If you are anything like me, you know that one of the most troublesome and intimidating milestones for a new parent is transitioning from breast or bottle to solid food. I remember being terrified by the prospect of the whole ordeal. What food do I start with? Do I buy baby-food, or do I make my own? What do I do if he doesn’t like it? Allergies? Sensitivities? For anyone, including myself, it is a lot think about all at once.
Several weeks before we had considered introducing solid food to Ronan, while spending entirely too much time on the internet, I stumbled across a newer idea called “Baby Led Weaning.” The more I read about it, the more I realized that solid food didn’t have to be stressful or anxiety inducing. I researched more and more until I finally decided that we were going to transition Ronan to solids, and we were going to use Baby Led Weaning. It just seemed to fit.
The method is specifically geared towards allowing a child to begin eating food at their own pace, while simultaneously allowing the child to “lead” their own weaning from the breast, but that doesn’t have to actually be the case! I prefer to think of it as “Baby Led Feeding,” as any child (breast or bottle fed) can be offered food this way. While it is radically different from the methods we are used to seeing and hearing, it actually makes a lot of sense.
Let me go back a little bit.
Way back, waaaaaaaaaaaay back (ha!) when our parents were feeding us for the very first times, things were different. Solids were started at 4, and 3, and 2 months old… and earlier! My mom told me she started my oldest brother on cereal at 3 weeks old. Our parents didn’t have the benefit of the high-grade formulas that are available today, and many women didn’t breastfeed. Cereal was started to introduce foods early enough to increase baby’s iron intake, as well as to have an alternate source of food such that malnutrition wouldn’t become a problem.
When solids were started this early, they had to be finely pureed and spooned deeply into the back of the mouth to circumvent the “tongue thrust” reflex. (That’s the one that stops our babies from choking on things they shouldn’t be putting in their mouths – if it doesn’t belong there, the tongue will thrust it right back out again!) Foods were also very bland – rice cereal, bananas and sweet potatoes – because they needed to be easy on an infants tummy. Don’t you remember watching as moms would spoon some cereal into an open mouth, and catch over half of it as it was pushed back out? Then spoon it back in again? This was done over and over as new baby foods were introduced.
Fast forward a few months. Mommy starts making the purees chunkier and chunkier, because baby is used to solids enough now that we need to introduce some real texture. This is what prepares early solid infants for transitioning to finger-food. The tongue thrust reflex starts to weaken, and babies become able to bring food items from their plate to their mouths. More and more food choices are introduced, and the “pincer grasp” is being perfected. (That’s the one that allows baby to pick up a cheerio between two fingers and place it in his or her mouth.) At this point, baby has been eating pureed solids for many weeks. This may even be months and months from when mommy originally introduced her first cereal. We are getting closer to the five and six month mark.
Now let’s take a look at today.
Things are a little different. Okay, a LOT different. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that a baby be given breast or bottle for the first year of life, delaying solids until after the 6th month. (The World Health Organization says breast milk plus foods until TWO!) Suddenly, mommas aren’t starting solids at two and three months old. We are encouraged to wait for the cessation of the tongue thrust reflex, told that baby should be able to sit unassisted with good head control. We are to watch for an interest in food and the development of a pincer grasp before we even being thinking about offering solids.
This makes a big difference!
Our babies aren’t starting solids young enough to need purees anymore. They are starting when our momma’s little ones were being transitioned on to finger foods and table foods. Doesn’t it then make sense that we can probably skip over the cereal/puree phase, and begin with finger and table foods immediately? A six month old is a six month old, give or take a few weeks of development, right?
Enter BABY LED FEEDING!
I’m going to try lay it out for you as clearly as I can. Baby led weaning/feeding is the process by which we allow our children to EXPLORE foods at their own pace, giving them the opportunity to figure out how to taste, chew, and swallow. The main principles behind this method are as follows:
- A baby will not be able to pick up an item of food if he or she is not ready to eat it.
- A baby will not be able to put said item of food into his or her mouth if he or she is not ready to eat it.
- A baby will not be able to move food item to the back of his or her mouth in order to chew and swallow it if he or she is not ready to eat it.
It is THAT SIMPLE.
So what does this mean, then?
It means that if you are ready to start your baby on solid foods, instead of cereal or a puree, you begin with big, soft chunks of food that are easily held, easily chewed and easily swallowed (like avocado, bananas, softened apples or carrots, fingers of toast, and cheerios!) Also, there is no reason to delay introducing meats with baby led weaning/feeding, as they typically can’t be chewed until there are teeth. If you give a big enough hunk of chicken or beef, baby can gum and suck and get all the taste and texture of meat without having to worry about chewing or choking. This leads to much less food refusal in the future.
However… here is the catch! You CANNOT help your baby eat the food! Why not? Check out the principles outlined above. If you are helping your baby eat, you are skipping essential learning phases, and potentially assisting your child to eat food that he or she may not be ready to eat. This means that food is put on a highchair tray, and baby is closely monitored, and that’s it. There will be a lot of grabbing, a lot of food dropping, tons of smooshy stuff all over faces, and very little food that actually makes it into the mouth.
This is Ronan’s VERY first experience with solid food: Avocado.
Notice how he didn’t even ATTEMPT to get it to his mouth.
But what about choking?
I know, I know. It seems like you might as well be offering your kid a marble or some quarters. But here’s the thing… if they’re not ready for it, it WONT make it to their mouth! Food has to make it all the way to the back of the throat to be aspirated, and that takes a lot of skill! If you aren’t forcing it there with a spoon, it probably wont get there until the child has learned really good and well how to move it there. Also? Gums are meant for chewing. I know it seems counter-intuitive to give your child something to ‘chew’ when they have little to no teeth, but have you ever had your finger ‘bitten’ by those gums? They HURT! And they can mash food nearly as well as molars.
We’re going to look at one more thing here. Gagging.
If you give your baby a piece of avocado, and that avocado manages to make it into the mouth, and baby isn’t ready for it yet? Cue gagging. Gagging is scary. It looks a lot like choking – but it’s NOT choking. Baby will gag that piece of food right back up to the front of the mouth, and continue chewing/sucking on it until he or she IS ready to try swallowing it. It can be hard to watch, and hard to trust your baby that gagging is okay. But it really is okay. If the piece of food is too large, you can help out by pulling it out, but most of the time baby will fix things without any assistance. Being aware that gagging will occur actually makes it easier to handle when it happens.
Here is Ronan’s first experience with gagging. Also with Avocado.
(Same sitting, different slice of avocado.)
He gagged a little. And then a little more. I removed the chunk that was too big, and everything was fine!
Here are a couple of my favorite baby led feeding bonuses:
- Babies that are introduced to food through baby led weaning/feeding almost never have taste or texture issues with food. They are some of the best eaters out there.
- When feeding with this method, you can feed your child entirely (or nearly entirely) with table food that the rest of your family is already eating. No need for expensive or time consuming purees, store bought or home made!
- Baby led weaning/feeding is MESSY, but it’s a whole lot of fun. Babies enjoy it, and most moms and dads love watching their little ones explore food.
- You may not be sure how much food your baby is swallowing, if ANY at all, until you start seeing changes in poops. It can actually make a poopy diaper exciting!
Now, here is my BIG DISCLAIMER:
A CHILD BEING INTRODUCED TO FOOD IN THIS MANNER MUST BE MONITORED AT ALL TIMES WHILE EATING. This is not a method that allows you to plop your child down in a highchair, throw some food on the tray, and walk away to do the dishes. Think about the time you would spend spooning food from a bowl to mouth – the same ATTENTION level is required here. As a matter of fact, this method allows the child to be at the table with the rest of the family during meals, thereby allowing both parents to enjoy their food with their children.
Some questions I have been asked in the past:
“If you allow your child to pick what they want to eat, wont they only choose the sweeter, better foods that they like?”
You aren’t actually allowing your child to pick what they want… you are giving them very specific foods to eat. You may start with banana, and then offer toast, then move on to avocado, and then chicken. As baby gets older, you can start offering more than one food item per meal, and baby will usually pick them up and try them all indiscriminately. They aren’t choosing what they like, they are learning what they are eating. You probably also shouldn’t offer ice-cream or candy as a first food. Just saying.
“What about spoons? How do you feed foods that require a spoon?”
You can handle this one any way you like. Go ahead and feed applesauce and yogurt! Babies love them, and they make a nice treat. We actually delayed the introduction of spoon-required foods until Ronan was old enough to hold a spoon, and let him feed himself. SERIOUSLY MESSY, but he was entirely self-fed by 13 months old. It’s a bit of give and take with what you want to achieve… if you don’t want a mess, go ahead and feed your baby. If you don’t mind cleaning up the mess, let them enjoy it a little.
“Seems like you waste a lot of food that way.”
Yeah. You probably do waste some food this way. But in the long run? A hunk of avocado, a quarter of a banana, a few cheerios? It’s not significant food waste, and it’s lost in the name of teaching your child to learn to love food, and to enjoy eating. We’ve had very little problem with ‘table tantrums’ and food being thrown off of the high chair at later ages, so it probably balances out!
“Isn’t it messy?”
In a word? YES.
If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in comments! I will address them as best I can.