Introducing solids to your baby is an exciting, messy and enjoyable milestone that marks the beginning of a long and tasty journey.
As adults, taking food to your mouth, biting, chewing, and swallowing is automatic, but we must remember that our little ones need to learn how to eat step by step.
Weaning has changed a lot over the past few generations and differs between cultures, for example mashed pasta as a first food in Italy and hand mashed mild curry in India.
Irrespective of the weaning method used, the goal is the same - start your baby on solid food at around six months and have them consuming a nutritious family diet by twelve months.
It is the steps to get to family foods that may differ. Either way, feeding your child should be an enjoyable and positive experience for both the parent and child.
There are two main approaches to introducing solids. These feeding methods can be used solely or combined to suit the baby’s needs.
A traditional approach starts with spoon feeding by parents of smooth purees and moves through to lumps, chunks, finger foods and family foods. Infants are fed with a spoon until they can communicate fullness. From around eight months, finger foods are offered and gradually increased to replace spoon feeding. Variety is increased by adding one new food every few days to see if your baby has an adverse reaction. With this method, parents are in control of the texture, variety and the pace of the meal.
The benefits of a traditional approach are that your baby is likely to consume more variety in foods and be exposed to different flavours early in the weaning process. Iron and nutrient rich solids can be pureed and offered regularly to assist with confidence that your baby consistently meets nutrient requirements. Mealtimes are less messy but making separate meals can be time consuming. Increasing textures gradually means gagging is less frequent and parents can respond by using a texture their baby tolerates whilst increasing lumps in small steps.
Challenges that often arise during traditional weaning are:
- Concerns that the process is moving at your pace rather than your baby’s. Introducing a range of finger foods by eight months will assist with seeing what texture and variety your child is ready for. You can then follow their lead with finger foods and continue to complement with selected puree or mash.
- It is time consuming. Cooking, blending and often freezing mashed foods and spoon feeding for the length of the meal is time consuming for parents, who let’s face it, have no spare time.
- Difficulty reading your babies fullness or “finished” cues which may be subtle to start with. This is important to encourage. Children who listen to their body and eat only what they need will find it easier to maintain a healthy weight as they grow up.
Baby-led weaning (BLW)
A BLW approach focuses on the independence of your baby taking food to their own mouth and consuming the quantity and variety they choose. You don’t puree foods, but rather offer them foods from what everyone else is eating at family mealtimes. This allows the baby time to learn the art of eating independently. Your baby is the only one to put food to its mouth using hands and when older, cutlery.
Benefits of this approach include independent eating sooner, a focus on learning to chew and managing foods rather than just swallowing foods thus allowing babies to decide when they are full and what foods they would like to select. Family meals are appropriate from day one so no separate cooking.
Adults need to show your baby how to eat and behave at the table so eating as a group becomes the norm. Families often embrace this stage and think of it as a chance to overhaul how they eat and increase variety of healthy foods in their own diet. They also tend to cut out junky extras in case baby wants a taste. Whilst BLW assists in developing hand to mouth skills, the developing independence that accompanies it allows for an opportunity to encourage communication, family bonding time and the social interaction enjoyed with good food. This in turn creates a positive association integral to mealtimes.
Challenges that often arise during BLW are:
- Concerns around gagging and choking. However, speech pathologists describe the presence of a sensitive gag reflex to protect infant airways as key. As with any infant eating, supervision is essential but gagging is a typical part of learning to eat and should be expected. Choking should be infrequent if textures and food is being selected well and only your baby places food in their mouth. Knowledge of basic first aid can alleviate some parents’ concerns.
- Wondering if the baby is consuming enough food. Typically, babies will not consume much food for the first 2 -3 months of BLW and then consumption will steadily begin to increase. Swallowing larger volumes of food usually takes longer using a BLW method as the focus is on learning to self feed, bite and chew first. This is fine as long as extra milk feeds are available as needed and there are no growth or medical concerns. If you are unsure, seek the advice of a health professional.
- Mess....I repeat mess! Feeding infants using any method is messy, but when using BLW, plan for mess. Embracing it is central to everyone’s enjoyment. Start with drop cloths, easy clean high chairs, full sleeve bibs and a newfound appreciation for your dog’s insatiable appetite. Clean your baby once at the end of the meal. Wiping throughout the meal is usually disruptive and disliked by babies.
- Food allergy identification. Because of the introduction of many foods simultaneously rather than a systematic exposure of new foods one by one, allergies may be harder to identify and treat. Ensuring you know the ingredients of the foods your baby has and using sensible steps to increase variety can help. Currently, the recommendation is that you do not delay the introduction of solids that may cause allergy so this works well with BLW.
There is no one correct way to starting your baby on solids. Knowing the benefits and challenges of these approaches can help you choose the method that will work best for you and your baby.
Often, a combination of the two feeding styles work well. You are able to have the best of both methods, whilst witnessing your child discover a delicious world of flavour and texture.
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