June 17, 2021

On beginning solid foods.

Did you know that purees are largely an invention of the formula companies?
(And no, this post really isn’t a pro-breastfeeding post, but it is a pro-baby post! :-))

In the early twentieth century, as many of our grandparents and great-grandparents trusted the advances of science above almost anything else, including what had been done for centuries, formula was seen as superior to breastfeeding, and became the standard of infant feeding.  However, that formula was nutritionally void, and babies needed to get nutrients elsewhere.  So, babies were given solids earlier and earlier.  (My husband talked to a long-practicing nurse recently who showed him an old document where they recommended certain foods at 4 weeks!  I about died. Those poor babies!)

But, with infants under 6 months of age, they can’t chew, they can’t sit up, and everything must be pretty much liquid, or at least with no texture.  As one author notes, with the strong tongue thrust reflex still very much active, “In order to “feed” very young babies, they must in fact be tricked. The food must be liquefied because they cannot chew.  They must be spoonfed to get past the tongue reflex, circumventing an important safety mechanism (though in most cases, you still have to push the same spoonful back in several times before it stays).  And it must be bland, tasteless, indistinguishable from their accustomed milk, or else they will reject it.” (Heather Dunham on EcoChildsPlay).  And so, purees came into play.  (And I could get into how this played right into the greedy manufacturer’s hands, with “booby-trapping breastfeeding mothers, who must then turn to formula, and then must turn to early solids, but I won’t. ;-))  This method of feeding babies also takes any control away from the babies themselves, as whoever is feeding them tries to get that next bite in… or the whole jar.

Thankfully, it’s no longer the early twentieth century, and formula is much more nutritionally complete.  And, we know now that babies have something called a “virgin gut”, where anything other than breastmilk before about six months of age can pass through the not completely ready lining of the gut, and cause allergies, etc.  Even though formula can introduce issues, it is still better to give prior to six months than solids.So, what happens at six months?  Unlike that baby who must be tricked, a six-month-old is able (or almost able) to sit up on their own, to chew, and to reach for and put food in their own mouth.  Hold them too close to your plate, and you might just find your pita bread stolen right under your nose.  Not that I speak from experience or anything…In fact, research is now showing that purees are not needed.  Yep, that’s what I said.  Instead, by waiting until baby is able to sit on their own, and simply begins to feed themselves, they are indicating that they are ready for solids, which coincides with the virgin gut closing and being ready for solids.  Further, research is showing that babies fed in this way are healthier down the road, with a lower BMI, and a healthier attitude towards food, showing in toddlers that aren’t quite as picky (possibly because food isn’t seen as the control battleground and because they have been exposed to so many different foods), and later in life.

So, wait, I just give my six-month-old a cheeseburger?
Well…you could.  And frankly, you might not have to give it…they might just take it!  ;-)In all seriousness, there are many ways of doing what is commonly called “baby-led-weaning” (where weaning refers the UK definition of weaning, which is to add anything to milk, instead of to cut back on milk), or baby-led solids.  One common approach is to start with soft “sticks” or “fingers” of roasted vegetables, like squash or broccoli.  Other first foods include avocado (full of awesome fats that baby needs!) or banana split longways. Our baby’s first food (at a few days before 8 months, 6 months adjusted) was a piece of pita at our favorite Mediteranean restaurant, and his second was gnawing on a whole apple, after we took one bite to break the skin.  Always adventurous, he has always been willing to at least taste whatever we eat, and now won’t let us eat without wanting some.  (This is one side effect, it often causes parents to really analyze their own diets!)  Where we have friends who comments that their children will only eat pasta or hot dogs or what have you, and they were amazed to see our little guy eating Pakistani food before a year old, and loving it!  Many parents who practice this method of feeding find that their children are less picky as toddlers (recognizing that all toddlers do have picky phases, of course).

In short, you can start with softer foods to let baby get used to how food works in their mouths or you can simply begin giving pieces of your own dinner, or some combination of the two.

How will I know when they are ready? 
Being able to sit up by themselves is a very important milestone, as it helps prevent choking.  Reaching for food and actually putting it in their mouth (and not just wanting to mimic what you are doing) is another.  These often happen around six months, and help indicate that baby is ready and that the virgin gut is ready.  If baby seems ready at 4.5 or 5 months, one helpful technique to get them to wait is to sit them at the table and give them utensils (baby-sized or a real spoon) to play with, as they often just want to mimic, and it is often mistaken for wanting food.  Some babies may be ready a week or two before six months, and others, well, they may be perfectly content and fine with their milk until 8, 9, 10 months!

Will they start eating full meals at once?
No.  A few might just start eating like crazy, but the beauty of baby-led is that it is just that, baby-led.  For parents, it really helps to have a mindset of trusting that your baby knows what they need, when they need it.  And so if milk is what your baby needs until they are 9 months old, and they they start eating like they’ve been eating all their lives (haha), then that is what they needed.  One key principle of BLW is to give baby a milk feed before each meal through the first year, as that is to be their primary nutrition for at least that long.  In the breastfeeding community, a common mantra is “food before one is just for fun”, as breastmilk is providing all the nutrition they need, and offering food is simply for them to explore the textures and tastes, how it feels and squishes, and learn how to move food around in their mouths, chew, etc.   At sixteen months, our son, still breastfed, has days where he eats quite a bit, and other days where he just doesn’t.  We trust him to know what he needs (and know that growth slows drastically after the first year), and trust that breastmilk fills in any gaps in what he eats nicely.
Many start with giving just one meal a day, often when the parents have the most time, and build up to more meals as baby seems to want more.  Some parents only give solids while baby is home with them for awhile.  Many daycare providers are understanding of the principles, and resources are available to help educate them if needed.  (Just leave a comment reminding me, if I forget to link that!)

I know exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first six months, but my baby is fomula-fed.  Is it really enough for the first six month?  Can I do this as well?
Yes, your baby can start solids this way as well! One author points out that regardless of what milk they get, your baby is still a human baby, and learning about food (to chew, about how the mouth handles food, etc.) is exactly the same!  And the bottom line is, regardless of the milk they drink, research is showing that babies do not need solids until they can feed themselves.

But don’t they need rice cereal?
In a word, ABSOLUTELY NOT!!   I was leery, started researching, and it turns out that not only does it have NO nutritional value, but it converts to pretty much pure sugar (glucose) in the body!  Why would I feed my baby that?  And why would I feed them something that tastes like wallpaper paste AND isn’t good for them? One researcher argues that this popular beginning food is the leading reason for the childhood obesity epidemic.  Click here to check out the White-Out campaign for succinct, easy to share information on why it’s a great idea to say no to rice cereal.

My baby has no teeth.  I have to feed purees. 🙁
Um, has your baby ever bitten on your finger (or your nipple!) with those toothless-gums?!  Did you feel how hard they were?  Actually, they can gum LOTS!  With just a few teeth, our little guy was gumming and loving steak, and a friend’s baby was eating whole meals with NO teeth!

What about choking?
As baby’s learn to eat food, they will gag.  But gagging isn’t choking.  Instead, it’s a beneficial process that teaches them how to handle food and is there to protect them from foreign intruding bodies.
I’m not going to reinvent the wheel, check out this page for great info on choking.  🙂

In conclusion…
I plan to write more on this, so what would you like to know? 

For our family, this made so much rational sense!  We try to eat largely organic and unprocessed, especially when at home, and we want our son to have a healthy relationship with food.  Armed with this, we realized that his body is built to handle food in pretty much the same way ours can, and that he did not need purees.  While I won’t say it’s not messy, ha, it has been SO much simpler!  No pureeing, no freezing, no trying to shove a spoon in a reluctant baby’s mouth, just cooking healthy food that benefits all of us.

Several very helpful resources:
Baby Essentials That Aren’t: Baby Food from  Eco Child’s Play:  This is one of the most easy-to-understand but thorough write-ups I’ve seen!
Forget the Mush – Baby-led weaning puts the joy back into mealtimes by Gil Rapley:  Written by the foremost author on the topic, this gives the general principles of BLW and what they research is saying about it, such as helping to ward off obesity.
Note:  Rapley is from the UK, and some terminology may be different.  Health visitors, for example. I’ve gathered that they instead of seeing a doctor every few months, there are intermediaries that come to your house.
Baby-Led Weaning.  The original page.  Great summary on the homepage, and helpful getting started page.  Quite a bit of slightly head-scratching British phrasing though. 🙂
Medical News: Baby’s First Foods Should be Finger Foods.  More powerful reasons from scientific research.
On baby-led weaning for the formula-fed baby.  Not so scientific, but an interesting point.

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