It may seem like a new parenting craze to let a baby feed themselves instead of spoon feeding them pureed and mashed food, but in fact spoon feeding is the “new” craze. Prior to the commercial manufacturing of pureed baby food, babies were fed the same as their family by eating the food whole and with their hands. Near the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century, there appears to have been a flurry of activity around infant diets and doctors began promoting formula over breast milk. Thus began the start of commercial formulas and baby food. At one stage it was thought that a baby needed to start solids as young as 6 weeks old and of course a baby this age could not feed themselves and spoon feeding was introduced. Many believe that the drivers behind this were, in fact, the baby food manufacturers and I am inclined to believe this myself.
During the 1920s Clara M. Davis, a paediatrician unhappy with the current medical stance on infant feeding, created a study of 15 orphan infants to observe whether or not they instinctively chose to eat foods that they required for their health. This study had positive results but was not widely received at the time. The supposed “flaw” that had other medical professionals discounting her methods was the fact that only healthy food was offered. They believed if junk food had been available then the babies would have chosen this instead. In my opinion, this is unlikely as some babies chose liver over oranges or cod-liver oil over cheese. That doesn’t sound like the baby was choosing something by taste alone.
The term baby-led weaning first came in around 2008, originating in the UK and coined by Gill Rapley a former midwife and health visitor. As a natural and instinctive approach, it has since become a very popular alternative to introducing solid food. At 6 months of age, breast milk or formula is a baby’s main form of nutrition and solid food is given to begin the process of moving away from milk. If nursing, it is recommended by the World Health Organisation to breastfeed till 2 years old minimum and for those using formula till 12 months old. Solid food complements either forms of milk and is not essential until around 12 months depending on the baby’s iron stores.
So how do I know if my baby is ready to start eating solid food? There are several signs your baby will exhibit to let you know he is willing and that his digestive tract is ready to process and eliminate solid food.
- He is able to sit up unassisted. This shows the oesophagus is strong enough and prepared to take food through to the stomach.
- He no longer has the tongue-thrust reflex. This is clear when he first puts food into his mouth, if the tongue-thrust reflex is present he will simply push the food out automatically with his tongue.
- He is showing signs of developing the “pincer” grip. This means he is attempting to pick up pieces of food with his thumb and forefinger.
- He is keen to be part of meal times and is showing signs that he is ready to chew.
Your baby may show you all of these signs before 6 months of age. If he is 5 1/2 to 6 months old I believe it is safe for him to start trying foods. The first month or so will see your little one mostly playing with his food and trying to get it to his mouth, it is unlikely that he will consume much during this period. Before this age, the digestive tract simply is not mature and your baby may have health issues later on if fed solid food too soon.
It is important to read further on this subject before starting baby-led weaning as a matter of safety for your baby and for nutritional advice. I will be writing a series of posts on this subject so please watch this space!