I get a lot of questions about how to manage the introduction of solid foods to infants and toddlers. Parents and grandparents are understandably anxious about getting this right and there’s some conflicting information out there, not to mention a ton of lore and well-meaning advice that can get overwhelming.
Leslie Schilling and Wendy Jo Peterson, both of whom are registered dietitian nutritionists as well as mothers, have just written a new book called Born to Eat. Not only is it a fantastic resource for anyone navigating through this important phase of a child’s (and family’s) life, but their relaxed and realistic approach is a much-needed antidote to all the dogma and stress that can accompany this topic.
Below are highlights from my recent conversation with Leslie. To hear the entire interview, please click on the player in the top right hand corner of the page.
What Is Baby-Led Weaning?
ND: For those who aren’t familiar with the baby-led weaning movement, can you briefly describe what it is and how it differs from what we’ve been doing over the last 50 years or so?
LS: Baby-led weaning is a feeding approach that allows baby to self-feed foods the same foods the rest of the family is eating, in appropriate shapes and textures. It doesn’t involve being spoon-fed purees. Once they are developmentally ready, baby can start exploring most foods and textures with parental support.
ND: Baby led weaning is more than just a philosophy or trend; there’s some emerging research to support this approach as well. But sometimes it can take a while for the clinicians on the front lines to embrace new research. Might parents face pushback from their pediatricians on this approach?
LS: That is very possible. Parents may find that some healthcare providers have heard of the method while others have not. Parents are the ultimate advocate for baby and can help their pediatrician by noting that the American Academy of Pediatrics promotes a self-feeding approach. Sometimes it’s just about switching the lingo.
ND: When people start learning about this approach, what are some of the things they find most surprising about the recommendations? Are there things that are controversial?
LS: When you tell someone to give baby a medium-cooked slice of steak, scrambled egg, or avocado slice, they make look at you a little funny. Many people don’t realize that a normally developing six-month old most likely has the skills to handle solid textures like these, especially now that the guidelines to start solids have changed from four-to-six months to a more developmentally appropriate six-month age.
Is Baby-Led Weaning Safe?
ND: When baby is leading the way, how do you make sure that they are getting all the nutrients they need?
LS: This is a great time to find balance for the whole family. We recommend building a beginners plate with an iron-rich food, an energy dense food, and a food with vitamin C. The family can plan normal meals and simply modify the foods as needed for their infant.
ND: Choking is another big worry for parents. But you draw a distinction between gagging and choking—and say that gagging is actually part of the learning process. Can you explain a bit more about that?
LS: The gag reflex is a normal function of oral and feeding development. It helps baby protect himself from swallowing a food he’s not ready to eat or maneuver. As new parents, a gagging episode can be scary but we can carefully watch and let baby clear his mouth. Babies are at greater risk for choking when they are not in control of feeding (force feeding via spoon or putting food in baby’s mouth), eating certain raw fruits or veggies, coin-sized pieces of food, or when reclined (like in a car seat). For this reason, it’s recommended that all new parents learn first aid for choking which is often offered at your local hospital.
Getting Started with Baby-Led Weaning
ND: In the book, you include resources to help parents educate grandparents and other caregivers on the principles of baby-led weaning. Is this a major challenge for parents who choose this method of feeding?
LS: We don’t think it’s a major challenge for most parents but we all encounter people who don’t understand the process or who feel that a different way is better or safer (although no research supports that). As parents decide the method they’ll take for feeding their little one, they can ask for support from other caregivers as needed. We’ve provided some conversation starters that can make your desires clear and your child safe.
ND: At the other end of the spectrum, it seems there are some baby-led weaning groups and forums that can get pretty dogmatic and intense about what is and isn’t the “correct” way to do this. Tell us what you mean by the phrase “what you chew is up to you.”
LS: That’s one of my favorite phrases! Yes, there is a bit of black and white thinking even in feeding methods. We feel this is an easy and natural path for both parents and infants. The bottom line is that no matter how you decide to feed your child, you are the expert of your own home and family. We empower parents with evidenced-based information and they decide what’s right for them.
ND: How might baby-led weaning affect a child’s eating habits and attitudes later in life? How might it affect other members of the family, such as older siblings?
LS: Emerging research suggest the baby-led or self-feeding approach sets our children up for being very good at listening to their internal regulation system. They know when they’re hungry and they know when to stop eating. No external pressures are being added (i.e. “just a few more bites”). This supports a child’s own ability to trust himself with food and body for a lifetime. It is our hope this focus on individual body trust will permeate the whole family. It’s hard to create a self-regulating eater if the family isn’t on the journey with them. We provide tips to help the whole family break from our dieting culture by embracing their nutrition intuition and body trust.
To learn more about Born to Eat, visit the book’s website at http://borntoeatbook.com or find Leslie and Wendy Jo at @borntoeatbook.