Thursday, November 6, 2008

baby-led weaning

i have always been confused about the best way to introduce solid foods - when to start, how often, how much, and how to wean from breast/bottle while all this is going on. lately, i've been seeing more and more on baby-led weaning (often shortened to BLW), so i decided to check it out. it is a concept developed by gill rapley, who is a nurse, midwife, lactation consultant and currently the deputy program director of UNICEF UK's Baby Friendly Initiative. the basic idea is to introduce solid foods by allowing babies to self-feed with finger foods, skipping cereals and pureed foods altogether. rapley argues that this is a more natural transition, as breastfeeding is essentially the first form of self-feeding. and what appears to motivate babies to first eat solid foods is curiosity, not hunger, so self-feeding allows for more discovery and more participation in the family mealtime ritual. self-feeding may also improve hand-eye coordination and even digestion by reducing the likelihood that babies over-eat. some of the benefits of BLW appear to be related more to the prescription of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life than to the notion of self-feeding per se.

but what i found really intriguing is the discussion of how a baby's ability to manage solid food (with her mouth, her throat and her digestive system) keeps pace with her motor development.
...babies are not capable of intentionally moving food to the back of their throats until after they have developed the ability to chew. And they do not develop the ability to chew until after they have developed the ability to reach out and grab things. The ability to pick up very small things develops later still. Thus, a very young baby cannot easily put himself at risk because he cannot get small pieces of food into his mouth. Spoon feeding, by contrast, encourages the baby to suck the food straight to the back of his mouth, potentially making choking more likely.

the priciples of BLW are pretty straightforward and easy enough to follow. i have found this site very informative, chock full of resources, practical tips and observations, as well as other people's stories. and, to give you the basics, here are rapley's "10 commandments", as presented in the guardian.
1. Start weaning at six months
The reason spoon-feeding became popular, Rapley says, is that people used to give babies food from as young as three or even two months - and at that age, they aren't ready to feed themselves. But current advice from the World Health Organisation and the Department of Health is that six months is the best age to start weaning as a baby's gut and immune system aren't ready for real food until then. And by that stage, says Rapley, they need the opportunity to feed themselves real food such as steamed (or lightly boiled) whole vegetables, strips of chicken, pieces of fruit or cheese sticks.

2. Sit your baby upright for meals
Choking is often a parent's biggest weaning worry - but, says Rapley, providing the baby is upright, and you make sure they have control over their food (don't put the food into their mouth - let them do it themselves), choking is no more likely, and may be less likely, than it is when a baby is being spoon-fed. Rapley says parents often mistake gagging - a retching movement that pushes food out of the baby's airway - with choking.

3. Offer, rather than push, food
"Humans are designed to regulate the amount of food they need, and that includes babies," says Rapley. At some meals they'll eat very little - at other meals, they'll eat more. The "clean plate rule" that many of us were brought up with is associated with over-eating in adults, she says. Allowing babies to eat what they want means they'll learn to choose the nutrients they need, and to listen to their bodies telling them when they've had enough.

4. Eat with your child
"Eating with people will ensure babies learn more than just how to handle food - they'll learn about taking turns, conversation and table manners. Treat them with the same respect you would any other mealtime companion," she says. That means not telling them what to eat, not wiping their faces and not washing up while they're still eating.

5. Expect a mess
"Mess is an inevitable, fun and important part of babies learning about food," Rapley says. Plastic tablecloths and sheets under highchairs are recommended.

6. Don't get emotional
"If you feel hurt that your child isn't eating the food you've prepared, think about why you're taking it so hard. The real reason might be that you have anxieties about whether you're a good enough parent, and that's the issue you really need to address. Babies don't use mealtimes to play out emotional mindgames, but adults may interpret it as that, because for us there are many emotional tie-ups with food."

7. Don't cut food up too small
Before they master pincer-gripping with their fingers and thumb, says Rapley, "babies need pieces of food that are big enough for them to hold in their fists."

8. Treat mealtimes as playtimes
"In the early days, when your baby is first moving from milk feeds to proper food, mealtimes are more about fun than about eating," Rapley explains. "Your baby will be getting enough nourishment from milk feeds. Food, at this stage, is almost a rehearsal for 'real' eating, and what you want to get across more than anything is a sense of enjoyment. As far as your child is concerned, food is there to be experimented with, played with, and investigated. And also, of course, to be tasted."

9. Don't give food to hungry babies
In the early weeks of eating finger food, says Rapley, "offering a hungry baby finger food is as irrelevant and frustrating as offering a hungry baby a toy". Instead, give them a milk feed first, then finger food so they'll be able to enjoy playing with the food, and experimenting with getting some of it into their mouth.

10. Watch your language
A lot of the language we use around babies and food isn't helpful, says Rapley. "Many parents say things like 'Here comes the train!' because they anticipate the baby won't want to eat the food. Encourage the baby to think of food itself as interesting and pleasurable, rather than associate it with negativity." Avoid labelling babies as good or poor eaters.

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