Solid Foods: Letting Baby Lead the Introductions
by Kerry Longia
When we talk of introducing solid food to babies, many of us may make instant associations with spoons, purees, mashing and jars. Some of us might think of struggles with feeding, confusion over portion sizes and nutritional balance, and maybe even food sensitivities and allergies.
There is another way to guide a young child into the exciting world of culinary delights; a gentle, healthier approach (1) which also happens to be easier. It’s called Baby Led Weaning (I’ll refer to this henceforth as “BLW”), and it’s a new name for an old idea. Put simply, when baby is ready for solids, you offer a range of healthy foods at each sitting for her to choose from by herself. She plays, she squishes, she explores.
So, when exactly will your little one be ready for solids? Parents have been encouraged, over the past fifty years or so, to expect that their babies will be ready after only three or four months. This is unlikely to be the case(2). While there is no set age for starting food (it depends on the baby), there are certainly some very clear signs to look for. The most important will be that your baby is able to sit unaided. A significant sequence of development occurs between birth and this milestone (3), and only by this milestone will baby have lost the tongue-thrust reflex (which results in foreign objects being pushed out of the mouth to protect against choking), and her intestine be ready to receive food other than mother’s milk. By this stage, baby will be able to hold and gnaw at something in her hand, and will also be showing a keen interest in food (nb: plenty of babies are keenly interested in absolutely everything from a very early age – never take this as your only sign of readiness). As a general guideline, babies are usually physically ready for solids somewhere between six and nine months of age. We introduced our son to solids a little after eight months – when we were very happy that his body was ready – and found that there was absolutely no downside to waiting until then.
Now you’ve established that baby is ready and chomping at the proverbial (or actual) bit, you may want to know which foods are best to offer. The answer, for at least the first few months, is to give him simple, natural food that he can explore and have fun with(4). His brand new sensitive taste buds will delight at the simplest things. Therefore, vegetables (steamed broccoli, beans, carrots, squash, cabbage, potato, etc.) and fruit (pears, melon, apricots, peaches, bananas, etc.) will be sufficient for many weeks. Research also suggests that if you offer unseasoned/unprocessed food in the early months, baby will quickly develop a natural awareness (through taste and seeing the real colours of food) of what is good for his body(5). He will then select the foods he needs to supply certain vitamins/minerals.
I have heard some parents suggest that babies should be offered one particular vegetable or fruit before another. Some even go so far as to say that carrots are best to start with. However, as long as foods are unseasoned and in as raw or natural a state as possible, no one food needs to be considered a best ‘first food’. Another common belief is that babies should be spoon-fed infant cereal, as it is fortified with iron. In fact, the iron found in baby cereals is electrolytic iron which is not easily absorbed(6), and should not therefore be considered a better alternative to naturally occurring iron in breastmilk (or naturally occurring iron in home-made whole grain cereal, for instance). In any event, as long as the breastfeeding mother isn’t anaemic and has a balanced diet, there is little chance that the baby is at risk from low iron stores for the first year of life (after that you can offer more of the iron-rich foods such as lentils, whole grains, dried fruit, beans and quinoa).
It is, of course, important to be aware of what foods to steer clear of in the early months. We put off the introduction of honey, peanuts, eggs, cow’s milk and particularly acidic foods (tomatoes, citrus) until our son was around a year old, on the basis that these foods can cause reactions or illness in some babies. However, by taking the BLW path, we also knew that our son’s body was ready for food, and he’d be less likely to react to anything he ate. It has long since been established that the early introduction of solids can damage the lining of the gut and thus provoke reactions such as sensitivities or allergies(7) (though some allergies are genetic or otherwise inherent, and may be present whether your baby is ready for other solids or not).
You will probably find, as we did, that the large proportion of food gets played with and not eaten in the first couple of months or more. This is to be expected, and is a positive result of the BLW process for your baby. She will treat food items like new toys, and it will take her system a while to ‘realise’ that what she’s smearing on her face has nutritional value. If you can manage to relax at mealtimes, this will be of tremendous benefit to you and your child. She will learn that food is not something to be worried about, and that her natural instinct and ability to control what and how much she eats is being respected. Babies rely almost exclusively on breastmilk to fulfill their dietary needs until at least 12 months of age, so there’s time to ease yourselves in. Treat the early months as a playful introduction to the amazing world of food, and let your baby enjoy herself. By doing so, you are also significantly decreasing the likelihood of her developing an eating disorder in later life; instead, she will foster a healthy relationship with food. When she is ready to eat more, she will do so.
We began by offering one meal a day for a week or two, and gradually increased the number of meals as we saw fit. This was great; our son was very excited to be an active part of dinner time, and my husband and I were most impressed at finally being able to sit down and eat with no interruptions! (On many occasions we just sat back and watched him in delight, which we counted as a welcome interruption.) This was truly the beginning of shared family meals for us; we shared the same food at the same table and ate all at the same time. We would include a cup of water and a spoon for our son to play with himself – this was inevitably messy for a short while, but so much fun too, and he would mimic what we were doing with our glasses and utensils. The foods we started off with, like those I suggested above, were simple and natural. However, since we were the only people we knew at the time who were doing BLW, and there was little publicity about it then, I wanted to keep track of what we were offering in case of reaction or genetic/inherent allergy. I kept a food log for about four or five weeks, and this was a useful practice which made me feel comfortable, though now when I think back, I smile a little at my caution.
Finally, a couple of things to point out: the first is how BLW complements breastfeeding. Most parents now acknowledge that breastfeeding-on-demand is the best way to feed your young child. Besides all the many other benefits, it means that your baby’s nutritional needs are met in the quantity and frequencies desired by – yes – the baby. BLW runs alongside breastfeeding very effectively, as it is also based on giving the baby freedom of choice. In just the same way as breastfeeding, baby will eat until he has had enough and will then simply stop eating (whereas if you’re spoon-feeding, you may not be quite as sure when he’s reached his limit). In practicing BLW, you are effectively handing over the reigns, albeit gradually, to your baby. Later in life, his eating experiences are likely to be as nourishing and enjoyable to him as breastfeeding once was, because he was always allowed to eat freely, and with no pressure. Another breastfeeding-related point is that the word ‘weaning’ implies a weaning from the breast, though BLW’s proponents suggest it should more accurately be thought of in this case as a weaning on to food.
The second is a note on choking: you may hear, as we did, many objections to BLW on the basis that it can cause choking. In fact, as long as baby is ready for solids, and as long as you provide a safe environment (don’t let him eat lying down), he will have about as much chance of choking on food as you do. Spoon feeding is more likely to lead to choking as baby learns to drink/inhale food instead of chew it, so when lumps are introduced, baby may inhale lumps and choke(8). Choking is not to be confused with coughing or gagging (both of which are important reflexes that baby has to look after himself; in either case, there’s no need to intervene – just keep a careful eye). We waited to offer whole grapes, nuts and such delights as raw carrots/celery until our son was a little older.
There are now many chatrooms/blogs/Facebook groups and books to read on the subject of BLW. If you decide to set out on this exciting adventure, I wish you well; you will be surprised and pleased with the results, and so will your child (and, in fact, so will many people you encounter; it really is wonderful to watch a baby picking up her own food). And parents everywhere can be glad we never have to practice our ‘here-comes-the-aeroplane-with-beseeching-eyes’ routine.
Kerry Longia lives with husband Kam and two children in Collingwood, Vancouver. She enjoys walking, being outside in nature, and sharing food with family and friends. She believes that her family’s practice of baby led weaning has contributed to their collective enjoyment of delicious food from around the world.