There has been many changes in the guidelines on introducing solids to babies over the last two decades. It used to be a structured, follow-the-rules process with a monotonous diet of bland and basic foods.
This is no longer the case. Earlier introduction of a much wider variety of tastes and textures are now recommended. Mother Nature has given us such a wonderful range of foods to enjoy! Who said babies should stick to cereal, pumpkin and steamed apple or pear?
Obviously, there are many ways to go about this process of introducing solid foods. One of these is baby-led weaning. An unstructured process that allows the baby to lead the way. Basically you allow your child to feed himself from the very beginning. Meal times should be more about the experience of tasting and feeling the food than simply eating it.
Before we continue, note that some caution should apply with baby-led weaning. It is often said that ‘food under one is just for fun’. Most pediatricians and clinic sisters will tell you that this is not quite true. There are many nutrients that babies need to obtain from their diet after 6 months (as milk won’t be sufficient anymore).
If your baby responds well and ends up eating like a champion- thats amazing. However, if baby makes a big mess but doesn’t actually swallow much food, you should keep an eye on things. In this case it is recommended that you combine baby-led weaning with the approach of also feeding your baby some of the food yourself. This ensures that baby enjoys the benefits of baby-led weaning, but still get the nutrients he needs.
When to start solid foods
There are various factors to consider when deciding when to start solid foods. With baby-lead weaning you should wait until about 6 months, when most babies are sitting upright and are able to grab their food. This means they can join the family at meal times.
Some evidence suggests that introducing allergenic foods between 4 and 7 months can help to prevent allergies in later life. You can talk to your pediatrician or clinic sister for some guidelines on how to go about this process, as there are a few important things to consider.
You should not start solids later than 6 months of age. If your baby is not interested at all you can also speak to your pediatrician or clinic sister. It is true that some babies need a bit more time, and many eat better once they have a few teeth. But it is better to be proactive to prevent nutrient shortages and to make sure that baby’s growth is not affected. If swallowing and chewing seems to be the problem a visit to a speech therapist may help.
What about choking?
Choking is always a risk when a baby starts eating. This is why waiting for your child to show signs of readiness is so important. There are some newborn reflexes that need to disappear, and some other reflexes that need to develop. You should wait until your baby has good head and neck control (he should preferably be able to sit on his own). When you put food in his mouth he should be able to swallow it, and should not just play with it or push it out with his tongue.
Some of the benefits of baby-lead weaning are;
- Many babies will skip the mush phase, which makes meal preparation easier. Note though that most moms still feel more comfortable starting with mush, because of the risk of choking.
- You can expose your child to a wider variety of tastes and textures.
- Your baby can eat with the rest of the family which is good for social development.
- it helps to develop hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.
Challenges of baby-lead weaning:
- It is messy and there can be a lot of waste.
- You cannot really be sure how much baby is eating. Your clinic visits are important as your clinic sister will help to monitor baby’s weight and check that baby is growing well.
- It isn’t structured; you will still feed baby at meal times but there is no real guide as to what food you should start with, how much you should give or when you should move onto more. Most moms find this a bit disconcerting.
How to get started
Start with foods that your baby can easily hold like steamed carrot sticks, broccoli, bananas, steamed apple slices, cut-up slices of meat – the list really is endless. You can experiment with all types of foods; let your baby experience different tastes and textures. You should still introduce runny foods like cereals or yoghurt, as they need to also experience these textures. You can either feed them these types of foods or let them make a mess while they try to feed themselves.
With baby-lead weaning there really is no right or wrong way. You can experiment with your baby until you find a way that works for you both. This method can eventually take a lot of stress and strain out of meal times and instead make it fun for you and your baby.
Read our article on the most common questions parents ask before starting solids here.