All the books and websites say that you should start introducing your baby to solids around 6 months old, some say you can start at 4 months old, and they all say that baby must meet developmental milestones before commencing with solids: baby must be able to sit up on his own or with minimal support, baby has lost the tongue thrust, baby is putting everything in his mouth, and baby is feeding at the breast or bottle with greater frequency. Nowhere could I find how to tell that Fitz wanted to eat food. I was trying to figure out what signs he would give, how I would know, how long is okay to wait, and I came up with nothing.
Fitz reached all of the development steps by 5.5 months old, but was not showing much interest in food aside from a cursory glance here and there - a mild curiosity about what Mommy and Daddy were putting in their mouths. So, I began reading up on starting solids and making homemade baby food. I made purées mixed with expressed breastmilk (apple, sweet potato, sweet peas, ground beef) and homemade cereals (quinoa, oats, rice). Making these foods for Fitz made me feel like a super mom, I was patting myself on the back, loving every minute of it, picturing Fitz happily gobbling up all this homemade, nutritious baby food.
Prior to starting solids, we introduced Fitz to the booster chair. We would put him in it during meals and gave him a sippy cup to practice drinking water. He loved the sippy cup, but kind of hated the chair. Probably because he wasn't quite sitting up on his own yet and was a bit slumped in it, but we wanted to acclimatize him to the food situation, get him ready to start eating.
When I gave him his first purée, sweet potato, I worried that I had chose one that was too thick. He gagged a lot, made a lot of faces, and he most certainly did not gobble up the food I painstakingly and proudly made for him. I started the world of purées with morning feeds, about an hour after nursing him. During his first encounter with spoon feeding, he gagged (which is normal), turned away, and fought the spoon. Everyone encouraged me to keep at it, it was just a matter of learning how to swallow, how to use a spoon. But each feeding was met with the same attitude: frustration, rejection. I couldn't help but feel wounded. I'd lovingly made this nourishing food for my son and he hated it, he rejected it. I knew it was silly, but it felt like a rejection of me. Here he is, during that first feeding, mouth coated in sweet potato, turning as much away from me and the spoon as he possibly could:
Thinking that the sweet potato was a poor choice for first foods, I tried puréed peas, apple, rice, and ground beef. By the eighth day, he was crying when I tried to feed him mashed banana. Even though everyone said it was normal and an adjustment, to keep at it, this all just felt wrong to me. Eating should be fun, it should be an adventure, an exploration, not an ordeal in which food is forced into his little mouth against his will. So after the banana incident, I acknowledged that Fitz just wasn't ready and decided to wait until he showed more interest.
About 6 weeks later, when I noticed him watching Craig and I eat, I tried purées again. He was less resistant, but he was still grabbing the spoon and turning away. I stressed, which is not how I wanted to feel about this exciting new journey in my son's life. I wanted him to enjoy it, to like it, to relish the bite. Feeling distressed and unhappy, I didn't know what to do. It was then that I noticed a photo of my friend Missy's daughter eating solids and she looked about Fitz's age. (Side note: Missy makes beautiful, affordable teething jewellery at String for Pearls). I inquired about her age and how Missy started solids and she told me about Baby Led Weaning. I knew about it from when Layne started Amelie on solids, but didn't know too much about it. All I knew was that baby self-feeds normal foods. But now that I am a mom, I felt nervous about trying it.
In the UK, weaning refers to the introduction of solids, not weaning baby off the breast or bottle. So baby led weaning (BLW) is a way of introducing solids that allows the baby to have control, to feed him or herself. Missy explained that her son was like Fitz, disinterested in solids, so her doctor recommended she try giving him a chicken drumstick (skin and tiny bone removed). When she did, he went to town on it, gobbling it down and they never looked back. I wanted to try it, but like I said, I was a bit nervous, so I bought the Baby Led Weaning book by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett.
While I waited for the book, I used the mesh teether Tina gave us to give Fitz frozen Saskatoon berries, strawberries, and raspberries. He made a face every time he bit down and juice would squirt into his mouth, but he kept gnawing on it, so there was a small success there. At this point, it became obvious that Fitz (like his mother) is fiercely independent and wanted to do it himself.
Once the book arrived in the mail, I devoured it! Everything about it made so much sense. Of course babies want to feed themselves! Who wants a spoonful of mush shoved in their mouths against their will? Not me! (Not that spoon feeding is bad or doesn't work for other babies). Not only did that part make sense for Fitz, but there are so many benefits to BLW: baby learns to chew then swallow which helps with speech development, good digestion and safe eating; baby learn to manage different textures and to move food around their mouths (a spoon puts it directly at the back of their mouths, forcing them to swallow and overcome their gag reflex - nature's built-in anti-choking mechanism); baby learns to self-regulate and stop eating when he is satisfied; and BLW is fun for babies. Through BLW, Fitz gets to explore different textures and flavours, he eats what we eat and is included in our meal times. Plus, it's really fun for us parents to watch his reactions to new flavours and textures.
Food exploration is an excellent opportunity for Fitz to learn; each new food is an educational toy. For instance, Rapley and Murkett explain: "they figure out how to hold something soft without squashing it or something slippery without dropping it - and about concepts such as less and more, size, shape, weight, and texture, too. Because all their senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste) are involved, they discover how to relate all these things together for a better understanding of the world around them."
Eating this way, gives Fitz independence and confidence, and BLW babies tend to be less picky, have better nutrition, eat well without the need for trickery, and they have good table manners (they mimic their parents from a young age). Added bonus: it's easier to eat out with BLW babies since they just eat what you eat it.
A major downfall of BLW is the mess. Obviously, letting a baby feed himself is going to be messy and food is going to get everywhere. Lucky for us, we have two eager hoovers, just waiting for their chance to clean up Fitz's discarded meal remnants. These two dogs will literally eat anything edible, so every last drop gets cleaned up.
The only other negative about BLW is that it tends to make a lot of people nervous. They're scared of Fitz choking, but I just try to reassure them that 1) Fitz having control of the food going in his mouth will reduce the risk of choking (especially because at present, he doesn't yet know how to move food to the back of his mouth, so when things come apart, they just fall out of his mouth); and 2) that his gag reflex will make him cough up anything that does hit the back of his throat unintentionally. Once people see him eat, though, they are impressed at how adept he is and generally feel less worried. However, the impulse to put food directly into Fitz's mouth is a strong one if he isn't trying it quickly enough, and this is a big no-no for BLW. The focus on convincing baby to eat is not necessary with this type of feeding, we have to be patient and allow Fitz to sample foods at his own pace and in his own way. We so enjoy watching him with food, but we also have to be less obvious about it, treating him as we would anyone else at the dinner table. It's also important not to praise or coax him, just to let him figure it out and when he is done, letting him be done.
Today, paediatricians don't have many restrictions on how to introduce foods to baby, unless allergies run in your family. If they don't, they only advise you to avoid honey. Nuts are a choking hazard, so it's better to give babies nut butter until they can chew well. But other than that, we can introduce whatever foods we like in whatever order we like. Fitz has already tried broccoli, green pepper, cucumber, potato, strawberries, raspberries, Saskatoon berries, apple, lettuce, avocado, cheddar cheese, chicken drumsticks, pork chops, pork tenderloin, roast beef, steak, bulgogi beef, bacon, eggs, and rice. I choose to focus on fruits, vegetables, and meats. Even though he doesn't actually eat much of the foods yet, just from gnawing and sucking on meat, he gets vitamins and nutrients, like iron. Which is important because babies are born with limited iron stores that begin depleting around 6 months of age. So far, Fitz's favourites are Saskatoons, cheese, and meat. He loves the texture and flavour of meats and spends more time chewing on meat than any other food we give him. He was particularly enamoured with pork chops, steak, bacon, and chicken drumsticks.
I am so grateful for BLW because it has made eating a good, educational experience for Fitz and pleasurable for all of us. I was so heartbroken offering him purées; feeding people is a huge part of how I express my love, so it felt like such a huge rejection. Now that Fitz is eating what we eats, he tries everything, so long as you put it in front of him and give him the space and time to explore, which is a huge relief to us and devoid of any stress.