“What?”, I thought, “A 6-month-old eating a mushroom?”
It was my first introduction to ‘baby-led weaning’, or more accurately ‘baby-self-feeding’. Good friends of ours adopted their second child just after we got married, so it was the first baby in our house as a couple. We watched with interest as they put their daughter in a small chair with a tray, and handed her pieces of the lunch we were eating. A slice of roast chicken. Half a baby tomato. A piece of raw mushroom.
There she was, part of the meal. She picked at some of the food, tried some out, threw some on the floor. Ate several pieces of mushroom and the tomato. It was fascinating.
Was this too good to be true?
Did this mean that one day when I had kids I wouldn’t have to make purees? There wouldn’t be a need to spend money on strange-tasting concoctions of foods in a glass jar? It wouldn’t be necessary to have to spend time spooning and re-spooning mush in a losing battle between me and a constantly pushing tongue? My previous exposure to baby-feeding and introduction of solids had up until now only consisted of this. I had never been overly enthusiatic about any of it. But now here was something I could really get my teeth into!
I was sold…
For me there was so much to love about baby-led weaning. Aside from the name, which can be a bit of a misnomer if you associate the word ‘weaning’ with ‘cessation of milk-feeds’ rather than ‘introduction of solids’. Although it was love at first sight, we still had a bit of a journey figuring it all out. Read on to find out what we learned!
Disclaimer: This post is not intended as medical or parenting advice – I am simply sharing our experiences in the hope that it may help someone else in a similar position.
What about the concerns?
Some feel that baby-led weaning is not optimal for ensuring adequate macro-and micro-nutritional intake in an infant. Since my daughter was continuing to be breastfed on demand, we felt that regardless of how much food she ate, her nutritional needs would still be met by breast milk for at least her first two years. In addition, because she had only had her cord clamped after birth after it stopped pulsating, and because the iron in breast milk is very bioavailable, we weren’t concerned about an inadequate iron intake.
The major concerns aside, we were enthusiastic about the benefits. We liked the idea of having meals together, not making different food (aside from cutting veg into fingers for the first couple of months), letting our child experience food in its natural form, learning how to handle solids in pieces from the get-go, and learning to self-regulate and listen to their appetite.
When to start?
The basic principle of starting baby-led weaning is ‘when they are ready’. How do you know when that is? There are a few clues to look out for, in different spheres of development. The baby should have:
- Mastered sitting unaided or have very good head control – gross motor
- The ability to bring an object to their mouth – fine motor
- Developed an interest in food (grabbing for things on plates!) – psychological
- Lost the tongue thrust or extrusion reflex – physiological
When will this happen? Usually around 6 months of life. These external signs are indicators of internal readiness of the baby’s gut to tolerate solid food. For some babies it may be slightly sooner than 6 months, and for some it may be later, but there isn’t a rush to have a baby eat solids.
The what reflex?
My older daughter ticked all the boxes for readiness, except the last. The tongue thrust or extrusion reflex is an innate reaction that protects a baby from choking. If something is put into the baby’s mouth, the baby’s tongue will push it back out! It usually disappears between the ages of 4 and 6 months. You can test the reflex by giving the baby an object to mouth, like a teaspoon. You will easily be able to observe if the baby’s tongue pushes it out! If it does, the reflex is still present, and it’s not time for solids yet!
Isn’t that too late?
Well, I kept checking, and my daughter kept pushing her tongue out. I wondered if this was ‘normal’. In researching online to find out if there was a precedent, I didn’t find much information. So I waited. My daughter lost the extrusion reflex when she was seven and a half months old! It was co-incidentally the day her first tooth broke through. And that is the day we started solids with baby-led weaning.
Not what we expected
Well, that day started two of the most harrowing weeks of our life. We had read up on baby-led weaning, seen some of it in action, and thought we were ready to handle anything. We weren’t as ready as we thought. Those first two weeks, at almost every meal without fail, our daughter gagged and vomited. It was not pleasant. We tried a variety of food, made sure things were soft and easily gummed, and we watched her like a hawk as she ate. She loved the food, and was keen to try a variety of things. However, it seemed inevitable that at some point in the meal she would gum off more than she could chew, end up gagging, and throw up what she had eaten (and the milk that had preceded it).
Unpleasant, but not dangerous
It really wasn’t fun to watch our little one react to this method of introducing solids, especially since we were so convinced that it was a logical and beneficial way to do so. That being said, she wasn’t actually choking. Her gag reflex just kicked in, as it is supposed to, when she tried to swallow something that was too big. Every meal we watched to see whether the same thing would happen again. Eventually, after two weeks of this happening again and again, my husband decided that we needed to call it and try something else. But just after that decision, something happened.
It just clicked
As we were ready to give up, suddenly she figured it out. She learned how to chew and swallow, and she stopped gagging and throwing up. It was amazing to watch it all come together. After that, she didn’t have any problems – she has never choked on anything. I think it is because she learned to chew at the beginning of her foray into the world of solids. We were able to have confidence in her eating abilities, having watched her master them.
Today, my daughter is nearly four and a half. She eats meals with us at the table, and enjoys a variety of foods. She handles cutlery well, and even chops vegetables when she helps in cooking. That being said, she would prefer to eat with her hands any day, and constantly reminds us that she will be eating that way when we are in Malawi!! She has decided she no longer likes ‘spicy’ food, and has a few food items that she prefers to avoid when possible or allowed. We loved that mealtimes were a time when we didn’t have to be doing things for her – it made for great family time.
And on it goes
When daughter number two made an appearance, we were ready to make a go of it again. Of course nothing goes the way you expect with the second child. Everything I thought was a hard and fast rule the first time round became more of a guideline. Still, we have invested in a variety of bibs, enjoyed the journey, and will continue to do our best to teach our children healthy eating habits by example.
Have you used baby-led weaning to introduce solids to your children? What was your experience?