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Bye-Bye Baby Food: Baby Led Weaning

Knee-deep in cans of mush? If baby went from gladly eating spoonful after spoonful of purees to clamping his little mouth shut, baby-led weaning could be the answer

When Christa Terry’s son Hunter was ready to start solid foods, like many a doting mama, she loaded up her shopping cart with jars of strained vegetables and fruits.

She definitely wasn’t expecting Hunter’s first mealtimes to turn into baby food battles. But he responded by spitting each bite out. He wasn’t having any of that pureed nonsense!

“He did not care for the texture,” says Terry, of Beverly, Mass., who runs the social networking site mommeetmom.com. After watching him reject five different types of baby food, Terry took a different tact. “He was one of those babies who was always very focused on what we were eating or his big sister was eating,” says Terry. “So we just said, ‘Okay if that's what you want, you’ll eat what we eat.’”

So when eight-month-old Hunter grabbed for the pickled ginger at a sushi restaurant, Terry didn’t stop him. “Turned out, as long as someone else was eating it, he’d eat it,” she says. Next came Terry’s homemade quiche and curries, in which, she notes, “the vegetables would be just soft enough that he could eat them.”

As he grew bigger, Terry continued to simply let Hunter have whatever the family was eating at the time. Now 13-months-old, Hunter’s day starts with a waffle, honeydew and a cheesestick.

“I just give him the whole cheese stick,” she says. “You have to watch him at the end because when there’s just two inches left he can fit the whole thing in his mouth. So you have to pay really close attention.”

Whether she realized it at the time or not, Terry’s been practicing what author and midwife Gill Rapley first dubbed “baby-led weaning,” a process that follows baby’s cues and introduces him to the table foods that mom and dad eat instead of what’s traditionally been thought of as “baby food.”

While baby-led weaning eliminates the need for those countless jars of mush, it’s not always easy. Terry notes that mealtime can take longer because Hunter’s feeding himself -- and it’s definitely messier. “It’s harder to tell if he’s had enough,” says Terry. “You sometimes don’t know how much he’s eaten versus how much just fell down his shirt.”

But overall, letting Hunter feed himself and choose what he wants to try has made mealtimes much smoother and helped avoid the struggles of getting a spoon of puree past clenched lips.

And it’s worked for plenty of other moms too. “I found that the solution to baby refusing food or being picky about what they would eat was just to let them feed themselves,” says Rapley, co-author of Baby-Led Weaning.
Want to give baby-led weaning a try? Here are some factors to consider.

What Can they Eat?

Once an infant starts grabbing at everything in sight -- at around six months old -- is exactly when he’s ready to give up the spoon and start feeding himself.

Current recommendations for when to start solid foods range from four to six months, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But as the AAP points out, every child will be different based on his own rate of development. So, before you start, definitely look for these four signs of solid-food readiness:

  • Baby can hold her head up.
  • Baby shows interest in food by opening her mouth when food comes her way or reaching for your food.
  • Baby can swallow solid food. Because babies are so used to an all-liquid diet, they have to learn how to move food to the back of the throat and swallow it. This is why baby’s first spoonfuls of rice cereal are often pushed right out of her mouth -- she has to figure out how to work it down to her throat. Once she does this, she’s ready to take on more diverse foods.
  • Baby has doubled her birth weight, or weighs 13 pounds or more.

Once your baby meets these requirements, open up the smorgasbord. If you’re having chicken for dinner, cut it up into small pieces. Steam carrots until they’re just soft, or cut up raw fruits and vegetables such as cucumbers that can be easily mashed by toothless jaws. Let him dive into a baked potato or pick up handfuls of spaghetti.

Of course it will be messy. But so much about babyhood is, isn’t it? By letting baby explore food in this way and on his own terms, you could see benefits later on.

“If babies don't experiment with food, they might miss that learning opportunity about eating,” says Eileen Behan, R.D., author of The Baby Food Bible. “That might add to somebody becoming a picky eater.”

What They Shouldn’t Eat

Rapley suggests that, at least initially, mealtime should feel like playtime to baby -- for little ones under a year old, it’s more about learning and exploring about food than caloric intake, given that they’ll still be getting the majority of their nutrition from breast milk or formula.

But that doesn’t mean that what you feed baby doesn’t matter. Remember, even baby’s earliest meals are helping him form long-term tastes and nutritional habits. So, if you’re going to serve the same meal to your child that you are eating, for both your sakes, ensure it is a healthy, balanced one.

The main concern nutrition experts have about baby-led weaning is salt and sugar intake, says Behan. “The thing I worry about is sodium,” she says. “Are mom and dad making their own food or are they buying canned or processed foods? Too much sodium creates a taste for sodium that babies don’t need, and it could affect their blood pressure.”

So avoid giving baby processed foods or fast food and, when cooking, omit all added salt. You can always sprinkle some onto your own food if necessary. Also watch out for spices, such as pepper, that could be irritating to a baby’s sensitive palate.

There are other factors to consider too. Because of the risk of choking, the AAP advises against giving a baby under the age of one any food that requires chewing. That includes hot dogs, nuts and seeds, chunks of meat or cheese, whole grapes, popcorn, chunks of peanut butter, raw vegetables, fruit chunks and hard, gooey or sticky candy. Infants under 12-months-old also should never have honey because of the risk of botulism.

Be alert to choking, but realize that there’s a difference between gagging and choking. Gagging is quite common as babies learn to chew and swallow. “The gag reflex is triggered very readily, well before anything gets anywhere near the airway,” says Rapley. “It may even be a sort of safety feature.” But that gag reflex doesn’t mean you should give up. “A lot of kids go through a period of doing quite a lot of gagging at first,” notes Rapley. “Some of it even makes them vomit slightly, but they just seem to manage to work their way through it and they don't seem bothered by it.”

Another important note: don’t forget to make sure you’ve cooked everything to the proper temperature. Never give an infant uncooked sushi or undercooked meats. And if you like your egg yolk runny, don’t share it -- make a firmly cooked scrambled egg for your baby instead.

“When it comes to food poisoning, children are more at risk,��� says Behan. “Cook your food properly to make sure all that potential bacteria or microbes are killed off.”

For ground meat that’s 160 degrees (no medium rare burgers for baby yet), 165 degree for poultry and 145 degrees for fish, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Benefits

Baby-led weaning means making one meal for the entire family, which means no more time spent steaming and pureeing fruits and vegetables. And if you were buying jarred food, the cost savings could be significant. Babies fed this way are also more likely to have a balanced diet, says Rapley, because they’re not limited to just fruits and vegetables. Plus, she notes, allowing your baby to do so helps him develop his fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

Expect there to be a learning curve -- but it may just be delicious! “There are ways of cooking meat that will make it easier to manage in the mouth, like casseroles,” says Rapley. “A piece of lamb or beef that they can gnaw on and suck is lovely, brilliant, and they will be getting some of the kind of juices from it as well.”

And if you’ve started having mealtime wars with your spoon-fed infant, baby-led feeding can bring you back to those days when mealtime was a pleasure for you both.

“It's a good feeling seeing your kids enjoying their food,” says Sarah Stulberg of Montgomery, Ohio, whose son Noah was eating ham, potatoes and green beans with the family at 6 months. “You can tell there's something neat happening here.”

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-- Cynthia Ramnarace

See More: Solid Foods , Baby Basics