weaning so far.
First of all, let me briefly explain what this practice is in case you’re not familiar. With the insurgence of formula, came the suggestion that babies be fed pureed “solids” between the ages of 3-4 months. This is no longer the current recommendation by pediatricians. In fact, even the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends delaying solids until six months of age and offering breast-milk (when this is possible) for a minimum of a year. Starting solid food early is an outdated concept (and even shown now to be potentially harmful), but sadly the idea that infants require “easier” foods has not dissolved along with it (this is where pureed foods came into play, originally). At around six months of age, babies are far more capable than a 3-4 month old to put their hands to their mouth, explore with their tongues,and sit in a safe position for eating. There is so much more I could continue on about as it relates to this subject, but I hope to make this post somewhat more brief than its predecessors. <or, not>.
Per the BLW guidelines, an infant is ready to begin solid, whole (not pureed or blended) foods when they meet these criteria:
- Baby is a minimum of 6 months of age (adjust for gestational age, if you feel that may be appropriate for your child). Age is just as important as developmental “readiness,” when the virgin gut of young infants is taken into account.
- Baby shows a strong interest in your mealtimes, such as by grabbing for food from your plate.
- Baby has an absence of the tongue-thrust reflex. You will see signs of the tongue-thrust reflex in young babies as a safety mechanism when anything that comes in contact with the tongue causes baby to gag and/or push food out of the mouth automatically (this is part of what makes spoon-feeding dangerous). This area on the tongue gets further and further back as baby ages, and is essentially lost around 5-7 months.
- Baby is able to sit-up unassisted for a period of time. This is important as the airway can become closed off if the child’s head were to fall forward. Sitting upright is also the safest position for proper swallowing in order to prevent choking.
- Baby has the motor skills to be able to make chewing motions (even in the absence of teeth) and grasp food, putting it to their mouth.
We began introducing solids at her adjusted age of six months. For over a month prior, she was showing signs that, to anyone not familiar with BLW (baby-led weaning), would appear to be readiness and desire for solid foods. Whenever she would see us eating, she’d stare and fuss. Whenever I had a plate on my lap, she would reach for the food on it. She put everything to her mouth, she held her core quite well, and didn’t appear to have much of a tongue-thrust reflex remaining (that I could tell). I was so very tempted to let her have a bite of something, but instead rented the book Baby-Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods-and Helping Your Baby to Grow Up a Happy and Confident Eater from my local library. I had known before she was born that we would be skipping processed and jar-foods. At this stage, I simply wasn’t aware of all the ins and outs of what BLW encompassed.
I am SO grateful that this book was available to me. It far exceeded my expectations of how much detail it would offer, and it felt to be a trove of knowledge that gave me the confidence in my choices going forward. When it was finally time for her to be able to start solids, we decided to go with organic avocado. I did this for two reasons. Firstly, because it had a soft texture and was full of healthy fats needed for brain growth at this age. Secondly, because I intentionally did not wish to start her with something sweet, like banana. In my personal theory, children who are not aware of cake (for example) do not crave cake. Certainly, they will come to an age where they see cake at a birthday party, at which point that will be a bridge to cross when we come to it. For now, she is only aware of the foods we purchase and offer, and so I feel it is my duty to offer what is best for her in a way that will nurture a lifelong desire and appreciation for fruits and vegetables. For this reason, it was important for me to offer her a first food that would not be so very sweet that she would expect all of the foods thereafter to be just as sweet. In fact, we still offer her more vegetables than we do fruit, or at least a 50/50 balance.
The result of this has been an infant that has loved broccoli from the first time she took a bite. She’s now eaten everything from artichoke to zucchini, including clementines (a real favorite), mushroom, zucchini, apricot, strawberries, black beans (mashed), cabbage and more.
She loves it all! It’s such fun to see the look on her face when she willingly tries a brand new flavor, inspects it with her fingers and her tongue, and tests out the textures. I’ve also felt it enhances the bond between a mother and her child, in that a) it fosters her own independence with the knowledge that she is allowed to feed herself and know her body to stop when she is full. With spoon-feeding, a certain weight is carried for baby to eat a “certain amount” of the jar, or to trust implicitly whatever unknown flavor is being put into her mouth today. Additionally b), it fosters her trust in me when I consistently offer her things she finds to be edible and pleasing. She is developing a healthy relationship with trying unknown whole foods, and developing a healthy relationship of trust with me and her own instincts. What’s not to love?
As of now, she is still primarily breastfed as I have not noticed any milk feedings being replaced. For the first many months to even the first year, babies are more playing with their food, rather than eating it.They don’t yet realize that solids can “fill” their tummy. This is okay, as an oz of breastmilk is still far more nutritionally dense than an oz of green beans. The purpose of BLW is not essentially to wean the child, but rather to offer them a platform to safely learn to eat and explore foods. An important facet of BLW is to always nurse/bottle-feed the child prior to any solids. This keeps baby from becoming frustrated if they are hungry, and also first gives them the most important nutrients from milk. Remember, food before one is (mostly) just for fun!
Could I go on and on? Suuuure. Instead of doing that, though, I will offer my number two (okay, three) tips, my number two pros, and my number two cons for BLW.
- Slippery and wet foods are very difficult for young babies to grasp. A well-intentioned slice of mango popping out of his/her tiny had can become very frustrating for a little one. For things like avocado, cucumber, pears, or apple, this crinkle cutter is perfect for making little grip-friendly finger sized grooves! We found ours on Amazon. It is sharp, but safe, and also excellent if you intend to practice Montessori parenting wherein older children are encouraged to use crinkle cutters like this one as a “first knife.” Other options are to cut a hole into the center of things like apples so they can hold it like a ring, and even leaving the peel on helps the baby grip foods a bit easier.
- Read. The. Book. Read it all. Don’t just join a Facebook group (trust me, they are riddled with misinformation), don’t just assume “feeding real food” is the basic knowledge needed and you’re done. You truly won’t regret reading it. It’s a fast read, and an informative one on so many levels. There are many small details needed for the most complete information, and you will truly benefit from the confidence you receive after reading all of the important nitty-gritty. You will trust in your reasons, you will trust in the safety of it, and you will trust in your child. Please, please read it.
- Be prepared to start eating the way you always told yourself you would. You know, all those plans to cut out sugar, junk food, and sodas? You will have far more success if baby can eat exactly what you eat. The food off your plate will be far more desirable to baby than the “special” food on his/her plate. For the first month or so you may be able to get away with giving baby food that’s just for him, but that will not be a lasting way to keep baby interested in healthy foods. It’s best for the whole family to clean up their diet, and to practice what we as parents like to preach. It’s truly a benefit to BLW that everyone starts to eat a little healthier for the sake of baby. Win/Win!
- Let’s be honest. BLW is Messy with a capital M. It will require far less patience than spoon-feeding, but far more clean-up. Babies find a way to get food scraps into crevices you didn’t even know existed! We purchased a sleeved bib like this one. More often than not, we’ve found that our little one focuses better when not in her chair but rather when we eat sitting on the floor together, so I’ll lay out a receiving blanket to eat on in just a diaper. We’ll then either initiate a good wipe-down with a cloth or a bath if it’s near bedtime anyway. Just toss the blanket in the wash and done. 🙂
- Backlash. What would we do without having our confidence undermined as parents? While BLW is considered non-traditional, it’s actually purees, rice cereal, and jar foods that are the newcomers.Commercial baby food was not around until the late 1920s, which means that mothers have been giving their little ones real food for many many a year prior to only the 20th century. The main thing I hear is concern about choking, as would be expected. “Aren’t you afraid she’ll choke on that??” Let me tell you why I am especially assured: a) Spoon-feeding goes against the tongue-thrust reflex and so it actually can induce choking and coughing. Rather, a child that feels a food in it’s mouth that is too large to swallow properly, will typically cough and clears his/her throat by their own instinct. These are important tools to have as now baby will have learned to reject a food from his mouth far earlier than a spoon-fed baby that did not have the chance to learn until perhaps many months older. My only advice is to know why you believe what you do (this applies to so, so many other things as well), and don’t feel ashamed to respectfully educate anyone concerned. Remember, your unique way of doing things may be the first they’ve ever seen or heard of such a thing, and respectful discussion on the topic can open eyes. You may not bring everyone over to the fold, but you will plant seeds for some (maybe for their next baby). By proxy, you will be reminding them that it is acceptable to trust their momma/daddy instincts, and that no pediatric recommendation can replace our natural drives.
- Can you imagine being a baby, understanding very little of the world, and having an indeterminable glob of goo shoved in your mouth when you’re not familiar yet with tastes and textures? I don’t know about your child, but mine loves to pick things up, look them over, inspect them, pop them in her mouth, and I can see all her wheels turning as she does it. By allowing her this freedom, I also allow her to develop a confidence in her decision making and personal preferences. As of yet, she has yet to dislike even ONE food I’ve offered her (if at first you don’t succeed or baby seems unsure, continue to present it!). She has a confidence in me as well, in that whatever I’m bringing over on the plate is not something she wishes to reject. Some babies develop an anxiety around eating when they’ve been disliking what they’ve been forcefully given, as they’re not sure what’s coming this time. They’ll turn their heads, clamp their jaws, and other antics I’m sure most have seen at some point or another. Your little one develops a healthy relationship with food as well by being allowed to choose when they’ve had enough (I don’t always have the exact same appetite on any given day, do you?), and when they’re not all that interested. By not forcing a certain amount or choosing what to put in their mouth for them, you are allowing them to learn when their tummy says “enough,” or even “no, thank you, maybe later.”I was also raised with “finish what’s on your plate,” and struggle with that standard. Perhaps a better mantra would be “take just what you think you’ll eat…you can always take more if you’re still hungry.” Many adults in standard America could stand to have a better idea of when they’re full and when they’re hungry. Unfortunately, we’re in a “more is better” society, and our empty/full tank light is a bit on the fritz.
- We have no struggle in this house when it comes to food. Eating time is a fun time, as it should be. With purees and cereals you may find that tantrums, fussing and food strikes are commonplace. My daughter is excited to see what we have in store for that meal, and happily explores everything on the plate. BLW is not meant to replace nursing/formula, and so I do not have to worry about “is she getting enough food?” or “is she spitting out too much?” She eats what we eat, and so the additional cost is negligible (compare to the cost of G*rber). I don’t have to worry about her nutrition, as her solids are not meant to replace calories, but rather to complement them. By starting solids around six months, she will be well aware of how to properly eat nutritious, whole foods when the time comes that breastmilk is not enough for her. It has been such a pleasure to watch her develop her fine motor skills, and to also watch her learn to trust and enjoy these beautiful foods.
I could continue on, and I’ll admit that I failed in my attempt to make this a short post. <wink> It is easy to be passionate on a topic when you see your child thriving and developing because of it. I’m thankful for my husband, who helps me to prepare our meals many times (he is the master of gently steaming cabbage). It is important to have a support system if you can find it. Talk with your spouse/partner/significant other/friend/parent/whomever about your thoughts if you’re thinking to transition. Gather some facts. Check out this article on KellyMom for a good start on information. And don’t forget: read the book! I promise you’ll love it and it will give you the confidence you and your baby deserve for the most healthful start in life.