In Defense of Baby-Led Weaning

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My son is 5 months old now, which means that people have already been asking me for a month if he has started on solids yet, and it means I’ll be telling people for another month that no, we’re waiting until he’s at least 6 months and/or he’s developmentally ready.  You see, I am going to skip purees entirely, and go straight to letting him feed himself table food. When I decided to pursue this feeding method with my daughter, her pediatrician basically looked at me like I had lost my mind.

This post is not so much a defense of the actual method, but rather, my journey of having to defend a non-mainstream method of feeding.  Let me tell you, it is difficult to have confidence in your parenting decisions when you’re a first time mom and everyone, including your doctor, is making you question yourself.

They had never heard of baby-lead weaning.  Heck even I had never heard of baby-led weaning until I was a mom.  Which meant that I had to educate basically everyone around me.  And it meant some really tough conversations, starting with our pediatrician at the time.

She was okay with me waiting until 6 months if I absolutely wanted to, but also turned around and told me that it was fine if we started at 4 months.  How’s that for a mixed message?  I have never understood how you can recommend 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding (per AAP and WHO guidelines), and then in the same breath, say sure, 4 months is enough.  My feeling is that there is just a lot of confusion, with lots of different data and studies and recommendations, and it seems to keep changing, so it’s hard to keep up.  So how do you go about deciding who to listen to?

When data gets confusing, I listen to my old trusty friend, biology.  I try to strip away the modern world, and ask myself questions like… What did they do before bottled processed baby food?  What did they do before blenders?  Before modern high chairs could prop babies up?  What did they do before books told them how to do it?  And maybe most importantly, what is my baby showing me she can do?  When did nature intend us to start eating food?

When I asked myself these questions, the answers were easy.  But the conversation with the doctor was not.

The doctor said I couldn’t feed her un-pureed foods because of the choking risk.  The thing is, if you follow the whole baby-led aspect of this method, then you really lower the risk of choking.  The baby only eats what she can handle, when she is ready.  She learns the natural order of things: how to sit up unassisted, how to bring food to her mouth, how to chew it, and then she learns how to swallow it, as opposed to the other way around.  And the gag reflex is a beautiful thing.  It’s more forward on the tongue until about 9 months, protecting baby from choking while she learns how to chew during this time frame.  By the time the gag reflex starts moving back in the throat, hopefully baby has learned how to handle food in her mouth, and it’s a non-issue.

The doctor questioned how I would know how much she was eating if I was just letting her “have at it” instead of spoon-feeding a measured amount.  The funny thing is, babies are not in the habit of overeating if you’re not in the habit of overriding their satiety cues.  Without a spoon, there’s no way to force her to eat just one more bite.  She eats until she’s had enough, and that’s it.  And she decides when she’s ready to increase her food intake and decrease her milk intake.  Honestly, the schedules of how much food a baby should be eating by a certain age are ridiculous.  Eating is a developmental skill, just like walking.  We don’t expect all babies to pop up and walk at the same age, do we?  We don’t force them to walk. So then why do we expect them to eat food at the same rate?

I told the doctor I wanted to skip rice cereal in favor of more nutritionally dense, unprocessed foods.  She insisted that feeding my baby rice cereal was a requirement because of the iron… Seriously?  You’re telling me that before Gerber came along and started making rice cereal, that babies weren’t fed adequately?  That the human race didn’t thrive until processed food with supplements existed? Seems hard to justify a recent invention as an absolute necessity in infant feeding.  Food marketing is a powerful thing.

Well then the doctor was incredulous at how in the world I would get my daughter to eat foods rich in iron (like meat) if I wasn’t going to puree it since she didn’t have teeth.  Well, if you’ve ever stuck your finger in a baby’s mouth, you know that those gums can chew the crap out of some meat, no teeth required. This is a sampling of the types of food my daughter was fully capable of chewing during that very first week, before she had any teeth:

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The iron thing came up again and again.  At the 6 month visit, a different doctor this time told me I needed to supplement with iron drops.  I just smiled and nodded.  Mentioned again at the 9 month visit.  Smile and nod.  At her 1 year visit, a different doctor yet again, insisted that I needed to be supplementing with iron.  Well by this point I was just infuriated.  Well aren’t you testing her iron today?  Isn’t that standard at the 1 year visit?  Shouldn’t we see what those levels are BEFORE we decide if supplementation is necessary? 

The doctor’s response?  I doubt she gets enough iron from food, most 1 year olds aren’t eating a lot of foods like meat, eggs, beans, sweet potatoes, and spinach. 

My response?  Actually, that’s exactly what she eats. Let’s see what the test says.   

And sure enough, after he had left, and the nurse came in to check her iron levels, they were perfectly normal.  Perfectly normal, as in, if I had been supplementing with iron for the last 6 months like the doctors had told me to, she would have actually had too much iron.  And probably a not very happy digestive system.  Her blood levels had finally validated my choices… but it took 6 long months of sticking to my instincts.

Look, I get it.  It is rare for babies to be breastfed for very long in the United States… At those 4 month, 6 month, 9 month, and 12 month visits (across 3 different pediatricians in the same practice), everyone kept mentioning formula.  It was just part of their everyday vernacular, and it flowed effortlessly off their tongues.  I corrected them every time, that my baby was on breast milk, but they continued to slip up and forget.  In my state of Georgia, I was among only 14.5% of mothers who exclusively breastfed until 6 months before introducing solids.  That means the majority of babies that these pediatricians see are on formula by the time they start food.  And many might not know that the iron in formula is harder to absorb than the iron in breastmilk.  And the majority of babies probably had immediate cord clamping at birth, meaning their iron stores are probably not as big as they could have been.  All of these things together mean that yes, many babies do need a closer eye on their iron intake.  And if those are the babies that you see all day every day in your practice, you’re going to get in the habit of recommending iron supplementation to all of your patients.

But that was not my baby.  She was not being treated as an individual, and was receiving unnecessary medical advice.  They were ignoring the fact that her delayed cord clamping at birth combined with being exclusively breastfed and being a healthy, full-term baby meant that maybe, just maybe, the blanket recommendation wouldn’t be appropriate for her.  And they weren’t willing to consider that maybe, just maybe, that there are acceptable ways of introducing solids beyond spoon feeding and ways of getting iron beyond rice cereal and drops.

Look, there is not a right way or a better way.  It’s valid to choose to feed your baby cereal and purees with a spoon, and obviously babies thrive being fed by traditional methods (I was fed this way).  But then my choice is equally valid too… it’s just not a widely accepted or understood choice, which placed the burden on me to explain and stand up for myself.

Every baby is different.  I know babies who didn’t do well on baby-led weaning, and had to go back to traditional weaning.  There’s not a huge difference, most babies will eat finger foods around 9 months anyways. But personally, when I heard stories of babies who had significant trouble moving from purees to finger foods (including apparently, myself, who wanted everything pureed until I was 2), I knew I had to skip over that potential minefield.  My daughter had already shown herself to be opinionated when she developed a bottle preference and refused the breast.  It was as simple as this: I did not want another potential feeding battle on my hands.  The first one was heartbreaking enough.

In a way, my choice is the lazy choice.  I didn’t have the stress of creating a feeding schedule… I offered food when we were eating.  I never had to spoon feed her, allowing me to enjoy my own meal with 2 hands at the same time.  I didn’t have to pack baby food to bring to restaurants, I could just order something healthy off the menu for her.

In some ways it wasn’t easier – it takes a lot of patience, a lot of trust in the process, and willingness to clean up a whole lot of mess to let your baby feed herself.  The first 3-4 weeks were basically play and exploration; most food ended up on the floor.  But then 1 day, it just clicked, and she figured out she could do more than just chew the food, she learned she could swallow it.  And then gradually, as she practiced her fine motor skills, she was able to explore more and more foods, in larger and larger quantities.  And then you blink and your baby is 3 years old, eating you out of house and home.

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I’m excited to start the process all over again with my son in a few short weeks.  To see him make a silly face when he tastes something sour for the first time, or a disgusted face when he tries something bitter.  To watch him grow to enjoy the foods we eat as a family, and (hopefully) develop a palate for spice the way my daughter has. She eats Indian and Szechuan food with the best of them, and has become quite the little foodie.

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But I’m also sad that I’ll no longer be his sole source of nourishment.  Nursing is just easier than solids; this makes life busier, and offers fewer cuddles.  And the thought of him needing me less and less is heart-wrenching.  But it will be easier this time, because as a second time mom, I won’t have to defend myself anymore.  I’m just going to let my baby lead the way.

 

 

 

Over the next few months, I’ll be posting pics of my son’s journey with baby-led weaning & sharing food tips, so come follow me on Instagram @thebestseasonofmylifeblog if you’re interested!

And follow me on Facebook!

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3 thoughts on “In Defense of Baby-Led Weaning

  1. I wish I’d known about baby led weaning. We introduced pureed veggies at 5 months (he was early and I admit I was concerned about his iron levels, and developmentally he was ready. He was constantly grabbing our food and utensils). But by 9 or 10 months he refused to be spoon feed. He had to feed himself everything. So pureed foods permanently left our household. He does have low iron, but part of that is I struggle to maintain iron and he still breastfeeds heavily. Fortunately our doctor didn’t recommends drops, just more greens and less dairy 🙂

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