Baby feeding, baby led

I just started reading this great book – Baby-Led Weaning by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett. It’s about using real food, or table food, to start with your ~ 6 month old baby. I am so excited about starting solids. I am especially excited for Paige! The cover boasts: No purees, no stress, no fuss. And I believe them.

As an Occupational Therapist, my background is working with children with complicated feeding issues. These are not just picky eaters, but problem feeders. Kids that will not just eat if/when they are hungry. It’s primarily a sensory thing, which includes texture, taste, smell, feel, and look of the food but context, social setting, experience and their history with eating and food also affect their perception. So far, this idea resonates with me both as a new mom and as a professional working specifically on child feeding. The courses I have taken, and the experience I have gained from working with these children, makes me wholly support this Baby-Led idea. Also, I want Paige to begin with the best possible start to eating solid food. I believe that began with breastfeeding on demand.

The Baby-Led Weaning book confirms that idea, by explaining how the typical progression from breast to purees to real solids follows the pattern of: baby-led, parent-led, then back to baby-led. But with the Baby-Led Weaning (also referred to as Baby-Led Solids, so as not to be confused with weaning from the breast or bottle) way of introducing solids, your baby is always in control of the amount, and what, they eat.

Two of the many convincing anecdotes they provide, along with more scientific information, are: 1) Babies know when they are hungry, especially breastfed babies; if you’ve ever tried to breastfeed a baby who is not hungry, you will know what I mean. 2) Many mothers who have 3 or more children often do this instinctively by the third child as they know a 6 month old can handle real food AND because they don’t have the time to cater to each child specifically.

A baby can really only eat purees if spoon fed. The authors go into detail about why baby food, such as cereal and jarred food, was first developed. It was to supplement malnourished formula fed babies; because formula alone, particularly the first kinds introduced onto the market, did not provide enough nourishment (whereas breast milk did/does). Baby cereal was created for formula fed babies, who needed more nutrition by 3 or 4 months of age, and who could obviously not consume real food.

Baby food does not seem that appealing. Although Paige is not ready for solids quite yet, she is interested in watching us eat. Now, it does seem absurd to let her watch but not taste what we are eating, when she is ready. In the book, they also explain what it will look like when your baby is ready, given that you provide your baby with the opportunity to show you. By having your baby at the table when you eat, and within reaching distance of food, or at least able to make an obvious show about wanting food, then they will reach when they are ready. Of course, they should also be able to sit with little or no support (otherwise a choking risk), and bring their hands to their mouth. You may be concerned that choking seems more likely with this method but it’s not. As I have witnessed with Paige, when she is holding something, such as a spoon to play with, and she jabs it into her mouth, if it goes too far back she gags. She removes it quickly, and tries again. Soon she learns not to gag herself, and the problem is solved. This would be the same when eating. As long as she is in control, she will learn not to choke (or gag) herself.

I want Paige to enjoy eating, for it to be social and fun with her family, and ultimately, for her to choose to be a healthy eater, without my help. Baby-led weaning appears to be the start to make that happen. It is explained that once babies are able and willing to eat solids, that there is no reason, physically, to start with purees. By about 6 months, babies can eat real foods, and you can skip the pureeing. I should add that I am a teeny tiny bit disappointed to not be making homemade, organic baby food for Paige, but mostly I am relieved. Now I can make homemade, organic real food for the whole family, because obviously Paige does not need to (and should not) eat processed food, or food with added sugar or salt. Spice is okay and encouraged!

Take for example a tuna casserole. If there are noodles, peas, tuna and carrots, the baby can see all of these things. They can try them all, but neglect to eat the orange things if they want. This will also go miles to develop fine motor coordination, another area I worked on with kids at my previous job, by the way. With pureed baby food, what do you get? Everything lumped together. So if the same casserole was pureed, your baby may not like the taste of carrots, and you would only know that they didn’t like that flavor. And you may never realize that it’s always, and only, the carrot that is disliked.

I should also add that when starting solids, the child is not going to consume very much. In the beginning it’s all about learning and experience. Most of their nutrition will continue to come from the milk they drink, whether from a breast or in the form of formula. Apparently, it will take about 6 months before a baby’s body can consume and utilize enough of the solid food eaten to be healthy.

I do have issues with baby food made by formula, or other companies, but more to the point, I just don’t like the lack of texture. Sure there is some variety, but not like there is with real food. If a baby is able to smell, feel and taste different foods on their own terms, of course it makes sense that they will also be more willing to try a wider variety of foods, because they are not worried about being forced to eat it. This is exactly what I did with the kids at my job – empowered them, and let them be in control. By allowing them to see, touch and possibly try what they want, they will start to view mealtimes as fun exploration, not stressful events where someone might force them to eat. I followed this method with the older problem/picky eaters I worked with, and with perseverance from myself and the family, it works all of the time. Note: it can get messy!!

Of course, there will be foods that work best when using a spoon, such as soup. But why don’t you BOTH have spoons (a common idea we suggested to parents as a way to involve their kids). Or better yet, why can’t your baby have the spoon? If they truly like it, you can always help them eat more after. And although it would be messy, giving them the soup to feel with their own fingers is a great tactile experience. Just have the bath water running in the meantime!

One last piece of interesting information: a healthy, normal child’s daily caloric intake can vary up to 300% from day to day! So, by following the Baby-led method, you can watch your baby have fun learning about food and NOT stress about them eating the whole jar of baby food.

Also check out this website for more information about this method.

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7 Comments

April 3, 2011 · 11:55

7 responses to “Baby feeding, baby led

  1. Hailey

    Hi Thea,

    I enjoyed reading your blog about feeding. The one point that I disagree with is this: when babies don’t have teeth, it is difficult for them to eat table food (other than purees). From a developmental and oral-motor perspective (and from my personal experience as a mom), babies aren’t ready to eat solid foods (I am referring to table foods) at 6 months of age. By about 9 months, when teeth start to come in (some babies get their first tooth sooner), then this is the time when you can start to introduce soft-solids such as cheese, yogourt, etc.

    Anyway, I wish you and Paige all the fun with food and mealtime. Like you said, making mealtime stress-free and fun is the best idea. Keep in mind, though, around 18 months of age, the “NO” phase begins. You may try and introduce 2 choices and Paige may just say “no” to both. Every phase is fun and interesting as long as you’re prepared for Paige to say “no” one day to any or all foods you present.

    Awh, the joys of parenting!!!

    • Thanks for reading Hailey! I do see what you are saying about having difficulty being able to eat without teeth, but many children don’t get teeth until even closer to, or at, a year, and they can eat a wide variety of food before that. Babies I’ve seen mash their food with the back of their mouth, without teeth, as molars don’t always arrive before a year. Oral motor skills develop as a baby has a chance to practice, as you know, which is what this method provides. Just as with feeding purees in the beginning, feeding table food early results in very little being consumed; they still have a tongue thrust and push most food out, regardless of the consistency. No matter when you first introduce table food, it will take X amount of time for a baby to develop oral motor coordination; this I experienced with the sensory kids I worked with, many of whom were preschoolers, with teeth and the ability to eat some solids. We had to start easier; but ‘easy’ doesn’t have to be pureed. Foods such as banana and cooked sweet potato can easily be squished in the mouth, and don’t require prior mashing.

      Anyway, if you are interested, I highly recommend the book! Since I bought it I have talked to friends about this method and moms with 2 or more kids tell me that they started doing this too, by default. It seems that 6 month olds can be sneaky and steal food, and handle it fine! I will definitely try to keep posting about the trials and tribulations we go through. I am not excited about the “no” phase however.

      Thanks again for reading!

  2. The above comment from a friend has now prompted me to write an addendum to my post. First off, the table food offered to a 6 + month old needs to be cut up into appropriate sizes, particularly things like vegetables and meat, but everything. And some children are not ready at 6 months, but 7 or 8 months instead. Next, the second most important point behind this method (the first being to offer table food) is to be in tune with your baby to better read their cues and follow their lead. This applies to all methods of baby feeding, at all stages. So, if spoon feeding, the baby should decide how fast, and how much they need/want to eat. I do believe normal healthy babies and children are predispositioned to eat as much as they need, and that their wants are often the same as their needs. Of course, as the parent you do provide the menu options, they just choose what to eat from that.

  3. Joy

    Hey Thea,
    Thanks for the post! I’ve heard of baby led weaning before, but this is my first time learning a bit more about it (can’t quite find the time to read as much as I would like!). Anyway – I’m now very curious about this and maybe using this method with Zuri now that’s she’s 6 months and just started trying rice “liquid”… I’m also very interested in your experience with getting older kids to eat! Noah used to be a great eater, pretty much eating all the time, and almost everything (especially other people’s food, haha). But since around the time he turned 2, he doesn’t eat food that we eat. I basically serve him a little bit of whatever we’re eating and we eat together, but never eats he always ends up not eating it, so I end up giving him cheese/toast/yogurt/applesauce instead (our go-to foods!). I know it’s a normal part of the “no” phase Hailey mentioned, but do you have any advice for encouraging him to grow out of it?? I’m a little worried he’s not getting all the nutrients he needs.

    I’m also wondering if the baby-led weaning will help Zuri be a better eater when she’s in that stage….

    • Yeah, Zuri is 6 months today – yay! I am about half way through the book now, and the key points are to use raw and natural foods as much as possible, cut into sticks of 2 inches or more long. This way the baby can hold onto it AND have a part to gnaw/chew on. It’s all about tasting, which is the same as with starting purees and mashed food from 6 months on, but it’s also about texture and variety, and most importantly, independence. I like that Paige will be in control, as it seems she already prefers being autonomous.

      Is your doctor worried about Noah, or just you? There are things you can do, either way, but the approach would be slightly different if there is a dire need. Definitely good practice to offer him what you are eating, but you can slowly alter his preferred foods to include a wider variety of nutrition. I don’t know how particular he is, or what he accepts for alternatives but you don’t want to change anything too fast, or he won’t eat it anyway. For example, with apple sauce, you can add 1/8 tsp pureed sweet potato or carrot (just buy a jar of baby food) to the cup, so color and taste are virtually the same. Then, if he takes it, add 1/4 tsp a few days later, and keep going until it’s 1/2, or all, sweet potato. Adding foods high in a variety of nutrients, like sweet potato, work best to really ramp up nutrition.

      From my experience at work, this method appears to be very helpful with encouraging variety in diet, as it starts with diverse food options.
      Hope that helps! Feel free to ask for more ideas – I will do my best to respond promptly :)

  4. tracie p

    i’ve started BLW as well. my baby girl is 7 months old today and we started with an avocado slice and a banana the day she turned 6 months. She now knows how to swallow and her diapers are finally disgusting! yay!
    did you write about starting her on solids? maybe i’m daft, but i didn’t see a link…
    i’ve been blogging about our first month BLW too, would love some feedback/advice! there is hardly anyone who uses this approach here in texas.

    • Yes, I have 3 posts about my trials titled: Baby IS eating!, Getting started with Baby-led feeding, and Baby Led Success posted here on my blog; you can search for them in the search bar but do have to hit “older posts” to find them. (The most recent one is from over a year ago!)

      My dd is 21 months old today and a fantastic eater! She loves blueberries, cheese, mushrooms, sushi, spaghetti, tomatoes, cooked beans, Thai food and avocado, to list a few of her favorites. She is adventurous and what goes in her mouth is entirely up to her. We decide what she eats, and usually when, but she is in control of how much and what she consumes. We have a discard section on her tray, where she can place anything without fear that we will make her try it again or at all. Best of luck!

      ps where can I find your blog?

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