Food. This is always a hot topic among mommas once their infants reach a certain age. We hear all kinds of “helpful” advice, most of which conflicting. In fact, one common bit of advice we receive comes from our doctors and is in direct conflict with American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization guidelines: start feeding infants rice cereal at three or four months of age. Despite the prevalence of this practice, both aforementioned associations advise breastmilk, (or formula if necessary), exclusively for the first six months and then “the introduction of complementary foods” (AAP 2012). Dare I say that rice cereal doesn’t compliment anything?
I’m not here to debate the merits of this (essentially debunked) practice, but instead, introduce another approach to bringing your child to the table. It’s called Baby Led Weaning and essentially, it means encouraging your child to feed themselves from the start of their eating careers. Allowing them exposure to food through watching others and allowing them to dictate when they are ready to start experimenting themselves – typically this is around six months of age. With BLW, babies are given “normal” food from the very get-go, cut into manageable, generally French fry-sized pieces, and therefore learning the tastes, textures, skills, an d reflexes associated with food without first learning about purees (which let’s be honest, does not exactly teach them anything about how we experience food in the real world).
There are books, blogs, articles, forums, and experienced moms who will all give the-same-but-different versions of what BLW means to them. The bottom line is that the mush is skipped and the baby has some level of control over what they experience and ultimately learn. To me, the key word here is “learn.” Isn’t that the goal? We want our children to learn about food and eating in a way that will translate into healthy and comfortable habits as they grow older. The importance of food in our lives, and the unhealthy habits held by so many people in our society right now, should not be ignored.
So this is what BLW means to me.
Both my husband and I fortunately grew up in families which took the tradition of dinnertime very seriously. Elisa was bought to the table with us for meals almost as soon as she was born and sat next to us in the high chair starting at around three months. We’d offer her a toy and include her in our conversations. It was a practice she became used to and around seven months, she started expressing interest in our food. I began slowly by giving her foods such as avocado, applesauce, and bananas, (to this day she will not eat them). She clearly enjoyed tasting and playing. After a few days, I moved onto slightly overcooking whatever veggies we were eating that day; I did not mash them, but they were always softer than normal. Within a week or two, I started giving her small portions of whatever was on our plate. She wasn’t eating full meals by any stretch, I didn’t expect it and I didn’t try feeding her more. She played and she put her fingers in her mouth and experienced the flavors. Slowly, and this took months, she started eating more and more. I never pushed it and I never gave her anything which made me uncomfortable, but for example she bit chicken off a bone when she was probably ten months old. She ate spicy food, garlic, and all other textures and flavors. If her habits as a toddler are any indication, she has two foods she doesn’t like and have remained consistent (eggs and bananas), but otherwise eats nearly an adult portion at every meal. This began around 15 months.
Not only did we offer Elisa normal food, we also always gave her silverware. No, she could not operate a spoon at seven months old, but she associated it with food and always tried her best. Even still at age two, she is no expert, but she knows what utensils are for and if she is struggling with her fork, she’ll ask for a spoon to try instead. She has been able to eat a bowl of cereal or yogurt by herself since 18 months. She has also always drunk out of a cup without a lid, (of course not walking around the house or in the car, I’m not insane). Do I think she would never have picked up these skills had I not introduced them early? Of course not. But I saw no reason not to expose her to realistic food situations from the very start.
One thing I observed is that we have had no scary choking situations. In my experience, and I’ve heard this from other proponents of BLW, babies will recognize their gag reflex very early if given the opportunity. I didn’t step in when Elisa had something in her throat. She learned immediately that allowing food to go too far back into her throat caused discomfort and she figured out how to manipulate her tongue and get it out. To her, food was always chewable so there was no transition from her having first learned that all food is mushy. From the very start, she would feel it move back on her tongue, spit it out into her hand, and put it back and try again. Watching her process was fascinating for me really because without my guidance, she recognized what needed to happen. If she put something in her mouth that was too large, she would remove it before it had a chance to roll back her tongue. If something moved back before she had a chance to chew, she’d remove it and start over.
Elisa expects now to be pulled up to a table with other people for, at the very least, one major meal per day. She requested to be taken out of the high chair and sit with us, (we have a booster), when she was just shy of a year. She eats a variety of foods and textures many adults I know aren’t exposed to. One thing I have also observed is that she will control what she eats based on her own needs. I like to make sure she eats a balanced diet through the course of a week, not just a day. She’s eaten a full pound of green beans for dinner before without touching anything else on her plate, but won’t eat a green for days after. She’s eaten two chicken breasts in a sitting, but won’t touch the stuff the next day. Mornings when she has cereal or toast for breakfast, she is more likely to ask for fruit as a snack. Overall, I’ve found that BLW made feeding and introducing food to our daughter easy. It didn’t require a transition from baby to toddler, but instead, she has just had a steady learning progression from playing to eating and now learning manners. Most importantly, she eats a balanced diet, without being forced, and is not fussy in regards to tastes, textures, or mealtimes.