I may have just made a very smart move! Thanks to a link sent by Ashley a few months back, I was introduced to the concept of baby-led weaning. I, like many, was confused at first by the name, thinking it referred to weaning from breast milk.
Weaning, in its broader sense, means the gradual process of moving from a solely breast milk or formula diet to one that includes other foods. Baby-led weaning, also known as baby-led solids, refers to the beginning of this process and putting the baby in the driver’s seat as they encounter solids. Rather than spoon-feeding by the parent, in baby-led weaning, the baby feeds themselves from day one.
There are a couple of theories in play that I should lay out. First is the idea that babies truly become ready for solids at about the 6 month mark. The book Baby-Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods lays out all of the history and research, but in short, babies need no other food besides breast milk or formula for about their first six months. Only around the halfway point of the first year does a baby’s inherited nutrient stores gradually start to deplete, requiring the addition of solid foods. Babies’ stomachs are small and can only handle a finite amount of food. Breast milk or formula packs the most bang for the buck and should be the chief part of a baby’s diet for much of the first year. Babies can only gradually begin to break down solids and starting solids too soon can mean their stomachs are focused more on breaking down the new food, with less room for the more nutritionally superior breast milk or formula.
So that’s the argument for waiting until six months to introduce solids. Baby-led weaning then becomes appropriate, because most babies at this point can sit up and bring things to their mouth. The baby-led weaning approach is a rational one. Let the child learn from the beginning how to feed himself, make the connection between eating and fullness, and determine how much he’s hungry to eat. A breast-fed baby is always in control of their intake, so the baby-led weaning approach seems a natural next step.
I recommend Baby Led Weaning to answer the questions that quickly come to mind:
- What about choking? (Babies have a natural gag reflex that works in alignment with their progressive ability to handle food toward the back of their mouth. As long as they are sitting up, they’ll be fine.)
- What foods can I give? (Most anything, offered in a format that small hands can pick up.)
- What about offering one food at a time? (The book argues that this is not necessary unless allergies run in your family.)
Why did we decide to go this route?
I spoon-fed Jack, making my own purees. I remember it took him a full month (from 6-7 months) before I felt like he was really taking in much. With my second baby, I am a lot more relaxed about this milestone, am confident that my baby primarily needs my milk, and that the introduction of solids is a learning process that will take time. I am attracted to the idea of letting her continue to determine how much she eats so that she develops a healthy association between food and fullness.
And frankly, the idea of making purees and spoon-feeding Cora amidst the busy-ness of life right now seems overwhelming.
So I said I thought I made a smart move. With only one week of experience under my belt, I’m impressed by this approach!
On day one, I held Cora in my lap and gave her sweet potato sticks that I had roasted (nothing on them) in the oven. She grasped one and brought it, like she does everything, to her mouth, made a weird face and starting gnawing. Lesson learned – it’s not going to work to hold her in my lap and have her eat. Too messy.
On day two, we ate lunch outside, and Cora tried out her new sitting up skills eating on a picnic blanket with her brother. I gave her carrot sticks that I had roasted. She had no problem picking them up, but they were more rubbery than the sweet potatoes, so she didn’t get to the flesh as easily. Next time I plan to boil the carrots.
On day three, I put Cora in a high chair and gave her a banana with the skin cut away at the top (like an ice cream cone). She obviously enjoyed gnawing on the banana, but once it popped out of the skin she had more trouble grasping it. After a few days, she is doing better with the banana, but the slippery nature is making this food a little harder to get to her mouth.
On day four, I gave Cora apple slices. These were a big hit. She easily grasped them and bit off pieces. I’m noticing that most of the time when she gets chunks in her mouth, she lets them fall out or coughs them out. I imagine it will take some time for her to learn to bring a chunk to the back of her mouth. Right now she’s enjoying the juice and is definitely taking in some, because I’m seeing it come out the other end.
On day five, we were eating roasted butternut squash ourselves, so I just cut some of the squash into little sticks (like the length of my pinky) and roasted hers without anything on them. These were a big hit. She took some right to her mouth, easily broke the skin, and she was content in her chair for our entire meal and our clean-up, gnawing away. She’d drop them, pick them right back up, and go at it again. It was really fun to watch her explore. Daddy, Mommy, and Jack all enjoyed the free show.
I could imagine that as a first-time mom, I’d be worried whether my baby was taking in enough. I have the experience of knowing that my first took a solid month before he really seemed to be swallowing much solids. I also have done a lot of reading that convinces me that eating is really more of an exploratory activity rather than a nutritional necessity until closer to the first year mark.
The only other downside I’m seeing is that it’s going to be messy! Spoon-feeding is also messy, but since the parent is in the driver’s seat, you are a little more in control of the mess. As any parent knows, once you hand the spoon over (which everyone eventually does), it can get VERY MESSY. I like the notion of embracing the mess now to allow Cora to learn this new skill. If you have a dog, they’ll be in heaven. If you have a toddler (like I do), you’ll find that you don’t really need a dog as long as you embrace the idea that your kids are already sharing their germs. Jack has thought absolutely nothing of picking up Cora’s gnawed on chunks of food. He even smiles and thanks her for sharing. Hey, it’s less mess!
The book definitely makes no claim to inventing the concept of baby-led weaning. It’s an age old approach that was only hidden by more recent trends in infant feeding. It makes a lot of sense to me, and I was excited to have been exposed to the idea when Cora was a newborn. Providing your child with a range of healthy, nutritious foods and giving them the time to explore them, play with them, and learn how to nourish themselves, in theory, will lead to an older child who is a confident eater that has developed the healthy habit of eating only to the point of satiation. I’ll post more updates to let you know whether I find this to be true!