Most American babies begin their gastronome journey with a spoonful of a puree or some sort of liquid cereal. It seems to be the most traditional approach as there is typically a majority of a grocery store aisle dedicated solely to jars, pouches and dissolvable cereal mixes.
So, when we chose to do Baby Led Weaning (meaning, our daughter started eating whole pieces of solid food at 6 months), we got a lot of side stares and quite frankly, concern, from friends, family and strangers who were not familiar with the baby led weaning approach.
Here are 5 things we regularly found ourselves telling people in those early months:
1. She is physically ready for whole foods. From the AAP to the AAFP, it is now recommended to breastfeed or provide formula exclusively for the first six months. Assuming a healthy weight and medical history, it is likely your pediatrician would now recommend introducing solids at 6 months instead of 4-5 months (when the baby’s thrust reflex — when their tongue pushes things outward of the mouth — was still in action). At 4-5 months, purees were a necessary way to introduce foods because of that reflex. Now, guidelines across the board recommend exclusive breast feeding (or formula) until 6 months of age when babies can generally sit up on their own, the thrust reflex is gone, and they can grasp whole pieces of food….meaning they are physically ready for safely prepared whole pieces of food.
2. She’s learning to chew before swallowing…and no, she doesn’t need teeth to do that! Both in my experience and many others, learning to chew before swallowing reduces the risk of choking. Wheres puree-fed babies have not learned this skill and must be taught it at a later date (think the lines of dissolvable crackers and puffs that baby food brands market!). Instead, our daughter has learned from day one how to move her mouth in a chewing motion, control the quantity of food she puts in her mouth and tear food into more manageable pieces that she is comfortable with. We have not had to give her processed products to learn that skill. She also happens to be a late tooth-bloomer; at 14 months she still doesn’t have teeth but is successfully to eat anything we can if we serve it to her in appropriately-sized pieces.
3. Meal times more enjoyable. At six months, she wasn’t ready for utensils yet, but she really wanted to hold the spoon we offered her purees on and dip her hand into the food. She also kept trying to grab whatever adult food was on the table. This made mealtimes a struggle. She also gagged a lot more when I chose the frequency or quantity of how much food to put in her mouth. When we began baby led weaning, there was an initial period of anxiety; but as we watched her decision-making in process, we learned that she was naturally able to decide how much food was ‘too much’ (she would spit or pull part of the food out of her mouth) to put in her mouth (she began tearing food into smaller pieces at around 11 months) or even at what pace she ate (making me realize that I had been speed-feeding her compared to her much slower, more methodical approach to inspecting then eating food). Once we all became more confident eaters, we had less anxiety around the dinner table and would use that time to talk about the food we were eating and our days.
4. It teaches her to love food and builds healthier habits. She is in charge of how much food she eats and the pace at which she eats it. I may know it is meal time, but I don’t know how hungry she is feeling at that moment. Perhaps she is teething and less hungry, or getting sick. Perhaps she likes the taste of something, perhaps she does not. Just like me, she has fluctuations in what feels/sounds good to her body. With baby led weaning, she is able to self-regulate her energy intake and is exposed to a variety of tastes, textures and smells from early on. At different developmental ages, tots are more shy or averse to things that are “new” (think about the phase of a normally social baby becoming more clingy and afraid of new people). I can’t help but think the same holds true for newness of foods. Because our daughter has been exposed to such variety of smells, tastes and textures; she is less likely to shun something because it is new.
5. It is more convenient and economical. With baby led weaning, you make one meal and share it as a family. You may modify it (i.e., reduce spice or salt during cooking) or buy extra fruit or vegetables for snacks, but you do not need to buy pre-packaged purees or processed foods which can get very expensive very quickly. In fact, we’ve probably purchased only about $20 worth of pouches or puffs in the the last 8 months. With that said, I do purchase more groceries (because we now cook more at home and do less take out/restaurants) and many of our groceries are now organic, non-GMO or specialty (reduced sodium) to make healthier, more nutritious meals at home. It would be a lie to say that serving her roasted sweet potato ‘fries’ as a snack is more convenient than opening a pouch of puffs, but with just a little more planning and time, the trade off is well worth it knowing she’s getting wholesome, real sources of nutrition. Plus, there are grab & go options like small boxes of organic raisins or a handful of Power-Os (a protein rich alternative to Cheerios), that are just as convenient and oz by oz far more economical than products marketed for babies.