Would you like your baby to look like this?
Or like that at the prospect of food?
HELP YOUR BABY LOVE TO EAT
Weaning was something I dreaded in motherhood. Preparing purees and seeing them rejected. Pretending to be an aeroplane or a car, pleading and begging for my baby to eat. Just the thought makes me shudder! Luckily I stumbled upon the idea of Baby Led Weaning (BLW) in Nikki Duffy’s River Cottage Baby and Toddler Cookbook. She has put me on the track of Gill Rapley’s book Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby to Love Good Food.
It was a relief to read it. It is such a natural follow-on from breastfeeding. My only surprise was that it is not the mainstream method of feeding babies (there must be more lazy mums like me who are horrified with the idea of purees and ice-cube trays)!
WHAT IS BABY LED WEANING
It’s an idea that a baby can eat normal family meals from the beginning of his adventure with solid foods, at around 6 months. There is no complicated order of introducing foods, and tedious purees and lumpy food stages. Of course, salt has to be eradicated and some meals slightly adjusted (cooked for longer, chopped into smaller chunks or bigger finger-food pieces).
BLW encourages family meals as an essential part of family life. Baby should join you at the table even if he is not eating yet. He is watching and learning from you, both about the food and the social aspect of the meal. It is during a meal that a baby is likely to reach out and grab some food from your plate to investigate. Initially he may not eat it, but just play with it. This is fine, as the baby is familiarising himself with the smell, taste and texture of whatever he has in his hand. With time he will start eating in a more purposeful way. That said Little F was eating from the very start, he seemed to know that food in his mouth will satisfy a need he feels. At first he didn’t seem to ingest much, but his poo changed overnight, so he must have bee been eating a fair amount.
WHEN TO START
The method encourages to wait for the baby to show signs of interest in food, which means you start offering solid foods when your baby is ready for it. This happens at around 6 months (it was at 5 and a half months for Little F), when the baby is also capable of sitting upright in highchair. This is in accordance with the current Word Health Organisation (WHO) advice that breast milk is all the baby needs in the first 6 months of life. There is no need to start introducing solids in any form before that. Baby has stores of vitamins from the time he spent in the womb and receives nutrition from milk.
As a parent of course you are likely to be anxious if your baby is not eating solids while other babies are getting on with it, but there is no point in rushing. And there is no need to do so. At around 6 months vitamins start to deplete, but only start, so there is no need for a mad rush to push solid foods. Some babies don’t show interest in solids until they are about 8 months.
If it helps you can think about it in terms of ‘mother nature’, this timeless evolution-wise person, rather than your few month old baby taking decisions. If your baby is not showing signs of interest in food it’s most likely because his body is not ready for it and he doesn’t need it just yet.
WHAT FOOD TO OFFER
Unlike the mainstream advice there is no particular order. In fact you are encouraged to offer anything that can be termed finger food, meaning your baby can hold it in his hand and lift it to his mouth. This can be a cooked carrot stick or a broccoli floret, but it could also be a pice of chicken or a chunk of cheese. There are no reasons to introduce foods in any particular order. Though most parents, and me included, start with cooked vegetables and progress onto dairy and meat.
Little F’s first food was a piece of tangerine he grabbed of me. He started sucking on it with delight and once all the juice was gone he simply spat out the translucent skin. He was only 5 months! I waited another two weeks to offer him meals at the table with us, as it seemed to be a bit early… I wasn’t convinced he could handle food, though he was very interested in it. We had to eat when he was not in the room, otherwise he was getting upset.
The key point to remember is that you decide what to offer and when, but it is down to your baby to ‘decide’ what to eat and how much if at all.
WHAT FOOD TO AVOID
There are very few foods to avoid. Mainly whole nuts and small foods due to danger of choking. Unless you have a family history of nut allergy it is perfectly safe to offer nut butter (best if home-made to avoid salt and additives; all you need to prepare it is nuts of your choice and a blender – some tips in this video). Things like cherry tomatoes and grapes should be cut in half to help move them around the mouth.
There are many advantages, but these are key for me:
- More relaxed meals – you are not worried how much your child will eat, as you trust them to judge what they need, and you are not frustrated at the child refusing your lovingly prepared puree. You are also not trying to feed a reluctant baby while hungry yourself, as you eat with him.
- Baby is open to trying a huge variety of foods – Little F has no problem sucking on a lemon wedge, crunching an asparagus spere or tucking into a garlicky guacamole.
- Development of fine motor skills – first time I offered Little F a piece of banana he squeezed it so hard it oozed out between his fingers. A week later he knew what pressure to apply and was happily popping pieces into his mouth.
- Developing mouth muscles – chewing and moving pieces of food around the mouth helps strengthen the muscles, which helps with speech development. Adding to the ‘work out’ baby also has when breastfeeding.
- It’s an expression of trust in nature and respect for your child. Recognising them to be an individual and allowing them freedom of choice (within boundaries decided by an adult – You).
The unforeseen advantage of BLW is that we had to look at what we eat and make sure we eat healthy. I breastfeed so I was trying to eat healthy anyway, but having Little F eat with us has turned things up by a notch. It’s also great to help lose some pregnancy weight.
I always liked Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall due to his love of natural ingredients and respect for animals. From his love of happy animals came a book encouraging to eat more vegetables, as a way to reduce meat consumption – River Cottage Veg Every Day. It’s an approach friendly to family finances, as buying only top quality meat is expensive, so best done sporadically. This is my favourite cook book at the moment as it helped me introduce more vegetables and more variety into our daily diet, and inspired me to be more adventurous with vegetarian dishes. Just to clarify, I am not a vegetarian and Hugh certainly isn’t.
MY EXPERIENCE OF BLW
These are a few tips based on my experience with BLW:
- Learn to like mess, or at least don’t stress about food under the table (and on the table, and on the high-chair, and all over your baby….).
- It is fine to offer a preloaded spoon with more runny foods, as baby is not capable of loading it by themselves. Just hand the spoon over to the baby so he can aim it at the mouth himself. I also use spoon to feed very staining foods, like beetroot, as it creates less mess.
- Muslin cloths are the best bibs. They are big and easily cover the whole baby (including legs) and once used can be washed in the washing machine. Plastic ‘raincoats’, as my friend calls them, are stiff and often shift up and cover the mouth when Little F tries to put something in it. You also have to wash them by hand after every meal (up to 5 times a day…).
- A good plastic mat under the table or a tiled floor are the best. If you have tiles a steam floor cleaner is fantastic, as you can just sweep the food and clean the floor without chemicals (bear in mind that you pick up food from the floor and hand it back to your baby so you want the floor as clean as possible). At the end of the day you can throw the mop head into the washing machine.
- In hot weather strip the baby to eat. I also like to use second-hand clothes, as I am not concerned if they get stained. I sometimes coordinate the clothes and the menu! Red strawberry juice stains don’t show on a red top.
- Have camera ready! An enthusiastic baby beaming at the sight of a broccoli is a sight you’ll want to see again and again (I’d love to share with you a clip of Little F doing just that, but we have decided with my husband that we do not wish to have his images posted online).
I did not include this on the beginning in case it may scare you off, but I am sure you are wondering about choking.
Everyone can choke at any point in their lives. BLW does not increase that risk, despite offering finger foods from the beginning. It’s a little counterintuitive, but babies are actually less likely to choke as they learn how to control food in their mouths quicker. It helps that they are in charge rather than having someone put food into their mouths. It is important that the baby is always seated upright when eating.
Gagging is another matter. This is a learning curve for the baby. Babies gagging reflex is activated in the middle of the mouth, not at the end like in adults. It is a natural way of learning how deep the food can be inserted into mouth. With time the gagging point moves deeper and deeper. If you see your baby gag, don’t worry, the food isn’t nearly as deep as you think. Just leave them to it and don’t show them you are worried, as they may get scared themselves.
If your child is coughing let them get on with it. They will manage to remove the piece of food themselves. Your intervention could actually push the food in deeper, so don’t put your fingers into baby’s mouth to remove the food.
If the baby is actually choking he won’t make any noise as the airways are blocked, this is when he does need your help. Chocking is rare and BLW does not increase the risk.
Every parent should do a first aid course for babies – they do crawl around and can pick up small objects from the floor. This NHS video gives basic advice on choking, but nothing will replace a course where you are shown resuscitation techniques and can practice under supervision of experienced paramedics.
This short post can not convey all there is to know about Baby Led Weaning. If you want the full information to disperse any doubts you may have buy Gill Rapley’s book Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby to Love Good Food. She is a healthvisitor with many years of experience with small children and babies, and so is more of an authority compared to a mum of one.
BABY STAPLE FOOD
I often hear that hummus has become a children’s food staple. I do love it myself and since Little F started eating with us I make a home-made version. It’s very easy and tastes better than shop-bought. This is my favourite hummus recipe.
PS. I heartily recommend Gill Rapley’s Baby Led Weaning book, as I have found it very helpful. Both me and Little F benefit from using the BLW approach. This post has not been solicited by Gill Rapley or anyone else and I am not gaining commission if you follow the links or buy any products.
1. Photo credit: Kelly Sue / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
4. Photo credit: Woody Ellen / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)