Just about three years ago, I wrote something in our weekly newsletter answering the question, “What does a farm baby eat?” It was a good opportunity to explore the concept of “baby led weaning” and feeding children in general.
Dottie is now eight and a half months old with a mouth full of chompers (seven teeth already!). She’s been sitting up since before five months, and we started offering her food at the table just a few days before she turned six months. Once again we’re introducing foods in the method of “baby led weaning,” which should perhaps more accurately be called “baby led solids” (the assumption is that breastfeeding continues alongside learning to eat until baby eventually transitions to more and more solid foods — which can take many months). The concept behind “baby led weaning” is that babies don’t need to be spoon fed mush (or even necessarily benefit from this practice). Instead, parents should watch for a few development and safety-related cues: sitting up independently, reaching for food at the table, passing the six-month mark, and possibly the appearance of teeth (teeth are a big variable though). At that point, parents can begin offering the baby food at the table, and the baby will — over time — learn to eat and feed herself on her own.
It’s important to note that there are some safety precautions to take: first, babies should always be seated in a stable position (parent lap or secure high chair). Babies exploring food should always be supervised. And, food should be offered with some safety awareness — no choking sized pieces. In fact, contrary to what one might expect, it is safer to offer larger pieces of food at this age — big enough to offer baby a secure handle to hold while chewing or biting the other end (but too big to put in the mouth all at once). Ideal foods are things like strips of chicken meat, roasted carrot sticks, apple slices, etc. Sometimes, it makes more sense to offer small pieces, but then it’s useful for them to be very small (again, not choking size) — I do this with things like ground meat. Little tiny bites can be great pincer grasp practice!
With Dottie, we’ve just offered her appropriate size bits of whatever we’re eating. She doesn’t get any special different foods; we just pull out parts of our own dinner and let them cool on the edge of our plate before offering them by putting them in front of her. It’s up to Dottie to pick them up and get them in her mouth. No surprise, we end up with a lot of food in the high chair seat and on the ground. From our experience with Rusty, I know to expect food on the ground for the next year at least. And, at first, when Dottie did get food in her mouth, she didn’t really know what to do with it. As with Rusty, there were several gagging episodes (babies have sensitive gag reflexes that are farther forward in their mouth than ours) that were more uncomfortable for mom and dad than for baby (she just put more food in her mouth afterward!). But, by now she has begun to understand the concept of putting food in mouth (or biting off a piece of something) and chewing and swallowing.
At this point, this is still mostly a fun game for all of us. We love watching her take tiny bites of food and get super messy at meals, and she enjoys the challenge and many sensory experiences offered by eating. And, this is where I think that modern baby feeding has it all backwards. The assumption of mushed baby food and spoon feeding is that early baby feeding is about nourishment — that we need to start supplementing the diet with special foods from an early age (some people start even before six months!) in order to provide calories or specific nutritional ingredients.
In contrast, baby led weaning flips this notion — instead of being so much about nourishment yet, early “feeding” is about learning to eat. If a mother continues to nurse (or feed formula), the baby is getting the nourishment she needs. But, at some point, she will outgrow these sources of food, and so she needs to prepare to be ready to feed herself a variety of foods. Thus, learning the motor skills of putting food in the mouth, experiencing a range of flavors and textures (so that they are normal and not offensive later), and gaining a general understanding of the process (how big of a bite is comfortable, etc.).
As with any kind of baby development, there is a range of normal for picking up these skills (or even for being interested at all) — Dottie has mastered some of these skills earlier than Rusty did, simply because she seemed all the more eager (this has been true for everything for her … gotta keep up with brother I guess!). She is already regularly enjoying a wide range of foods: all kinds of fruits and vegetables, meat on the bone (bones make a great “handle”), eggs, and some limited dairy products (we will dip a spoon in yogurt and then hand it to her, or sometimes just put something goopy on the table for her to rub her hands in and then lick). Roasted cauliflower seems like a current favorite, but she also loves raw carrot sticks (with her teeth, she can bite off tiny little bites already!). She is also learning how to drink water out of a small cup (that we hold), which is a great big fun mess!
For us, baby led weaning is also a wonderful way to bring Dottie to the family table. Her high chair surface is the dining table itself (rather than a separate tray), and she is offered the foods we are all eating. There is magic in having all four members of our family enjoying the same foods in the same physical space and time. For her, this will be normal and probably something she takes for granted for much of her early life (I figure that we parents are doing our job right if our kids take a lovely family life for granted — they’ll appreciate it eventually I suppose). Since food is central to our livelihood and daily work, sharing our meals with Dottie feels like an initiation or baptism of sorts. She is slowly becoming less of a baby or more of a person in our family.
As I said, this is the second time we’ve gone through this process of baby led weaning. Two babies fed now without any mushes. I’ll tell you: it works for us! And it’s fun! Dottie is enjoying her food experiments, and I hope you enjoy this week’s vegetables too!
Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla
P.S. Funny last tidbit: Casey and I like to make jokes about “baby led” processes that rhyme with “weaning.” Thus, we have a thing we call “baby led cleaning,” which is when after a messy meal we hand Dottie a warm wet washcloth, and she will happily play with it and suck on it and wipe it all over the table. It’s amazing how much of the mess gets cleaned up through this engaging play method (and then we do a little extra cleaning if necessary at the very end). If your baby hates having her face wiped (as Dottie does), try this out next time!
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Meet this week’s vegetables:
- Fava beans — Rusty loves fava bean season, not so much for the eating but for the fun of opening up the big fluffy pods and pulling out the beans inside. It’s one of his favorite activities right now. Casey and I, however, love fava bean season for the fava beans. If you’re new to fava beans, the first thing to know is that they’re not to be eaten raw as a whole pod (unlike the sugar snap peas, which are). Some people like eating the whole pod roasted or grilled with beans in — this is quite delicious (the key is to use lots of oil and salt and cook until almost blackened and crispy). Or, you can remove the beans and cook them separately by sautéing in butter, adding to stews, etc. Once the interior beans start to get bigger (about the size of a large lima bean), they develop a slightly bitter white outer skin around the green interior. Some people like to take this outer skin off for a true culinary experience — the interior green beans are amazingly sweet and succulent. A classic preparation is to cook the interior beans (steam) and then mash with olive oil and garlic for a dip/spread. It’s bright green and delicious!
- Peas — What needs to be said? These are like candy! Eat them whole, or dip them in something yummy.
- Mustard greens
- Spring onions