“He has such a good appetite.” “He sure loves his food.” “He’s so good at feeding himself.” “I can’t believe he’s eating that!”
…some of the comments I used to get about my son’s eating habits. I got them for as long as people had been seeing him eat, and, though the novelty has somewhat worn off since he’s a little older now, people are still often surprised by his relationship with food.
Baby-led weaning is a theory of starting babies on solid food that flies in the face of contemporary convention.
The concept is simple: skip the spoon-feeding—no cereals or purees—and go straight to self-feeding table food. Let the baby decide when to start on food by reading their cues. (I’m not suggesting you give a three-month-old a carrot stick.)
Before there were blenders, babies learned to eat just fine without constantly choking to death or dying of malnutrition. They breastfed longer; they were introduced to solid foods when they were ready (not at a time pre-determined by a doctor or book or association).
This happened, and is happening today in many parts of the world, without there needing to be a theory for it.
With baby-led weaning, learning to eat is about experimenting rather than nutrition. For the first year of life, a baby is completely nourished by breast milk (or, to a lesser extent, formula). Because their little bodies are still learning to digest, they can’t get optimal nutrition from food anyway.
According to baby-led weaning, by exposing your child to the foods your family eats from the get-go, their palates will develop well and they are less likely to become picky eaters.
As far as choking hazards go, it is said to be more likely that a child will choke if you are spoon-feeding them: they may not be ready for the mouthful you are trying to get into them.
Babies have a gag reflex to eject anything foreign from their mouths (it’s a survival instinct), which at first is everything except the boob or bottle. In order to overcome that, it must be put to the test.
With baby-led weaning, they are in control of what goes into their mouths, so they learn more quickly how to chew and swallow.
My son was about six and a half months old when he told me he wanted to try food.
He was fat and healthy and breastfed. Prior to this, his only taste of food was sucking on the occasional lemon.
I sat him in his high chair about once a day and give him finger-foods to gnaw on and play with: green beans, slices of bell peppers, raspberries, that sort of thing.
I avoided common allergens but otherwise paid no mind to the “new food every three days” rule, or any other rule for that matter. I watched his reactions and his poop and everything was fine.
I spoon-fed him sometimes, when he developed a taste for yogurt and soup, and when he wanted more food but became impatient at his incompetence.
It wasn’t until he was past nine months old that he dropped a nursing session. By then, he was eating twice a day—we had breakfast and lunch together, and he’d nibble whatever was on my plate.
In restaurants, baby-led weaning was a blessing and a curse. I didn’t have to bring food or order separately: we shared things. He made messes, though, which I minimized with pocketed bibs and always helped to clean up.
He tried anything. He had favorites—seafood, beans, crackers, grape tomatoes, cheese, olives, my homemade broth, and all fruit.
I gave him loaded spoons to practice that, and drinks in a shot glass. (Controversial, maybe, but how would you like to learn how to drink using a bucket, which is what a regular glass is like for little mouths?) We did sippy cups, too—ones with straws were the easiest while he figured out the whole tilting thing.
Around his first birthday we discovered his favorite food.
I’d gotten us some take-out sushi and some special fancy roll had ikura, salmon roe on it (fish eggs, the big sticky red ones). I put one on his finger; it stuck to him. He looked at it, fascinated. Then he put it in his mouth.
His widened eyes lit up. I could tell when the egg popped because he started, and giggled.
I gave him more. He couldn’t get enough. He ate all of them.
Now whenever we get sushi, I get him his own order of salmon roe sashimi—just a clump of the eggs. He eats them like candy. Now that he’s handy with a spoon, he’ll take a big scoop and pile them into his mouth.
At our local sushi joint, the staff knows him as the white kid that eats the ikura.
During his second year, he honed his skills:
…spoon, fork, cup—eating soup, sipping broth, spearing fried eggs, shoveling in blueberries—drinking from anything and only spilling on purpose or when he gets too excited.
He does go through occasional picky phases, but they are nothing like the french-fry-horror-stories I hear about.
Though, as I admitted, I did not follow baby-led weaning 100% (I spoon-fed him sometimes), but its principles guided us. It allowed for an almost totally stress-free experience in getting my son eating food.
Baby-led weaning can be scary to consider, if you’ve swallowed the conventional wisdom of the dangers of early self-feeding (no pun intended) and/or the need for early supplementation, but even a slightly long view of history and the world should help to assuage your fears and give you permission to ignore the so-called expertise of the pediatric establishment.
It can be messy. It is probably always messy. But if you’ve got a baby, messes are nothing new.
Baby-led weaning, like everything, has its own dogma and fear-mongering (never ever spoon-feed!, they say, it’s a choking hazard!).
Personally, I think it’s best to look at many approaches, then just pay attention to your baby, and figure out what works for your family at that time.
Learn more about baby-led weaning:
- Baby-led Weaning: A Real Food Approach to Feeding Your Baby (Nourished Kitchen)
- Skip the Mush: An Introduction to Baby-Led Weaning (Naturally Mindful)
- Starting Solids and Baby Led Weaning with Real Foods (Hybrid Rasta Mama)
- Beautiful Babies: Nutrition For Fertility, Pregnancy, Breastfeeding & Baby’s First Foods by Kristen Michaelis aka Food Renegade
(Shared with Fight Back Friday.)
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