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Does baby know best?
July 11, 2009
FAMILY ISSUES REPORTER
Lily Ambrose beams and kicks a chubby bare foot when she sees the steamed broccoli coming. At 6 1/2 months old, Lily has no teeth and barely two weeks' worth of gastronomic experience. But that won't stop her from making short work of the vegetable plunked on her high chair tray.
Lily prods, then clutches a spear in each dimpled fist. She takes her time chomping and cooing until they have been reduced to a mound of green rubble.
What, no rice cereal? And where are the puréed sweet potatoes that generations of mothers have so carefully spooned into tiny mouths?
Not for this baby. Lily, fed only breast milk until a couple of weeks ago, now also sucks slices of orange and gnaws on toast dipped in baba ghanouj. Her mother has a food processor in the family's downtown Toronto condo "but it's still in the box," says Cindy Ambrose, 35. And there's not a jar of baby pears to be found.
Instead, she and her husband Jayson have opted for an unconventional way of introducing solid foods. In Britain, where the term originates, it's known as "baby-led weaning" but many Toronto parents refer to it as "baby-led solids."
The approach skips the strictly mushy phase of pablum and applesauce fed via spoon in favour of finger foods that beginner eaters explore at their own pace, starting at the age of 6 months.
"It seemed intuitive to me," says Jayson, 31. He was a tad nervous at the beginning, especially when Lily gagged a couple of times. But neither parent, always close by, has ever had to intervene.
The trend gained momentum since the fall with the release of Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby To Love Good Food by British writer Gillian Rapley, a public health nurse and former midwife. The book sparked a flurry of forums, chat rooms and recipe websites and caught the attention of online parent groups in the GTA.
Rapley says the seeds of baby-led weaning were planted during her 25 years visiting families. Many parents fretted about older babies who refused foods, spat out lumps and were constipated.
"But all of those (issues) would seem to be resolved if they just let the child do it themselves."
Seven years ago, when bodies like the World Health Organization began recommending that babies consume only breast milk for the first six months, "it all fit in so perfectly," Rapley said in a phone interview from Britain.
She says, by 6 months, babies can sit upright, put food in their mouths and chew – so they are developmentally ready to start experimenting with self-feeding. She stresses that they must always be sitting and that adults must always closely supervise.
In the days of starting solids at 3 or 4 months, it made sense to begin with cereal or puréed fruit because babies couldn't manage anything else, Rapley says.
She believes self-feeding with solids is a natural extension of breastfeeding, where babies eat at their own pace, and sets the stage for confident, less fussy eating habits down the road.
But her approach is a departure from what the Canadian Pediatric Society and many physicians recommend: cereal and mashed or puréed foods at 6 months, with textured finger foods added at 8 or 9 months.
"Every infant is different," says Daina Kalnins, manager of clinical dietetics at The Hospital for Sick Children.
Kalnins, co-author of Better Baby Food, says there isn't a lot of conclusive research about the best way to introduce solids. The most important thing, she says, is that parents know their own babies and start new foods safely. Some will need purées to make the transition while others may grab a green bean off their mother's plate and start gnawing.
She notes it's best not to wait too long before introducing chunky foods. "But I'd still recommend, until I see studies showing otherwise, more of a mashed or puréed food initially."
Kalnins also stresses the importance of iron for older babies. So if they aren't eating iron-fortified cereals, parents must ensure they are getting it from other sources such as meat.
Cindy Ambrose says she planned to make her own purées until a couple of months ago, when she heard about the baby-led approach.
She has been reading and talking to other mothers ever since and is now committed to letting Lily discover new textures and flavours on her own. "I think it makes life a lot easier."
Lily, a blossoming 20 pounds and still a frequent breastfeeder, seems to relish the experience.
Toronto mother Nalini Bateman, 39, says she wishes she had discovered it earlier.
With her first daughter, Samiya, now 5, Bateman bought organics, puréed and froze everything and assumed it would all go according to plan. Instead, "they were all spat out."
She tried for four months with little success. Mealtime became a source of maternal anxiety and a battle of wills. When Dhanya, 3, came along, Bateman decided to do things differently. As soon as the baby started reaching for food, "what was on my plate went on hers."
Dhanya played with it, sucked on it and gradually began to eat. Bateman eventually puréed some foods, but always took her cue from her daughter.
To this day, Samiya is particular about her food while Dhanya approaches everything with gusto.
"I feel a lot had to do with the whole beginning experience."
Georgetown doula Samantha Leeson says even though it's billed as a new movement, the notion of baby-led solids has been adopted by plenty of mothers over the years.
She never used a food mill for her kids, now 11 and 8, and fed them according to what they were interested in.
But she says Rapley's book and the wave of discussion are helpful for parents who may feel alone in their choices and who want to find like-minded parents or share ideas.
Rapley agrees. "I would never claim to have invented it. It has been going on for eons but it hasn't had a name," she says.
Bringing it into the open is "recognition that there is another way."
TIP FOR INTRODUCING SOLIDS
Here are tips for safely following a baby-led approach to solids for children 6 months and older, from Gill Rapley, British public health nurse and author of Baby-led Weaning.
Make sure your baby is supported in an upright position, such as in a high chair.
Never leave a baby unsupervised with food.
Start with chunks of food the size of a baby’s fist so they can grasp it to suck and eventually chew - not food cut up into small pieces, which is typically recommended for older babies starting with finger foods.
Don’t put food in a baby’s mouth or try to hurry the process. Rapley says there is evidence that babies are at less risk of choking if they control what goes into their mouth. By the time they are capable of reaching out and grabbing food, they have developed the ability to chew, she says. A baby struggling to get food into his mouth is probably not ready to eat it. Rapley says even among babies who are ready, gagging is not uncommon because their gag reflex is triggered far forward on the tongue before the food is near the airway.
Introduce your baby to a range of foods and textures. By waiting until six months, it’s safe to introduce a variety and the latest research indicates no need to delay citrus, strawberries or other foods associated with allergies.
Introduce solids as “playtime” rather than when the baby is hungry. Instead, make it an opportunity to participate in a family meal, explore, play and mimic.
Consider first solid foods an addition to milk feedings, rather than a replacement. Many babies don’t eat much for the first couple of months but then gradually reduce milk intake as they begin to consume more foods.
Avoid prepared foods or those with added salt and sugar.
Avoid foods typically considered choking hazards such as grapes, nuts, cherry tomatoes or anything with pits.
Consult your physician on feeding methods in the case of a premature baby, medical issues or history of family allergies.
For more information visit: babyled.com and rapleyweaning.com