From Breastfeeding to Baby Led Weaning – is your baby ready for family foods?

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Around the middle of your baby’s first year, that is at about six months, your baby will start showing signs that he is ready for family foods: he will be able to sit up in a high chair or on your lap; he will have lost the tongue thrust reflex (that protects him against choking in the early months, but also means food gets thrust out of his mouth, rather than swallowed); he will be watching you closely as you eat and probably reaching for your food and he may seem to suddenly be more hungry but not satisfied by extra milk feeds.

Introducing new foods – baby led or parent feeding?

There are two main styles of introducing family foods to your baby’s diet : you can introduce foods on a spoon or your clean finger to your baby or you can simply offer him pieces of what you are eating from your own plate (as long as foods are soft and safe). Many parents choose a mixture of both baby led (letting baby feed himself ) and parent feeding (with a spoon or finger).

When to start family foods

You may be told or hear that you should start your baby on solids earlier than six months. Unless this advice comes from a medical practitioner who is caring for your baby, this isn’t a sensible decision. There is absolutely no advantage to starting solid foods earlier than around six months – there is no evidence that solid foods will help your baby sleep longer for instance and, in fact, a baby with an upset tummy is likely to be more wakeful.

Starting solids early poses a number of risks such as premature weaning and malnutrition if your baby eats too many solids and these displace milk feeds (milk will be most of your baby’s diet for the first year). Or you could increase the risk of allergies by exposing your baby to potential allergens that his tiny gut isn’t equipped to deal with: between four and seven months a baby’s intestinal lining goes through a developmental growth spurt called closure. This means that the intestinal lining becomes more selective about what to let through. This is due to increased secretion of IgA, a protein immunoglobulin that acts as a protective coating in the intestines, preventing harmful allergens from passing through the gut wall. In the early months, IgA secretion is low (although breast milk is high in IgA), allowing allergens to easily pass through the gut wall and enter the bloodstream. As these particles enter the bloodstream antibodies may be produced to them, causing an allergic reaction. So-, of course, these are valid reasons to see introducing solid foods as just that –an ‘introduction’ rather than a meal, and to wait until your baby is developmentally ready.

However you choose to introduce family foods, if you have a family history of allergies or your baby has been sensitive to foods passing through your milk, it is wise to introduce a single food at a time in increasing proportions so that you can see how it affects your baby. If he experiences any adverse reactions such as tummy discomfort, vomiting or rashes with a new food, it is best to stop that food.

Ditch rice cereal

Common infant feeding advice suggests rice cereal as a first food because it is low protein and therefore low allergenic (allergic reactions are triggered by foreign proteins). This advice started when babies were generally introduced to foods other than milk early (at around 3 or 4 months) . At this age babies are not ready to manage anything other than  runny mush, nor are their gut linings ‘closed’ to foreign molecules that may  increase sensitisation and potential allergies. This advice was (and still is), heavily promoted by baby food companies.  However, evidence based  advice from the WHO recommends: ‘As a global public health recommendation, infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health.’

In a 2011 White Paper: Why White Rice Cereal for Babies Must Go’  Paediatrician, Dr Alan Greene, Clinical Professor at Stanford University School of Medicine warns of a potential connection between feeding babies refined cereals and obesity. He says,  “I have been studying nutrition very carefully for more than a decade now and one of the things that I have become convinced of is that white rice cereal can predispose to childhood obesity. In fact I think it is the tap root of the child obesity epidemic.”

Dr Greene advises that white rice cereal is high in calories and made of processed white flour. “The problem is that it is basically like feeding kids a spoonful of sugar.”

He also explains  that first food experiences can set babies on a path of food preferences. He says, “We know in animals that the first bite of solid food can be particularly influential. For human babies the moment of the first bite is laden with positive associations. The child has often been staring at the parents’ food choices, eager to learn what eating is all about. The child is the centre of attention at an emotionally charged moment, often with a camera capturing the event. The processed white rice flour is often mixed with breast milk or formula, giving it an even stronger positive association. Conversion of the white rice flour to glucose begins while the cereal is still in the baby’s mouth, lighting up the hard-wired preference for sweets (and the cereal is nearly 100% glucose by the time it is absorbed in the intestines).

Dr Greene says, “given this “perfect storm” of extrinsic and intrinsic factors, both initially and throughout the formative months, it is easy to see how a preference for processed refined grain products could become firmly established, and later in life, challenging to change.”

Rice cereal is very bland, so often parents mix it with stewed fruit such as apple or pears but why not simply offer your baby the fruit which is more nutritious?  Or, your breastfed baby may enjoy a small amount of ripe mashed banana as this will be sweet like the milk he is used to. However, by the time your baby is truly ready for family food (around 6 months), he will be ready to explore a variety of tastes and textures. Consider, if you are breastfeeding, he has already experienced a range of flavours passing through your breast milk.

Baby led weaning

This style of introducing family foods is simply offering your baby whole pieces of food from your own menu and allowing him to choose how much to eat, rather than pureeing or mashing ‘baby’ foods and spooning them into your baby’s mouth (and often ‘encouraging’ him to ‘eat it all up’). This has now been labelled ‘Baby Led Weaning’ because your baby will naturally set the pace at which he is ready to proceed with eating.

The main principle with baby led weaning is that you offer your baby food by either allowing her to take it from your hand (or not, as she chooses), or you simply place food such as soft fruits or cooked vegetables on her highchair and allow her to feed herself. There are no purees and no spoon feeding. The baby leads.

Proponents of baby led weaning claim the advantages of this style of baby feeding include:

  • babies get to explore taste, texture, colour and smell of foods naturally
  • it encourages independent eating
  • helps develop hand-eye coordination
  • makes fussy eating and food fights less likely because you avoid stress around meal times and pressure to ‘eat it all up’ or encouraging your child to eat when she may not want to.

For a more comprehensive look at baby led weaning, check out Pinky’s audio interview with with Gil Rapley, UK Infant Feeding Specialist, author and proponent of Baby Led Weaning.

Baby won’t eat yet?

Please don’t worry if your baby seems disinterested in eating with gusto for several months after you introduce his first tastes of solid foods. It is important to be respectful and trust that your child knows his own body signals for food.   A good rule to consider is: ‘it is your responsibility to provide healthy food and it is your baby’s choice whether he eats or not.’  And remember ‘food is fun until they are one!’   Your little one will never starve himself as long as he has access to healthy nutritious foods and at this stage milk will form the majority of his diet anyway. If your baby is a ‘late starter’ and still seems disinterested in eating family foods at eight to ten months and you feel concerned, you can ask your doctor for a blood test to check his iron levels. Chances are, if he received all his cord blood at birth, you are breastfeeding and eat a healthy diet yourself, he is active (a baby with low iron levels will probably be lethargic) and his growth and development is on track, you can relax. Just expose him to family mealtimes so he can join in socially and model your enjoyment of food when he is ready.