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Feeding the Child

A few times recently (IRL) people have asked me about the Pumpkin's eating. Mostly it is to ask if she is on table food yet. There is not really a simple answer to that for me, so I end up telling people about our style of feeding and having to admit that I'm a bit of a hippie mom. Which I'm now going to admit to you all.
Did you all think I was just some normal mom? Nope, it turns out I'm a bit of a hippie in my parenting. I'm sure this will start to come out more and more as time goes by. But don't worry, I'll let the crazies out slowly so as not to scare you away. I hope.

When we got our highchair set up in our kitchen, Londo looked over at me one day, smiled and said how he couldn't wait until he could airplane in spoons of food to the baby's waiting mouth. It was then that I realized how little interest I had in feeding a baby solid foods. It just sounded like so much work and that it would require so much patience. And there was something about spoon feeding the baby that I just didn't like, but couldn't put my finger on. I was not looking forward to it at all.

But then, I learning about a style of feeding called baby-led weaning (BLW) (or baby-led feeding). I first heard about it on Ask Moxie, who has done multiple posts that touch on this method. Then, I read the article by Gill Rapley that Moxie mentioned. Gill Rapley did a study using baby-lead weaning, and she found that when babies were offered foods, they generally started trying to eat at 6 months of age, right when their digestive systems and their motor skills were developmentally ready for foods.

The BLW just clicked with me. This made sense to me. This seemed like it was what the human body was designed to do. You know, prior to the invention of purees by big corporations as another way to worry parents into spending more money and buying their products. In fact, did you know there is no research that supports introducing rice cereal or purees first? Sure babies do just fine starting that way, but they don't HAVE to (despite popular belief). In fact, when we brought up this style of feeding to the pediatrician to see what she thought, she said, "There are a million different babies and a million different ways to feed them. Find what works for you and your baby, and go for it." I just love that advice.

In this style of feeding, you cut pieces of regular food into fry-shaped sizes (not bite-sized pieces) and put it down in front of the baby on a tray or plate. The fry shape is so that the babies can pick up the pieces and hold them in their hand while they stick one end in their mouths. The theory behind it is basically to follow the baby's lead in eating, so when the baby is ready, he/she will pick up the food offered on the tray and try it out. Now, the baby probably won't eat it all right away, but the point is for the baby to get used to the taste and texture of regular solid foods.

A couple of concerns people always have over this method are that the baby will choke on the food, that the baby doesn't have teeth (or enough teeth) to eat/chew the pieces of food and that the baby won't eat enough. So let me address those issues.

It is actually believed by those who do this method that the risk of a baby-led weaned baby choking is less than those of a baby who is spoon feed. Because the baby's gag reflex is still pretty far forward in his/her mouth when starting on solids around 6 months, the baby will learn to manipulate the food in his/her mouth using this gag reflex as a guide to keep food from going too far back in the mouth and into the throat. But you have to understand the difference between gagging (which is a normal part of figuring out how to control the food in their mouths and how to get food out of their mouths) and actual choking. We had a couple of scares with the Pumpkin, where Londo and I were poised above her ready to get her out of the highchair if the gagging turned to choking, but it never did. It can be a bit scary, but she only did it a few times in the beginning and really seemed to catch on quickly. Just to be safe though, Londo and I took an infant CPR course before we started the solids--which helped our state of minds incredibly.

As for needing teeth, apparently babies' gums are strong enough to munch on a lot of the foods. I've heard a lot of people saying that their babies with no teeth or just a few teeth do great with this method by using their gums. Just because we adults can't imagine gumming foods, doesn't mean that it's not normal and natural for babies to do so. Since the Pumpkin got her teeth pretty early (I think she had 4-6 by 6 months), I don't have direct experience with this. But we started with softer foods anyway, like bananas, sweet potatoes, avocados and baked apples.

Now let me discuss whether or not they are eating enough. Since babies' primary nutrition for the first year is from breastmilk or formula, there is no need to worry that the baby is not ingesting enough. The theory is that the baby will know when they are ready to really ingest food, and they will lead the way. In our culture, there seems to be a push to get babies eating food and filling them up (I think it stems from the "clean your plate" mentality of previous generations). But for the first 12 months of life, babies really only need breastmilk or formula. Eating solid foods is not a must nutritionally or developmentally. Being introduced to foods around the 6 month mark seems to be a good idea and is generally recommended (I know some people believe there is a "window of opportunity" for introducing solids and if you miss it, the child will have problems with food and eating--I have no opinion on this, as I have not researched it at all).

In addition learning about the baby-lead weaning approach to feeding, I also have been reading a book by Ellyn Satter called Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. In it, she says, "You can't control or dictate the quantity of food your child eats, and you shouldn't try. You also can't control or dictate the kind of body your child develops, and you shouldn't try. What you can do, and it is a great deal, is set things up for your child so she, herself, can regulate her food intake as well as possible, and so she can develop a healthy body that is constitutionally right for her." Basically, she says that too often there is a struggle between parents and children about food, which makes eating and meal times frustrating and can create issues with food. Instead, she tells people to relax and offer good foods to their children (in age-appropriate ways) but let their children decide what and how much to eat. A great point of this book is that each person's body has the ability to tell them when they are hungry and when they are full. So, if we force children to eat too little, they will either think that is normal and eat too little their whole lives or eat too much to compensate. If we force children to eat beyond when they are full, they will learn to ignore their their body's cue for feeling full and eat too much. This applies to spoon feeding as well as finger foods.

So, when we first started, I would nurse the Pumpkin before sitting her down for a meal and then just offer her foods. In the beginning, she would mostly just play with the food and try it in her mouth and squish it in her hands, not really ingesting anything. It was very messy, but she was having fun. We started with just dinners and would give her a bath right afterwards. But after a few weeks, she started ingesting some of the food. Shortly after, she really started eating and loving it, so I stopped nursing right before meals. In fact, I had to nurse an hour before or an hour after or else she wouldn't eat much/nurse much and would get so upset about it!

We don't worry about how much or how little the Pumpkin eats. We just keep offering her food until she is done, just as I would with nursing. (BTW, this is why I'm trying so hard to teach her the signs for More and All Done--so we can know what the reason for her fussing is at any given time, cause it could be either.) She now eats breakfast, lunch, a snack and dinner. It seems like a lot for her age, but we let her lead how much or little she wants, and this is really working for her right now. And we basically just feed her what we are having for the meal. This makes meals so much easier and more fun for me. She just eats with us as part of the family (which works for us, because we eat an early dinner anyway). We do try to keep the food low in salt and sugar, but after reading a post by Cloud*, we no longer worry about avoiding foods. The exceptions are nuts and shellfish, because if she has allergies to either of those, we want her to be able to communicate with us better.

Having said all that, I do feel like I should mention that my mom was not comfortable with this style of feeding. Since she watches the Pumpkin during the days and would be feeding her lunch, we went ahead and bought purees so my mom could feed them to her. We also spoon feed her applesauce and yogurt. Because IMO, there is nothing wrong with purees or spoon feeding. It's just another way to feed the child, and another texture for them to discover.

For more information (in addition to the links above), check these out:
-Here's a babycentre (UK version) article about BLW.
-Here's a great article debunking myths about feeding kids.
-Here's an overview of the method.
-Here are some blogs devoted to BLW.
-Here's a link to the Yahoo Group for BLW.
-Here's an interesting discussion on a message board about this topic.
-And slightly off topic, here is information about the natural age of weaning from mother's milk (not weaning as in starting food).

*Cloud has another interesting post mostly related to feeding kids that people may be interested in, too.


Becoming Mommy said…
hm...never heard that definition of baby led weaning. Interesting though!
We have been feeding the strained foods or putting them in this thing that will strain the food as they chew on it.
We've been sort of following the traditional feeding, but not really. They don't make everythign into baby food. Never seen Gerber Avocados...but he likes them.
-KZ said…
I wouldn't consider that being a hippie! it just makes sense.

we didn't use much store-bought pureed food either. the flavors on those are so bland, and taste is also part of the whole learning to eat thing. we started her at about 6 months with coarsely pureed food that we made and froze. she liked pretty much everything we fed her. Beets, spinach, broccoli, peas, squash, sweet potatoes, etc... and yeah we didn't force it or anything cause she was still drinking tons of formula/breastmilk.

gotta love the freedom you get from letting them eat solids. just put the food in the tray and go about your business, or sit and eat with them - it's great! however, when we transitioned to solids, everything went fine, but we made the slight mistake of giving her bite-sized pieces of whatever. she was chewing well, and her 8 teeth certainly helped, but occasionally she would just swallow whole peas, raisins, beans, etc...

so these items wouldn't get completely digested :-o it was then that we gave her bigger pieces of food, like quarters of apples (by that point she had almost all her teeth). and that was fun - it forced her to take bites and chew up the food thoroughly.

then we had tons of fun letting her learn how to use a spoon or fork!
Dana said…
That's neat you are doing BLW. I think it's a pretty cool concept. I didn't know anything about that when we started solids with our little girl, but I did know I hated the whole jar food thing (that stuff is nasty). I steamed and froze most of her first fruits and veggies which made thicker, lumpier purees. That worked really well for us and she seems to not have too much trouble trying new things. I think she's used to more intense flavors that the fresh food offers.

My (Dietitian) mom gave me the book "Child of Mine". It's a really good book. Food is such an important part of life and I learned a lot of good lessons from my mom. I got really excited to feed our little girl and I'm still having so much fun with it! We play a game with her - Will she eat it??? Spinach, tofu, beats...she eats it all! She's a hard one to stump.
ImpostorMom said…
very interesting and I can totally see why just starting out with regular food makes sense. I have friends whose son had sensory issues with food and they had a time getting him to eat anything but purees. I'm not saying this approach would have helped but I wonder if taking the purees out of the equation might have helped him with the chunkier foods.

We started Boog at 4 months with solids mainly because he was very interested in what we were eating. We followed a traditional approach except that I made the majority of his purees myself. (that would be the hippie in me) We skipped the rice all together because of it's binding tendencies.

I thought I would never get him on table food though and then just like that around thanksgiving it was like he flipped a switch. Now he just eats whatever we eat and I let him eat as much or as little as he wants. He never has to clean his plate. My husband was raised with the "clean plate club" mentality and it still haunts him to this day.
Karen said…
That makes all kinds of sense. I think we've done that with a kid or two, but it was out of sheer laziness on our part. Feed the baby? Nah. Here, chew on this.
I totally did that, and didn't even know it. Mind you, there was a three-week span when I tried to make baby food work out for us (the convenience is hard to beat, especially when you're out running errands), but since Miss Thang was having none of that, she won.

Y'know, I didn't feed her cereal for EVER. Daycare finally asked for some when she was around nine months, so we sent it. But we hadn't given it to her before then. It didn't make sense to me for some reason.
mrsmogul said…
I loved the GINA FORD (UK midwife) who wrote the weaning book. I followed her recipes ans schedule step by step.
Anonymous said…
Well I too tried BLW when I introduced solid at 6 months. He was not eating much but I thought he was doing fine. However, 6 weeks later, he had not put on any weight at all. Paediatrician advised to make him eat some purees. It has always been difficult to make him eat, and he has never been interested enough in feeding himself. Then he caught a bronchitis, he did not eat anything but breastmilk for more than a week, then another cold, then teething, weight was never great. At 9 months a gastroenteritis, at 10 another one again that put him back to his 7 month old weight. So my conclusion is that BLW is not for everyone. Some babies are just not very interested in food and, if on top, they are underweight, you are can be trouble. Now we do make an effort to get the purees and cereals down without forcing him. He is getting better, but still very thin.
caramama said…
Karen - I used to tell people we did this method because I was lazy. Londo did not like and said that's not why we did it. He's right... it's just a side benefit!

Mrs.Mogul - I've heard mixed things about Gina Ford, but I haven't read her myself. My understanding is that she is all about routines, which is not the general recommendation for breastfed babies (on demand is the recommended) and is kind of the opposite of the baby-led idea. But I know nothing about her weaning book specifically, and if it works for you, that's great.

Eva - Definitely BLW is not for every parent nor every baby. BLW happened to work for us. I'm sorry it didn't work for you and that you are struggling with your baby's weight. That must be very tough. I don't think my baby is a good eater because of BLW--I really believe it's just innate to her, just as the extra fussiness and sleeping issues have been. I try really hard not to take credit for the easy things nor the tough things about my baby.

We all just have to figure out what's best for our babies and for us, right?
Shellie said…
I'd never heard of that, but it's kind of what we did, so I agree with it of course! One of my daughter's first foods was avocado slices.

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