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Baby led what-now?
Baby led weaning is something I spend most of my time discussing with new Mums when I do talks on nutrition and starting solids. There is a lot of confusion around what it is and how to do it, which I blame on the term itself “baby led weaning”. It sounds weird! It’s basically just the term for letting baby feed themselves with real food which has not been made into a purée or mush.
Why is it so controversial?
Up until a generation ago, the generally accepted way to start solids looked a little like this:
Outdated: Start at 4 months, or there were a few outdated myths which peopled believed: Start before 4 months if baby was too big, too small, weighed a magic number, was a boy, didn’t sleep well, had reflux, wanted to wean off bottle/breastfeeding.
Outdated: Start with rice cereal and then purée pumpkin, avocado, banana, pear, silver beet or a funky combination of two or three of these foods. Add rice cereal to them. Put rice cereal in baby’s bottle.
Outdated: My plunket book (I’m 28) advises that if food is too bland, add salt. If baby does not take their bottle, add sugar. As if this isn’t scandalous enough, my husband (34) was started on rice cereal in his formula at TWO DAYS OLD because he was “a hungry boy”. My oh my, how far we have come in only one generation. We have research to guide us to make better decisions. My MIL said in those days, plunket advised formula before bed to “help baby sleep” and to keep baby on a strict routine of feeding every four hours, they didn’t believe in cluster or demand feeding. If baby was hungry in between this time, baby needed formula with just a little rice cereal.
If this was typical in those days, you can see why our parents are so worried about how differently we do things these days.
Recent: Where possible, exclusively breastfeed for six months. This is when we know babies tummy should be ready for food and their caloric needs usually exceed what breastmilk alone can provide. However, continue to breastfeed as breastmilk or formula is still your babies main source of nutrition. Milk before food, 20min wait, if that works for you, is how it goes in ideal-land. In reality, you might give baby food when you’re eating and continue to breastfeed on demand – or is that just me? Babies iron stores which they were born with are also said to be starting to run low at six months, so top that up.
Recent: Start with meat and veg. Carrot, parsnip, chicken and beef were my babies first foods. We did try banana however as my little girl had constipation problems early on, it really wasn’t a good choice for her. I’m going to talk about poo now, like all Mums do, her poo went bright green when eating banana. I’ll spare you the picture I took of it! Banana and avocado are not great first foods for a baby because they can really block their poor little guts up. Personally, I’d go with vege over fruit in the beginning because you have an advantage when they’re little to feed them almost anything, when they become toddlers they’ll likely become fruit monsters devouring all fruit in sight and refuse vegetables. Make vegetables normal early on.
So, currently plunket and the ministry of health here in NZ don’t recommend baby led weaning. It is gaining popularity with such huge momentum that Otago University have sat up and paid attention (and the required money it takes to do research). They’re doing a study on it which will hopefully show the benefits of baby led weaning and that it is safe to do.
The gag reflex: Babies are amazing. They are built differently to us adults, they can breathe and drink milk at the same time before a valve closes their throats, they just know how to swim underwater and their skulls are made up of four bones instead of just one so that they can fit through the birth canal. Babies are built to survive their time as babies so they do things a little differently to adults. They have an amazing gag reflex. It’s function is to push and move food around the mouth, sometimes it is vomited or spat out after a gag. A gag is different to a choke, choking is when a foreign object (let’s not just pick on food) is lodged in babies throat blocking airways. Gagging is normal. When baby first starts solids, you might notice the gag reflex happening a lot, this is because baby is learning about food. As baby gets better at biting, chewing and swallowing then baby will use the gag reflex less and less. Do supervise baby around food, purée or whole, regardless.
How do I go about baby led weaning? If baby ever grabs at your food, if baby eats off your plate or picks up your spoon well hey guess what, you’re baby led weaning already! Babies learn a lot about the world around them by putting everything they can get their hands on in their mouth. Simply place fingers of food in front of baby and watch the messy magic begin! You could do lightly blanched carrots, parsnips etc or chicken breast cut into strips, my fave is to roast a tray of vegetables up and let baby at three or so peices at a time. I also do rump steak a lot, because it’s cost effective, either in the slow cooker or a stew. You can let baby eat anything this way, an example is recently my baby ate some of a chicken wrap I was eating because she just grabbed it while I as holding her in my lap at a friends house. Her strength surprised me, I could hardly get it back off her! When we do soups or bone broths etc. Hubby likes to load up a spoon and she feeds herself, he has asked me to put in his two cents which is “bigger food is better because they can nom on it but small food is too small and they can’t bite suitable sizes off properly”. Thanks hubby. So, strips not cubes in the beginning in his experience with two kids.
This is a pic of meal prep:My baby Daisy is in such a rush to grow up. She is tiny for her age but crawled at 4.5months. I was so excited to start solids with her and I had it all planned out. At 5.5months I saw her under my sons dining table, sitting on the splashmat doing what I thought was chasing a toy train. Well, no, she was helping herself to the gluten free weetbix with rice milk he dropped and seriously, she was so pleased with herself! So it wasn’t pumpkin cooked for her with love at six months. Just like all things in parenting, it might not go the way you imagined.
Some people do omelette, fish, salad, stir fries, mini meatballs, mini muffins, pancakes etc. My advice is to start with roast veg and as your confidence grows, you will naturally move onto trying different foods. Keep in mind that baby is new to food and eating so something which may seem bland to you might not be so boring to baby. It could even be overwhelming. Baby is learning about smell, taste, texture, biting, chewing, swallowing and Also about trajectory and throwing things from their high chairs. If baby rejects a food, keep casually offering it until they take it. My son hated banana as a baby, hated it like it was a hot coal bursting into flames or something equally as dramatic, then at 15 months he decided he quite liked it and at age two he threw a very public tantrum over a banana at the markets. So they can come around to food they initially reject, even food they reject multiple times. Keep offering.
*note: babies are not allowed to eat honey before age one due to possible infant botulism caused by a bacteria which may be present in the honey. 1/10 chance of baby being ill from honey so it is best to wait until 12 months.
Benifits of baby led weaning vs purée: I have one word for you and that is skills. There’s a boy my sons age who I babysat once, he was purée fed. At 14 months old, his Mum was still chopping up and breaking off food for him and I doubt he’d ever used a spoon before. It was summertime and we were eating strawberries, my son happily munched away on them but when I watched his friend I noticed that he hadn’t a clue how to bite into it. Then, I handed him his water bottle but instead of using his hands to take it from me, he just opened his mouth at me so I fed him his water. I can imagine this child still being very dependant on mum to cut food up and feed him, to guess when he is thirsty and water him. I just leave a water bottle out and food on my sons table, he goes for it himself. The Mum is amazing and she does a wonderful job as Mum, I am not mum shaming as I’m secretly in awe of her as a Mum with a happy, healthy child and a clean house, these were just my observations of the differences in ability, in their skills with food. The more I chat with others on this topic, the more I realise this is a common observation amoung them too.
Babies jaw is also said to develop when doing blw.
At Discussions, I also mention grains, go further into the rice cereal debate, allergies, tips on gettin in key foods and have lists of food which contain iron, calcium and iodine as well as other relevant and irrelevant topics, such as the occasional poo and constipation chats. I love the chats where the parents ask me the questions they want to hear about thus leading the discussion. Message the page or email firstname.lastname@example.org to book.
Check out my latest article over on Further Food. This explains on how an elimination diet helped to ease my child’s eczema and uncover food allergies. I also share the moment my toddler had an anaphylactic reaction to nuts.
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