This post was originally published over a year ago, but I continue to find questions on feeding babies and introducing solids in my inbox, so I thought that this was worth re-posting. And with another year to see how Johanna has responded to this style of feeding, I can say with even more certainty that this approach has helped her to develop into an easy-going, independent and un-picky eater. Hooray!
When I had my first baby, I was strangely eager to feed her "real" food. I couldn't wait to break out those baby spoons, to start grinding up food in my blender and moving in to that next stage of babyhood. I began when she was around 5 1/2 months old, a reasonable age I figured. I even drew up a lovely Type A chart for my fridge, to record her every bite, her reaction to each food, and how many days I waited before the next introduction.
My darling girl, however, had different plans. Her reaction to the food? Yawn... ho, hum. What's all the fuss about solids, mama? More milk, please!
A bit dismayed and confused, I backed off for a while. I continued to hesitantly offer a bit of food over the course of the next several months, and though she took it from time to time, she didn't truly care or seem to need it until she was more like 9 or 10 months.
Fast forward two and a half years. Now I had a little guy who began to approach that magical age of six months. I decide to play it a bit more relaxed this time, going far beyond 6 months to ensure that his gut is ready to handle and digest food. At around 7 or 8 months, I began to oh-so-slowly introduce my homemade babyfoods, one at a time. Success! He loves it, he's ready for it, and I didn't stress myself out by trying too early.
Then, while pregnant with my third this past spring, I read something that shook me up just a little bit more: Real Food for Mother and Baby, by Nina Planck.
Being the careful, cautious mother that I am, I had always made my baby's meals with whole, nourishing foods. I slowly introduced them, one by one, working from smooth purees to gradually chunkier combinations. I thought I had it all figured out.
Enter Nina's casual yet common sense approach. So long as it's "real" food (that is, foods that are old, traditional, whole, and were eaten by our great-grandparents), allow baby to eat it without fuss, without comment, without pureeing, without stress. Could it really be so simple?
Bless the babies of experimental moms like me. They get to be the guinea pigs of all our brilliant (and not-so-brilliant) ideas. Thankfully, Johanna is a pretty chill third child, and her mama has gone from being a bit of a basket case to a rather easy-going, relaxed, "sure, why not?" kind of mom.
Image by xlordashx
Here are my oh-so-brilliant and oh-so-precise methods for feeding my darling girl:
1. Wait until she's good and old. I had visions of 8 or 9 months, but this particular child seemed ready at about 7 1/2. I went with the flow. In the meantime, I gave her nothing but lots of warm, delightful, nourishing, always-available breastmilk for as long as I could.
2. Cook regular meals for the rest of the family.
3. Find something in those meals that seems to be safe for baby (ie. soft enough to gum, nothing that might cause a choking hazard, no grains until baby's digestive system is a little more mature around a year old). My first picks? Ground beef and liver, lightly cooked egg yolk, boiled sweet potato, steamed cauliflower or broccoli with butter, ripe banana, soft avocado chunks.
4. Break into small-ish pieces (note the precision) with your fingers. Put baby in a chair or on your lap. A bib is nice.
5. Allow baby to go for it.
6. Sweep floor thoroughly (this is in bold, because yes, it is necessary).
7. Repeat the next day.
Here's what I didn't do:
- Record what I fed her.
- Puree anything. At all. The closest I've come is to use a fork to lightly mash something. And she had some homemade applesauce because my older children were eating some.
- Use a spoon or a bowl.
- Wait several days between each new food introduction.
- Worry about how much she did or didn't eat.
The result? A happy baby who has not rejected a single thing I've offered her, including a myriad of different vegetables and liver. A happy mama who is able to sit and eat her own dinner with both of her hands, and who has saved herself the time and effort of preparing ice cube trays full of baby food.
Image by chimothy27
But What About...
Food allergies and sensitivities
A main reason that babies have reactions to foods is because they are fed too early. Babies that are given solids before six months (and many are fed as early as 3-5 months) do not have digestive systems that are capable of completely breaking down foods. Instead they have a "open gut" which means that particles of food (usually food proteins that their systems are not able to fully digest) make it through microscopic holes in the gut lining and into the blood stream. There, these particles create an allergic reaction, as the body treats them like foreign invaders.
By putting off solids until at least 6 months and longer if possible, the risk of food sensitivities greatly decreases. At this point baby is creating more of their own digestive enzymes and the "open gut" has matured and closed up.
Of course, if you already have severe allergies in the families (dairy, gluten, peanuts, etc.) then it would be wise and prudent to avoid these foods for as long as possible, and then only offer them in a very controlled and careful way the first few times to be able to observe any reaction to them.
Getting enough food
One of the things that I love most about this method of feeding is that it keeps breastfeeding as a priority and the main focus of baby's diet. So long as mom is offering the breast often and ensuring that her own diet/beverages are sufficient to keep up an ample milk supply for a larger baby, this solves the problem of whether the baby gets enough to eat. Baby will gradually begin to eat more and more of what they are offered (and begin to request more as well) as their needs and appetite grow.
Until my babies are around a year old, I offer breastmilk before I offer food. I don't make this an absolute firm rule, nor do I decide to not let them have food at lunch because I haven't been able to sit down and nurse them yet. It's simply a mindset of breastmilk being their primary food, and solids being secondary. This gradually shifts as baby grows bigger and becomes more and more interested in and capable of eating solids. The shift occurs naturally, I've found, if I let it happen that way.
But my baby is hungry before six months old...
I hate to say this, because it sounds insensitive or judgmental, and that is absolutely not how I want it to come across. But, when moms tell me this my first thought is that they may simply may not be making breastfeeding the priority.
(And I KNOW that there are absolutely exceptions to this and the occasional mom who just really, really struggles with her milk supply no matter what she tries, so please know that there is no criticism at all if you are one of those moms. I applaud your efforts to breastfeed in spite of difficulties!)
It takes a LOT to feed a growing baby. A lot. I eat and drink non-stop all day long, in order to continue to breastfeed my 8 1/2 mth old daughter (who is a bit of a roly-poly, chunky monkey, which equals a healthy baby). I feed her usually 1-3 times between 7pm-7am, and then another 4-6 times throughout the day. That's a lot of milk and I would be lying to say that it's effortless on a mama's part to keep making enough milk to satisfy a hungry, growing baby.
In my experience with my three babies, it takes commitment on my part. 100% commitment to maintaining as much milk as my little one needs means that I nurse more often, I don't try to force them to sleep through the night if they still need the milk, I add extra nursing sessions if my supply wanes, and I snack and sip continually. Yes, it's a bit more effort, but it's well, well worth it.
Can baby handle foods that aren't pureed?
From my experience and what I've read, yes, most babies can. There will be the odd baby that struggles with some of the chunkier textures or has a stronger gag reflex. In those cases, just calmly observe and make a decision that only you as the parent can make. If it doesn't work for your baby, then do something different. It's as simple as that.
I've linked to some excellent posts below, both of which address the choking and texture issues, which I think you will find helpful. They also get into many more of the specific details and reasoning behind this method of feeding babies. It is referred to in many different ways, including Baby-Led Solids or Baby-Led Weaning (referring to the entire process of weaning a baby from exclusive breastfeeding to solids to weaning from the breast). Both posts link to some other useful articles and books as well.
Real Food for Mother and Baby: The Fertility Diet, Eating for Two, and Baby's First Foods(the book that started it all, for me at least)