Open any pregnancy or baby book, and you’ll find that list: the baby essentials, the things you absolutely cannot live without. While many accessories are easily recognized as frivolous, certain items are truly indispensable: the basic necessities for life with a baby.
Or are they?
In this weekly series, we’ll be looking at several baby essentials that really aren’t. They may be useful in certain situations, but if money or space is tight, or if you’re just looking to simplify and reduce consumerism and waste, here’s how to get along just fine without these so-called “essentials.“
In Part 1, we questioned the crib. Part 2 bemoaned the bucket. Part 3 scrutinized the stroller. Part 4 ditched the diapers. Part 5 scrubbed the tub. Part 6 busted the brain boosters. This week, we banish the baby food!
Non-Essential #7: Baby Food
By saying you don’t need baby food, I’m not merely saying that you don’t need commercial processed jarred baby foods and cereals. I’m not just saying you can make your own healthy, organic purees and even grind your own rice. I’m saying you don’t need it at all.
No purees, no rice, no pablum. No mashing, no whizzing, no pulverizing. In short, no spoonfeeding.
It’s. Just. Not. Necessary.
But wait, you say… babies need to learn to eat, right? Of course, you need to feed the baby, don’t you?
Well… no, actually. Your baby will feed himself. (Or herself, as the case may be.)
The Case for Baby-Led Solids
Baby-led solids is a simple, practical, logical and natural method of beginning solid foods whereby your baby simply eats real food, by himself, from the beginning. It is also called “baby-led weaning” or BLW, a term popularized by British health visitor Gill Rapley, whose pioneering work in this area has become the manifesto for parents seeking a more sensible approach to starting solids with their babies. Note that the term “baby-led weaning” uses the British meaning of the term ‘weaning’ — applying to the entire process of weaning from milk to solid food, instead of the North American usage which generally only applies to the very end of this process.
Rapley has recently published the ultimate guidebook, Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby To Love Good Food. It challenges existing assumptions about spoonfeeding and guides parents to a more developmentally appropriate approach to solids.
But wait — if BLW is so simple and natural, why should we need an entire book to explain to us how and why to do it? The fact is, we have become so conditioned to believe that the usual method of beginning our infants with runny rice cereal, gradually progressing through smooth then lumpier purees, in defined quantities and on a defined schedule, keeping flavours bland and simple — is the right and indeed the only way to do things, that we don’t even think about even questioning why this is the way we do it. It takes an entire book to clear away our mental blockages and reveal our hidden, faulty assumptions.
If you do nothing else if you don’t have the time to read this entire article, at least read this book. And if you do read this entire article and want to learn more, read this book. If you read this article and are still not convinced, then — you guessed it — read this book. It will answer any questions you might have that aren’t covered within the limited scope of this article.
A Brief History of Infant Feeding
To understand the logic of completely ditching cereals and purees, we first have to realize why the current schedule and method for infant feeding is the way it is. The reasons are manifold and complicated, but suffice it to say that current feeding practices were developed in the early twentieth century, in response to nutritional deficits in commercial infant formula, and the transfer of authority from the mother to the physician – who would prescribe rigidly scheduled feedings, compromising breastfeeding and leading to undernourished babies.
As such, it became the standard to start giving “solid” supplemental foods to babies 3 months old, or 2 months old… or even younger, as a nutritional necessity.
Babies that young are not able to “eat”. They do not have the muscular coordination to chew, they cannot sit upright, and they have the “tongue thrust reflex”, whereby anything unexpected in their mouth is just pushed right back out again. In order to “feed” very young babies, they must, in fact, be tricked. The food must be liquefied because they cannot chew. They must be spoonfed to get past the tongue reflex, circumventing an important safety mechanism (though in most cases, you still have to push the same spoonful back in several times before it stays). And it must be bland, tasteless, indistinguishable from their accustomed milk, or else they will reject it.
It was also expected that babies would be completely weaned onto solid foods by their first birthday, at the latest. And so a strict schedule of how many meals per day was implemented, gradually, deliberately replacing milk feedings, and changing in texture and consistency as the baby grew older.
What We Now Know About Infant Nutrition
Of course, we now know that breastfeeding on demand provides all the nutrition that a baby needs for at least the first 6 months or even the first full year. Modern formulas, while not nearly as complete as breastmilk, are still quite adequate for nourishing the baby whose mother is unable to breastfeed and no additional supplements are necessary. In fact, not only do babies not need any supplemental nutrition for the first 6 months, it is in fact potentially harmful for them to ingest anything other than milk, as their digestive systems are not yet mature enough to handle anything else. Too-early introduction of solid foods has been associated with increased allergies, digestive problems in later life, and possibly even obesity.
The 6-month-old baby is a very different creature from the 3-month-old. At 6 months of age, most babies:
- are keen to imitate everything they see their parents doing, including eating
- are curious about new experiences, including tastes and textures
- can hold objects and manipulate them, including finger foods
- can sit upright
- have lost the tongue thrust reflex
- can chew
So all of the reasons that spoonfeeding is necessary for the 3-month-old simply do not apply to the older baby. It fact, it was not uncommon under the old guidelines to begin finger foods and some self-feeding at around 6 months old. Our babies have not changed, only the age at which we begin solid foods has changed. But paradoxically, we have not changed our method and schedule of introducing solids to match the vastly different developmental stage of the older baby!
As Rapley says in her book (pp. 33-34):
Of course, spoon-feeding seemed to be unavoidable when it was believed that babies of three or four months needed ‘solids’ since, at that age, they couldn’t chew or get food to their mouths themselves. This led to an assumption that spoon-feeding and purees were an essential part of introducing solids, no matter what the age of the baby.
So, although research now tells us that those babies who started solids at three or four months old (or even younger) shouldn’t have been having them at all, most people still assume that a baby’s first solid foods should be given by spoon. But there doesn’t appear to be any research to back this up.
How It Works
Baby-led solids are simply about trusting your baby to feed herself, the way she has ever since birth (feeding on demand). It involves realizing that we do not need to trick or coerce our babies into eating, nor do we need to ‘teach’ them how to eat, nor is there any ‘window’ whereby if we do not make them eat by a certain age, then they never will. Eating is an essential survival mechanism, it only makes sense that a human child will instinctively begin eating when she is developmentally ready to do so, just as she will begin to sit up, walk, and communicate, all on her own with no specialized instruction or coercion from her parents. So long as they are given the opportunity, all healthy babies will do all these things by themselves, in their own time.
For many families, their first experience with baby-led solid begins when their baby swipes a bit of food off mom’s plate and starts gnawing away at it. At first, this is a simple curiosity on the baby’s part. He does not yet understand that this will fill his tummy, he just wants to check it out and do what mom is doing. BLW as a method is simply allowing your baby to continue this exploration of food on his own terms. Over the course of a few months, your baby progresses from exploration (with limited ingestion) to deliberate eating for hunger, until he is eating complete meals and beginning to reduce his milk feeds. And this all happens with no pressure or interference from the parent, who has simply allowed natural development to take place.
The Problem With Spoonfeeding
- Replaces healthier milk. Solid foods are less nutritionally dense than breastmilk or even formula. An infant’s primary source of nutrition should be milk for at least their first year, with solid foods being only a supplement and not the main source. Spoonfeeding tends to put more food in a baby’s tummy than they actually need, leaving less room for the essential, healthier milk.
- Interferes with long-term breastfeeding. Since the typical schedule for solid foods is designed with complete weaning from the breast by age one in mind, completely filling up baby’s tummy with solid foods, there is a risk that your baby will nurse less, depleting your milk supply, and leading to complete weaning much earlier than would have happened naturally.
- Power struggles over food. Since your baby has no control over what or how much she eats, she is more likely to resist, seeking to gain some power over her own body. The “airplane game” is really a manipulative attempt to win this power struggle, based on a faulty (and nonsensical, when you think about it) assumption that babies will resist eating solids and our job is to overcome this resistance and make them eat.
- Suppression of instinctive appetite control. When you are spoonfeeding according to a schedule, you are more likely to try to get baby to “finish the jar,” even if she is clearly communicating that she is finished. This overrides the natural connection between hunger, appetite, and portion control, leading to potential problems with overeating in the future.
- Bland food leads to a bland palate. Most children prefer white bread, basic pasta, hot dogs, and other simple “kids’ foods,” rather than a rich and healthy variety of ‘real’ or ‘grownup’ food.
- Cereal is not a healthy first food. Cereal only became the standard first food because it was easy to mix into a very young infant’s bottle. There are no nutritional advantages to it whatsoever. In fact, cereal is heavy in starch and carbohydrates, which are difficult for an infant to digest, and a diet heavy in carbs is not a balanced diet.
- It’s complicated! Measuring, pureeing, organizing, freezing, cleaning, scooping. Food mills, food processors, jars, spoons, ice cube trays, and specialized storage kits. Recipe books just for babies. Counting, planning, fretting that they’re not ‘eating enough,’ scheduling, worrying when to progress to ‘stage two’…
Advantages of Baby-led Solids
- Optimum balance of milk and solids. By letting your baby control his portions, according to his own instincts, you will not unintentionally fill him up with the less-nutritious solid foods. He will gradually nurse less frequently, according to his own ideal balance of milk and solid foods, and wean on his own natural schedule.
- Confidence and independence. Since your baby is in complete control of their feeding, deciding what to eat and how much of it, there are no power struggles. Rather than being a passive recipient of food, she is a confident explorer, and as she matures she will be keen to try new things rather than suspicious of foods she hasn’t eaten before.
- Self-regulation of portions. Your baby maintains his connection with his appetite, leading to a healthy attitude to portion control. He simply stops eating when he is full.
- Your baby is part of the dinner table. Rather than needing to be fed a separate dinner on a separate schedule, she joins you at dinner. Your food doesn’t grow cold while you feed your baby first, and she isn’t bored while everyone else eats. She can participate in dinner conversation and learn table manners through observation and imitation. She learns about using cutlery and how different foods are eaten by example… and by eating the same foods as everyone else.
- Enjoyment of wide variety of flavours. ‘Grown-up foods’ are not something children need to ‘graduate’ or grow into. When they eat real foods from the beginning, with rich flavours and spices and a variety of textures, they will continue to eat real foods and not become dependent solely on “kid’s food”.
- The right balance at the right time. You can relax knowing that she is eating exactly what she needs to be healthy. A growing toddler is more likely to ‘binge’ on carbs at times, an older infant might focus on healthy fats or proteins, or go through periods of hardly eating at all but only breastfeeding, all according to what her body needs at this particular stage of growth. Studies have shown that when offered a variety of healthy foods, without adult influence or interference, babies will instinctively choose a balanced menu providing all the nutrients they require. So there’s no guesswork on your part.
- It’s so easy! Make a healthy meal for your family, put some on your baby’s plate. That’s about all there is to it. Really.
But What About Choking?
This is the inevitable question when people first learn about BLW. In fact, there is no greater concern about choking than with spoonfeeding, and it may even help protect against choking. Humans have an innate gag reflex, whereby anything that gets to the back of the mouth unexpectedly (or is too large to swallow) will be regurgitated with a retching action. In babies, this reflex is further forward in the mouth, and so gagging is fairly common while they are learning to handle food. Although this is commonly confused with choking, it is actually the normal protective mechanism, preventing choking while a baby learns to manipulate food in his mouth with his tongue, to chew and swallow. Spoonfeeding denies a baby the chance to practice this manipulation while the gag reflex is still extra-active. By the time a traditionally spoonfed baby is allowed to practice with finger foods, the gag reflex has receded somewhat, closer to the airway, and is thus less effective as a protective mechanism. Gill Rapley again (p. 63):
So babies who haven’t been allowed to explore food from the beginning may miss the opportunity to use it to help them learn how to keep food away from their airway. Anecdotal evidence suggests that babies who have been spoon-fed have more problems with gagging and ‘choking’ when they start to handle food… than those who have been allowed to experiment much earlier.
Final Food For Thought
Of course, many readers will now be saying “but I raised my babies by spoonfeeding purees and they loved it and turned out just fine.” And it’s true that many babies will develop into healthy eaters no matter how we approach their first foods. But this won’t be true for all babies. BLW decreases the risks of many eating problems and is just plain easier and more enjoyable for both parent and baby. While problems stemming from spoonfeeding may not always be extreme or applicable to all babies, the fact remains that it is completely unnecessary… so why go through the bother?
Let’s leave the last words to Gill Rapley (pp. 240-241):
Baby-led weaning can help to prevent the sorts of battles over food that are an all-too-common story amongst the parents of toddlers and young children and it can contribute to making family mealtimes fun for everyone. in a nutshell, it makes eating the pleasure it should be.
… There is a growing amount of evidence that the way children are fed when they are very young establishes the way they will feel about food throughout their childhood, and maybe even into adulthood. Obesity and eating disorders are in the news almost every week … Many of these problems have their roots in one (or both) of two key issues: appetite recognition and control. The healthy development of both of these things is at the heart of BLW.
So much of the advice parents are given about infant feeding is still based on the abilities of three- or four-month-old babies and the assumption that babies need to be spoon-fed. It rarely takes into account the natural abilities of six-month-old babies to take the lead with solids and feed themselves. Baby-led weaning brings together what we not know about when a baby should start solids with what we can see babies are able to do at this age.
[This post was written by Heather Dunham]
Photo: roxeteer under creative commons.