Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Baby Led Weaning

You know when other parents see you with a new baby and say 'make the most of it, time goes by so fast'?  Well I've realised something:   They're right.   Darn right, time with a baby just flies by.  7 and a half months ago my son was a squawking chicken-legged little bundle with a permanently baffled expression, but now he's a smiling, burbling, bouncing, giggling, chubby ball of excitement and energy.  And one with an increasingly large appetite.

6 weeks ago we started giving him solid foods following the Baby-Led Weaning (BLW) method.  This a relatively new philosophy regarding introducing solid food to babies.  In the past it was recommended to start on solids at 4 months, and begin with spoon-feeding smooth purees, but the latest recommendations are to wait - if you can - until approximately 6 months old.  Babies should also be showing signs of 'readiness' for solid food:  Sitting up more or less unaided, reaching for food, showing an interest when others are eating.  By this stage babies' guts are more ready to tolerate a wide variety of foods, so there is no need to introduce new foods slowly.  There's loads more information on this amazing website, so I won't repeat it all here, but the premise is simple:  Let your babies feed themselves.

To start the process we simply began to offer Ted some soft foods in easily manageable 'stick' shapes.  I think his first 'meal' was roasted butternut squash.  He really enjoyed exploring this new texture, and inevitably some of it made its way to his mouth.  This is not unusual, most things in my house now seem to be covered in baby-dribble as he goes through his oral-fixation phase, but it was hilarious to see his *OMG* expressions when he first discovered his sense of taste.  Some foods seemed to elicit expressions of horror (see below for first reaction to banana!) but as he always kept going back for more I can only assume that he didn't find it as vile as his face would suggest.

At first he really didn't seem to be ingesting much of the food I presented him with, but I've learned that there's no need to worry.  I repeat to myself the mantra that 'food before one is just for fun' and just let him enjoy himself.  Children get all the nutrition they need until the age of about 1 from milk, be it breast or formula, and solid food is really just a top-up.  So no, I don't really know how much he is eating, even now, but I do trust that he is eating as much as he wants and needs.  This amount may be different every day, but that's OK.  If he eats less solid food one day he'll make up for it with an extra milk feed from me.

I have at times attempted to spoon-feed Ted, but he's having none of it, grabbing the spoon from my hand, or pushing it away from his face.  I'm so glad that I'm not trying to feed him this way, I think it would make mealtimes a battleground for us; I'm sure many babies will happily be fed by their parents, but Ted is clearly asserting his independence already...

At the moment spoons are actually too much of a distraction from the business of eating - they're such fun to play with/chew/bash on the tray/throw onto the floor - so I have temporarily given up offering them to him, preferring instead to just put the food onto his highchair tray and let him explore.  I'll try loading up spoons again some other time, but for now hands seem to do the job just fine.

At first he would grab everything in his fist, so the stick-shapes were essential so that he could chew on the bit sticking out of his fist, but it's been incredible to see how his food-handling skills have improved over the last few weeks.  He's beginning to develop a 'pincer-grip' which allows him to pick up quite small things like halved blueberries (I squish them in half so they are less of a choking hazard).  He's also able to deal with quite slippery stuff such as pieces of avocado, and 'sticks' of banana (easier to handle than slices).

 I love watching the concentration on his face when he sits down to a meal!  He genuinely seems to love his food and mealtimes can easily take anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour.

Some people express reservations about this method of weaning, most often that the baby might choke.  Of course this is a risk, but I think it's a small one as babies naturally gag - to push the food out of their mouths - if they are in danger of choking.  You just need to think carefully about what you give them.  Apple can be a choking risk as it can break off in hard chunks, so instead I grate raw apple for him.  Small spherical objects could also get wedged into a little throat, so as I mentioned earlier blueberries get squidged in half.  Soft bread can get stuck to the roof of baby's mouth causing distress, so toast or crusts are easier for them to deal with.  Even babies that are more traditionally weaned on smooth purees need to learn to deal with lumps and chunks of food sometime, so why not let them learn to deal with them straight away?  Of course some basic first-aid knowledge is important so that you know what to do if you do see your child choking, but surely that's important whatever weaning method you follow?  Babies put plenty of other things in their mouths!  It goes without saying that I never leave him unattended with food...  but at this age you can't really leave them unattended whatever they are doing (except when they're sleeping!)

At the moment 75% of Ted's diet is fruit and vegetables, but I also offer him pieces of lots of other foods, usually just what we ourselves are eating.  He has recently enjoyed pork casserole and roasted tomato pasta, and has tackled even strong-flavoured foods such as mackerel pate and olives (in a beef stew) with great enthusiasm.  A far cry from the bland baby-rice-style foods so often marketed for babies.

As you'll see from the photos it's messy...  but is it any messier than spoonfeeding purees?  I don't suppose so.  I spread a shower curtain on the floor underneath his highchair, either put a bib on him or know that I'll be putting his top in the washing machine straight after the meal, and just let him get on with it.

I know that 'traditional' weaning works well for many people, but I'm in no doubt that BLW is the right way for us.  For me it just seems logical - I wouldn't want to feed Ted anything that I wouldn't eat myself.  So beef stew is good, beef stew reduced to slop in a blender...  not so appetising.  Food is about so much more than just taste; it's how it looks, how different elements of a meal are different colours, different textures, feel different in your mouth (or hands!).  And as I personally like to put my own food into my mouth, it only seems right that I let Ted do the same.

As the child of 2 parents who love food, cooking and eating, I'd like to hope that he has a good chance of becoming a child who enjoys his food too.  I don't think BLW is a magic answer to avoiding having a fussy child later in life, but I do hope that we are laying the foundations of a lifelong love of food.  He's certainly making a good start!