Lee-Ann Grenier’s son, Elijah, was about five months old when he started showing real interest in eating with the family. “If he was awake for a meal, he sat on my lap and I gave him a spoon to hold,” says Grenier. He didn’t actually eat anything at five months, but by six months, Elijah figured out how to scoop some food off Mom’s plate and into his mouth. He must be ready for food, Grenier decided. She moved him to a high chair and scattered food on the tray. “One of his first loves was honeydew melon. I would give him fist-sized strips, and he would gnaw away at them.” Now eight months old, Elijah is an enthusiastic eater: “He sits in his chair and makes loud mmm noises until he has the food in his hands.”
But wait — what about the baby cereals? What about the puréed foods carefully spooned into the baby’s mouth? Not necessary, says Gill Rapley, the British health visitor (similar to a public health nurse in Canada), whose book Baby-Led Weaning has helped many parents adopt this easy way to start a baby on solid foods. (In the UK, the word “weaning” is used to describe starting solid foods.)
Rapley suggests parents first look for signs their baby is ready to start solids: sitting upright with little or no support; grabbing items and being able to reliably put things in her mouth. Then it’s simply a matter of giving her appropriate foods she can feed herself.
What’s appropriate? “Fruit and vegetables are ideal, with harder foods cooked slightly so they are soft enough to be chewed.” She adds: “There’s no need to cut food into mouth-sized pieces.” In fact, this will make it harder for your baby, who needs to be able to hold the food in her fist while she chews away on the part that sticks out. A piece the size and shape of a thick french fry works well. Some foods like broccoli stalks (with the tough parts trimmed off) seem designed for a baby’s hands; bananas cut lengthwise into thirds are the right thickness. Some small pieces that your baby can pick up between finger and thumb may work if your baby has developed his pincer grip. Sometimes larger foods work: Whole pears, for example, are easy for your baby to hold with two hands and gnaw on (watch for seeds).
Worried your baby will choke? Rapley points out that babies have a very good gag reflex to protect them from choking, but reminds parents never to leave a baby alone while he’s eating, and steer clear of foods that are choking hazards (see “Not on the Menu,” below).
If your family has a history of allergies, you may want to avoid common allergens (dairy products, nut butters, etc.) and introduce new foods one at a time, so you’ll know which food is the culprit if your child does have a reaction. Other things to avoid: processed food and foods with added sugar and salt.
Rapley feels this approach makes eating more enjoyable for babies, and less stressful for parents. Encouraging self-regulation in eating may also help to reduce overeating and other eating disorders. Parents spooning in puréed food may want to finish up the jar or bowl, coaxing their child to take more, even if he’s full. With the baby-led approach, your child will stop eating when he’s had enough.
Not on the menu
Rapley recommends avoiding the following for good health, and to reduce the risk of choking or food-borne illnesses:
• processed foods and fast foods; hot dogs present a double-whammy as a top choking hazard
• undercooked eggs
• whole olives, cherries and grapes (unless cut in half and pits or seeds are removed)