There are very few firsts in life and by-and-large they’re done and dusted early on. Not so with food. Think of the last time you tried eating something new – it probably wasn’t all that long ago. The process of discovering food isn’t something that ever really ends – we are always trying new flavours, new ingredients, new ways of putting things together. For me, weaning is simply the start of this journey; a way to introduce the idea of food that reflects how we continue that relationship for the rest of our lives. Food is a huge part of life. It’s something we go to multiple times a day – hungry, tired, sad, celebrating… the list of reasons we eat is long. So, for me, discovering baby-led weaning was one of the best things in my parenting journey. I’ll be honest; until I was about to wean my first baby I had never heard of it and thought weaning would involve a lot of pureeing and spoon feeding. It turns out this doesn’t have to be the case. The more I found out about baby-led weaning, the more I liked the idea. Friends recommended it. I gave it a try. I loved it.
Why Baby-Led Weaning?
I love food. I mean, not always, but generally. I have days where I don’t want to cook, don’t want to eat, only want to eat take out and ice cream… but I (generally) see food as a positive thing in my life and I really want my children to have a happy, healthy relationship with the food they’ll be discovering and eating for the rest of their lives. Baby-led weaning (or BLW) is one approach to weaning a baby from milk (breast or formula) to real, actual, solid food. It basically is what it says – a way to let the baby take the lead in the process.
In essence, BLW means you give food to your baby and they eat it. Or mash it up. Or throw it on the floor. The idea is to let your baby explore food in their own time and in their own way, learning about flavours, textures, chewing and swallowing. They learn to differentiate broccoli from beans and decide whether they like either, both or neither. They learn to identify when they’ve had enough to eat. They figure out that apple requires more effort than jelly. Experimentation is key.
As far as I can tell, the main aims of weaning are two-fold: firstly, the little ones aren’t going to be little ones forever and at some point will need to eat ‘proper’ food, so they need to learn. Secondly, in defiance of the classic poem, we’re trying to avoid f*&$ing them up as much as we can; let’s not exclude food from that. A person’s relationship with food can affect their entire life, so we want to give our children the best possible start to that relationship. Now, I’m not saying ‘perfect weaning’ will prevent eating disorders, weird reactions to soft fruit, pickiness or what have you (and, frankly, anyone who tells you there’s a ‘perfect’ way to do pretty much anything when it comes to babies is talking nonsense). What I am saying is that it seems to me if we can set them up right they have a fighting chance. It’s messy, it’s work and it’s not always going to be easy, but we love these tiny people and they deserve our best effort, right?
It’s by no means the only approach, I couldn’t say that for everyone it’s the best approach, nor make any other ‘be all and end all’ declarative. The truth is there’s more than one way to wean a baby and what works for one may not work for another for a variety of reasons. The parenting motto in our family is ‘Do What Works’ and introducing solids is no exception. If, for whatever reason, you can’t get with BLW: don’t do it. Or do it in part. Or have a BLW day and a puree day and a dear-god-in-heaven-what-am-I-doing day. Whatever works. Survival is the goal! (Incidentally another motto: get everyone through the day, sometimes anything more than that is a bonus).
But what actually is BLW?
When I first started weaning Elizabeth, I really, really wanted someone to properly define BLW for me. I mean, surely it didn’t just mean ‘give them a plate of sandwiches and let them get on with it’? Surely a baby can’t just… eat? Turns out they kinda can. And really, when you think about it, of course they can. We don’t have a regurgitation system like birds. We don’t have wild-growing blenders whipping everything into nutrient paste for us. Babies have been weaning since there were babies to wean. The idea here is to help them do what they’re biologically driven to do: put food in their mouths. It’s also fun. Like, really fun. Watching your child discover and enjoy food is pretty incredible, seeing all these firsts anew through their eyes is fascinating and helping them do it is so rewarding. Baby-led weaning has been a real high point for me through the early years of my daughter’s life and I’m really looking forward to trying it again with my son.
Food is easy to control. The trouble with spoon feeding is that the control ends up with the wrong person — you. There’s a temptation to shovel the food in fast to get it done, at your own pace. It can be tedious, feeding a baby, so you might drop into a rhythm and baby has to fit in. You probably don’t eat your dinner like that. When you do things in a baby-led way, you give the control to your baby and they decide what goes in, when and in what order. Now, this may be frustrating as heck for you, but while they’re doing this they’re learning to pace themselves and respond to their own hunger and satiety cues. They learn specifically what they like and what they don’t like. They’ll socialise with you at the table — eat a bit, chat a bit, take a drink, chat a bit — and they get to be like you which, as you’ll increasingly see from them as they grow, is pretty much all they want (more fool them!). They’ll learn that meal times are important, that it’s important to pay attention to what you’re putting in your body and that spending quality time together for a meal is a good thing. (Seriously, if you can train your family into family meal times early, you can use family meal times later to check in with everyone. It’s a really good time to make sure your older kids are doing ok and creates a safe, regular spot for conversation.) The other bonus here is that if you’re taking this approach you only have to cook one meal, one time. Just crib a bit off plates here and there to make up a plate for baby. Easy.
A Word About Purees
Now, I’m pretty sure people will be saying ‘but I was fed purees and I’m fine!’ ‘there are some really good organic purees on the market!’ and other such things. This is fine and true. I’m not going to say purees are the devil. I’m not going to say you’re a bad parent if you use purees. Heck, I’m not even saying don’t use them — after all there’s a fine line between something like soup or mashed potato and puree, isn’t there? What I am saying is that purees aren’t the last word in baby weaning. You don’t have to puree. You can, of course, if you want to (though if you do, you should taste it yourself, first — I have a rule that if i wouldn’t eat it I’m not going to make them eat it and frankly, nutritionally valid as some purees are, if you squeezed some of them into a bowl and tried to eat it with a spoon I don’t think you’d get very far.)
Purees can be excellent ways to get extra food into a child that won’t (or struggles to) eat. If you need the calorie content, a pouch of fruit and veg can be a life-saver. Do try and let them manage it themselves though, if you can. The benefits there still apply. And, if you really want to incorporate purees into your weaning program, try and make them yourself. That way you can adjust the texture and contents as you go along and you can make batches to store in the freezer for convenience.
You’ll never regret time with your children.
Seriously, you’re not gonna get to 90 and wish you’d not spent that time with them at the dinner table. They’re going to drive you mad in a million ways as they grow up – they’ll make a pile of mushrooms on the table despite telling you they only wanted mushrooms, they’ll feed half their dinner to the dog and then scream that they don’t want the dog to have eaten it, they’ll have a complete meltdown because they don’t want the food to be that colour (and yes, these things have all happened to me). In the end, though, you want to love them, to raise them as well as you possibly can and to take all that crap now so that when they’re grown they can face the world with confidence. It’ll be worth it.