Introducing solids to babies is a hot topic for parents – especially first timers. I have friends who have cried to me about the nightmare it was trying to get their babies to eat in those first few weeks, and the battle they continue to have trying to give their children cooked protein (whether it’s animal or soy based, there seems to be a majority camp crying “this is so hard!”). I’ve written previously about how we started on solids (see: A Solid Start), but I thought it might be helpful to write a more elaborate post of how the process continues beyond those first few weeks, what the options are for “weaning”, and some of our own “hacks” to get the little one eating with as little fuss as possible.
So WHAT is baby weaning?
A lot of people think “weaning” means “to wean off the teat/breast/milk.” However, in this context, it basically is the practice of transitioning your baby from an exclusive milk diet (breast milk, formula, or a mix of both), to a mixed diet of food + milk + a little dose of water or juice.
What are my options?
To be perfectly honest, before “weaning” our son a few months ago, I didn’t even know there were “options.” I thought the tried-and-true method would be to boil/poach/steam food, puree it, and spoon feed it to your baby to start. Apparently, I was wrong, and that was simply known as the traditional method of “solid-starting,” and I just hadn’t gone too far in depth in my own research ahead of time. It wasn’t until I was having lunch with some friends and I heard the term, “Baby-Led Weaning,” that I realized there was another way to start this whole process.
What is Baby-Led Weaning?
Baby-Led Weaning is basically a “new” style of “weaning” wherein you skip the purees, and go straight to “finger food.” There is no pressure for them to finish what is on the plate, and the first weeks are considered “discovery time,” wherein very little food actually gets eaten while they are busy discovering their own mouths (learning important chew-and-swallow skills in the process).
1. You skip the mess and struggle of spooning puree into an unwilling baby’s mouth
2. Your baby is taught, in a very organic way, the ins and outs of chewing and swallowing (many of those who swear by Baby-Led Weaning insist this lowers the risk of choking, and makes them feel more at ease)
3. This particular method overtly advocates for parents (and/or caregivers) to maintain keen observation of the baby’s own cues. Babies will always let you know what they are ready for in some way or another. You just need to be tuned in to their cues to catch on.
I have to admit that after I learned about the Baby-Led Weaning method, I was very intrigued and might want to try it in the future with future children. I like the natural flow to it very much and find that it could highly beneficial to the baby, and in fact, I felt it shared a lot of comparisons with how we weaned our baby despite going the “Traditional” route.
Now how does it compare to the Traditional Method?
Traditionally, one would start with a one solid food type, get it nice and soupy, and spoon feed it to their child between months 4-6. The natural “weaning” time begins at this point, and is especially important in month 6 onward, because baby’s internal iron stores (present from birth) begin depleting around then (New Mother’s Guide to Breastfeeding, American Academy of Pediatrics, 2011).
Often, this effort to feed purees can begin with much frustration. Some babies might be hesitant to open up and try new flavors. Most parents take this as a cue to just try harder to get that food in there. As such, a common “disadvantage” of this style of feeding, is the mess and stress many parents associate it with.
However, as someone who started with the Traditional Method with our first child, I would like to think it has its merits too. For me:
- There is no fear of choking in the early days (despite what Baby-Led Weaning enthusiasts have told me, I find it hard to believe that there is no choking hazard in allowing a 4-6 month old baby to put whole pieces of anything into their mouths. I have seen choking children and it’s terrifying, what more babies. I think if you go the Baby-Led Way, it’s great but you really need to add an extra layer of caution by never looking away during the process, and ensuring what you’re feeding is soft enough and small enough to pose no risk)
- It allows you to respond to baby’s growing need for iron aptly and in the right amounts (unlike with Baby-Led Weaning, when it takes a while before you can be sure if baby is getting much of anything at all to supplement their milk diet)
- As a full time mama with a full time office job too, this particular reason really resonates with me: If you have help at home, it is likely the way that they are most accustomed to. Even though we have the best nanny (seriously, she’s great, and she’s even trained in infant emergency response), I would hate for her to be Baby-Led Weaning without me, and then something happen. I know that’s an emotional, maybe even “paranoid” thing to say, but if you are a parent, you’ll know exactly what I mean. I am glad we took the tried-and-true method, and that she and my husband and I have all been able to work together to wean our baby positively and productively and as safely as we can.
- In my opinion, the traditional way allowed us to follow baby’s cues even more minutely
…Let me expound on #4:
When we introduced solids to Lucas, we made sure he was exhibiting the following cues:
1. Watching us eat and reaching for our own solids with interest
2. Salivating or making gum smacking/lip smacking faces when watching us eat
3. Exhibiting a declining interest in milk alone (he would refuse a meal a day)
These cues told us it was a good time to give him purees. He didn’t seem to have a chew reflex yet, but he seemed ready to teach his mouth to hold food in and swallow. This movement is actually different than the movement required to breast/bottle feed – which, actually requires the tongue to push out a bit, as it is a suck and swallow reflex. That’s why when a baby starts on solids, the first few bites need to be spooned back in multiple times before he/she actually knows to swallow.
After the initial start, we were then able to follow other cues to get us to the “next level” of “solid eating”:
A few weeks in, he started making chewing movements: So, we started him on “chunkier” food.
A couple of weeks after, his first 2 teeth broke: So we started slowly introducing “true solids”. In the last 2 months since that happened, we’ve introduced him to chunks of: bread, mango, watermelon, rice crackers, and avocado; as well as whole pieces of steamed broccoli, and similar.
As a first-time mom with real choking fears, I felt comfortable doing this, following his tiniest cues. In the process, our son has definitely benefitted from the ridiculously wide array of fruits, vegetables, and meats we have been able to introduce to him in this time; and we enjoy watching him develop and discover his mouth, taste, and preferences.
Which brings me to the last thing I want to talk about…
We have had very little drama from Day 1 on solids. And we have never encountered any issues introducing him to meats/proteins. He loves tofu, chicken, beef, and salmon, and I look forward to introducing egg, pork, and more, in the months to come. These days, breakfast is veggies or fruit (this morning he had chunks of mango), protein-and-veggies for lunch with a side (today it was chicken, zucchini, and pumpkin + brown bread on the side), and a dinner similar to lunch with a side (tonight it was beef, broccoli, and carrot + brown bread on the side). Maybe we’re just blessed with an easy-going Nomster. But in case we did something right too, here are some of the rules we lived by during this process that will be useful whether you go the Traditional route or the Baby-Led route:
- Don’t force anything down his throat. Do be firm and try to get him interested in the food. BUT if he’s crying, pushing the spoon away, rejecting the meal, just stop and try again later. It’s not worth it to make a huge mess, or build negative associations with food. Babies get their primary sustenance from milk still, so rest assured that one skipped solid meal is not the end of the world. Just pack it up and try again later.
- Do pay close attention to his cues. (See above for examples of that in practice)
- Try not to start with fruits if you can help it. (Why? I talked about this on my last post, but in summary: fruits are sweet! What babies develop a taste for in the beginning will be their jump off point for the rest of their lives. If you start them sweet, they’ll only want the sweet stuff. I’m not sure if there is scientific evidence for this, but I know from my own friends’ stories that this happens more often than not. So what can you start with? VEGETABLES. That’s what we did. And now Lucas is a veggie fiend and takes his proteins like a pro! He likes fruits too, but I’m glad his taste is more towards the savory, with a healthy appreciation for the sweet)
- Try not to start with rice cereals or similar if you can help it (Similar to #3’s rationale, feeding a bland starch as a starter, I believe, will only serve to develop your baby’s taste for calorie-empty white carby food)
- RELAX and enjoy the process. As with all things, are babies feed off of our energy. If we’re stressed and upset about the process, they will be too. Try to enjoy it. Feeding your baby solids is a wonderful discovery process for the whole family. So have fun while doing it!
At the end of the day, do what you think is best for your baby. If from solid eating Day 1, your baby just seems ready to freestyle it (you know your baby better than anyone), then go Baby-Led. If you’re more conservative like me, go Traditional. Either way, do what you think is best, keep a close eye on your little one, and enjoy the process!