Now that we are advised to wait until around six months to start, our babies have better co-ordination and more mature stomachs than they did at four months, and so it is possible to skip the stage of aeroplaning mush into their mouths and then scraping it off their chins, and offer finger food right from the start. This is known as baby-led weaning (BLW), and the main principle is that the only person to put food in the baby’s mouth, is the baby himself.
I started weaning my son the traditional way, at 23 weeks, with great excitement and anticipation of him quickly becoming as much of a food-lover as I am. I did consider the baby-led weaning approach, but felt that it would not work for us, because I would be returning to work a month later, and therefore no longer had the opportunity to breastfeed on demand. As with most things, my son had a completely different agenda to me, and resolutely refused to contemplate the spoonfuls of delicious runny baby rice that I offered him. For a few days he had some interest in pear, carrot, and potato; but as soon as the novelty wore off, he closed his mouth, turned his head away, and cried; and that was his final say in the matter.
BLW puts the baby in charge of his own eating, on the basis that if parents offer a range of interesting, nutritious, and suitable food, then the baby can choose what he eats, and this allows him to move gently towards a solid diet. The goal is not to force your baby to eat, but to let him experience the tastes and textures of food at his own pace. It encourages the development of motor skills, and because the baby quickly moves on to eating the same food as the rest of the family, he also benefits from learning social skills at shared mealtimes, when he can participate in eating actively, rather than passively. As long as parents can relax and accept that it might take longer for the baby to consume significant quantities of food, this approach is more fun, less stressful, and much, much messier than traditional weaning on purees. At this stage, milk is still the most important source of nutrition, so it doesn’t really matter how much solid food baby eats, as long as he gets plenty of milk.
The BLW philosophy is to follow the child’s cues, and start when he indicates he is ready to try some solid food. First signs of readiness include losing the tongue-thrust mechanism (where anything put into the mouth is pushed back out again), having the ability to sit unsupported, and starting to develop a pincer grip with the thumb and forefinger. Our experience was that this tentative ability came on very quickly, when sufficiently motivated by such interesting items as peas and roast potatoes.
The first foods we offered were fruit, rice cakes, and steamed or roast chips of vegetables. We found that if you leave the peel on hard fruit like pears, the baby can pick them up more easily, and will suck the flesh and spit out the peel. Of course you should never leave your baby unattended while eating, but don’t be too alarmed by a little bit of gagging: this is a normal part of learning to manipulate food in the mouth, and is not the same as choking. We moved on to breadsticks and toast, pieces of cheese, and small lentil patties (an early favourite). Breakfast cereals were less successful in our case, but could work well with a different baby (my constantly teething son liked his food to be soft but still insisted on using his own hands, hence breakfast usually consisted of one weetabix with 2oz milk – perfect finger-mush). Later on we tried poached fish and chicken, and finally just shared our own meals with him.
He didn’t really start to eat well until he was nearly a year old, but mealtimes where I could relax and let him dictate how much he ate were always the most pleasant ones. He has always eaten better at the family table than on his own, and we have the attitude that there are no things he doesn’t like, just things he doesn’t like YET. Around 12 months he started trying to feed himself with a spoon, and over the past year he has progressed to a fork, and now likes to wave a (baby-friendly) knife around while he eats as well.
At two years old, my son has eaten (and likes) a far more varied diet than I remember as a youngster (or even in my twenties!), from olives to salsify. He also eats things that I don’t like much, like spinach (mixed with cream cheese and combined with pasta makes a good mushy, messy finger food) and fish.
There have been many ups and downs, especially when he is teething, poorly, or tired. Some days he eats more, and some days he eats less, and some days he has a healthy diet, and some days I let him have a sausage roll. I try to look at the bigger picture, and consider that overall he has a good diet and enjoys his food, which, looking back, is what I wanted in the first place.
BLW works well in a family where the parents feel able to relinquish control over what the baby eats. You decide what to offer, and he decides what to accept; there is no batch-cooking of mush, no counting spoonfuls, and no train-coming-through-the-tunnel-and-INTO-your-mouth! It is important to be able to top up with milk on demand, but at least that way you can be sure that the little tummy isn’t filling up with less-nutritious solid food, to the detriment of milk, which still provides the main source of calories and other nutrients that the baby needs to in order to grow.