Baby’s first foods

I got a message a couple days ago from a friend, asking about first foods for baby. She’d gone online and, in her eloquent words, discovered that “There’s a lot of shit out there.” I couldn’t agree more.

First thing’s first: when is baby ready for solids? You’ll hear six months thrown around a lot by your Plunket nurse, while your mother-in-law will probably tell you to feed them earlier so that they “sleep through the night” (this is bull, don’t listen). The truth is, babies are on their own clock. I think babies are ready for solids when they can sit up, they don’t just push food away with their tongue but actually take it in their mouths, they can pick food up with a pincer grip, and they basically try to steal your food because they’re interested in it and want to try it. That them telling you they’re ready for solid food.

So, how do you feed them? There are basically three methods:

  1. Baby led weaning. This is where you give bubs pieces of solid finger food for them to pick up and attempt to chew with their hard little gums.
  2. Mix of baby led weaning and traditional spoon feeding. This is where you give bubs some mush foods on a spoon but also give them some pieces of solid finger food to explore.
  3. Traditional spoon feeding. This is where you buy or make baby food, going through the stages of purees, thicker purees with some lumps, mash, chopped finger food and finally normal meals.

It’s obviously up to you which method you choose but in my opinion, the most simple way to feed your baby is to give them whatever you’re eating. This usually has the side effect of you wanting to eat well yourself, perhaps even eating things you may have avoided in the past (like your vegetables!) and also prevents baby FOMO. I don’t think anything you eat should be off-limits to your baby (just be sensible about it, don’t share your morning coffee for instance). So for me, I think baby led weaning is where it’s at, maybe with some spoon feeding thrown in when you eat stuff that requires a spoon.

“But what about baby choking on all those solid foods?!” Cue shocked looks from your mother-in-law. This has probably been drummed into them (by baby food companies, no doubt) but there’s actually no evidence to back it up. When babies are ready for solids their gag reflex is so far forward in their mouths that the risk of choking on solid foods is actually pretty minimal. As they get older and master chewing, the gag reflex moves further back in their mouth. Makes perfect sense. I doubt our ancestors were putting vegetables into a Nutribullet in their caves. Just, you know, be sensible about it. Don’t go giving your baby whole nuts or uncut cherry tomatoes that are the perfect size to get lodged in their throats. Use your commonsense. And I recommend familiarizing yourself on the difference between gagging and choking so that you don’t freak out when baby gags. Choking is silent, gagging is noisy. All parents should be prepared to leap into action if their baby is choking (on anything, not just food) but gagging is not the same. It is actually a great mechanism to prevent bubs choking and, as such, is super normal.

“But their iron!” I can hear your mother-in-law’s scandalized tones from here. Research doesn’t back up this claim either, particularly if you’re breastfeeding. Baby absorbs that iron really well, they’re not going to suddenly run out the day they turn six months old and need you to feed them Farax or some other bland, processed grain that’s fortified with iron. There’s this historic notion that because breastmilk is lower in iron than formula, breastfed babies especially need to be ‘topped up’ by solid foods by the time they’re six months old. Back then, it wasn’t understood that the iron in breastmilk is absorbed super well. There was even a study in the 90s that showed that babies exclusively breastfed until seven months (one month past current recommendations) actually had higher haemoglobin levels than breastfed babies who were given solids earlier. It actually reduced their risk of anaemia. So, you can tell your mother-in-law to take a chill pill.

The great thing about baby led weaning is that bubs is in charge of what goes in their mouth. I once went to a conference where the presenter had us all spoon feed each other. Having someone shove a spoon in my face was ridiculously unpleasant, and when they scraped fallen food off my chin it was like torture *shudder*. When baby can pick their own food up, it means they eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full – preserving that all-important mechanism.

Traditional spoon feeding overcomplicates things. There’s no evidence that babies need to be spoon fed. Chewing is actually super important for a whole host of things: breathing well and language development being two of the big ones. So, if you do choose to go down the traditional spoon feeding route, my advise is to move baby through those different textures quickly, even if they haven’t fully mastered the one they’re on. It’s so important to get them chewing, or they can get stuck in the puree, thick puree, or mash stages. And, do it on their terms. Wait for them to lean forward to take the food off the spoon, resist the urge to scrape fallen food off their faces, and when they turn their head away or push you away, they’re done. Doesn’t matter if they didn’t eat any, they’re just not hungry for it and we shouldn’t force it on them.

Now, it goes without saying (but this is the internet, so I better actually say it), that all babies are different. My own son was very premature and this affected the way I fed him. His gut had been working since the day he was born and he was interested and ready to eat before he could physically pick up foods and put them in his mouth. So I ended up spoon feeding and also giving him my food to play with, in a bit of a hybrid of baby led weaning and spoon feeding. And you know what, I actually didn’t use a spoon the first few times I fed him. Instead, he sat on my lap and I scooped mashed banana with my fingers and fed it to myself until he tried to shove his face into my hand because he wanted in on the action. He licked it off my fingers. I found using my finger as a spoon was natural, especially because the only thing I had put into his mouth using a spoon-like instrument before was his disgusting medicine, so he was hella suspicious of spoons. I didn’t blame him.

Regardless of what method of feeding you pick, there are all these questions about what to introduce when. Will fruit before vegetables make it less likely that baby will eat vegetables? Do you need to get meat in there really early for the iron? Should you give them white bread instead of wholegrain bread so it’s easier on their stomach? Should you avoid potential allergen foods in case they have an allergic reaction? In all cases, no.

This is all just overcomplicating things. If you want your child to eat well, the most important thing you can do is to eat well yourself. Then you can just give bubs some of what you’re eating, or something similar if you’re spoon feeding them mush.

As for the allergen thing, research shows that avoiding potential allergens makes things worse. Instead, we actually want kids to be exposed early. I let my son lick peanut butter off my fingers. If you’re breastfeeding, you can also eat things like nuts and eggs and shellfish, so that baby is exposed to those potential allergens through your breastmilk. Easy!

Lastly, remember that “Food before one is just for fun.” You can relax about what to introduce when and all the different ‘rules’ everyone tells you. The important thing in this time is that baby gets to experience and explore food. This is why I detest those baby food pouches – not only are they normally high in sugar, but baby doesn’t get to see, smell and touch their food! We want babies to explore their food but be prepared: this means committing to cleaning up mess. Food is going to get flicked around, you will get it on your clothes, it will somehow get inside their bib and all through their clothes. Honestly, when we had something that was going to be particularly messy (spaghetti and meatballs was probably the biggest culprit), I chose to undress my son, let him eat fully naked, then bathe him afterwards!

Now go and have some fun!

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