I believe in evidence based parenting. This means making each decision along the way on the back of your own independent research, not just because it is “the done thing” or because other people do it or someone told you so. This external influence can come from all directions, which is why I think it is dangerous to label your parenting style. Whether you consider yourself a “mainstream mum” or a “natural parent” or whatever other labels are out there, there is a danger of making choices based on what the current buzz topics in your circle are, rather than your own independent thinking.
This was brought home to me by the issue of solids. I considered myself a baby-led mum, striving to take an instinctive approach and make choices based on what was developmentally appropriate for my baby, taking her cues. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself. Therefore, the idea of baby led weaning seemed logical and appropriate to me. The basic tenets of this philosophy are to wait until the baby is sitting unassisted and is able to put food into their own mouth before starting solids. It also rules out purees and the like, advocating giving baby only whole foods in their natural state, such as sticks of soft veggies to start with. Generally, this means waiting until at least 6 months to begin solids. In fact, even the World Health Organisation advises waiting until 6 months to introduce solids.
|Purees are a no-no under the baby led weaning approach
However, once Bubba reached 4 months, I started to get the feeling she would like to try some food and was ready for it. No she was not sitting unassisted (still isn’t) and wasn’t stealing food from our plates, but I still got an instinctive feeling from her that it was something she would like to try.
So I started to do my own research, using Google Scholar and focusing on medical journals and research. I was interesting to find that the WHO recommendation to delay solids until 6 months is actually based on very limited research. In fact, the main conclusion I draw from their evidence is actually that it is detrimental to introduce solids before four months of age. This study found that later introduction of solids did not have a protective effect against allergies, and this study actually found that delaying introduction of cereal grains until after 6 months may actually increase the risk of wheat allergy. If you are wanting to extended breastfeed, this study found that “breastfeeding duration was not associated with infants’ age at introduction of solids.”
This 2009 literature review sums it up neatly:
Recommendations in developed countries of reducing this risk [of developing food allergies in children] by avoidance of allergenic foods until the child is of varying ages past 6 months have been challenged by recent population studies. Where the risk of allergy is a key consideration, currently-available research suggests that introducing solids at 4-6 months may result in the lowest allergy risk. When all aspects of health are taken into account, the recommended duration of exclusive breastfeeding and age of introduction of solids were confirmed to be 6 months, but no later. (Anderson, Malley & Snell, 2009).
My overall conclusion from my research on the topic was that 4-6 months was an ideal window to begin slowing introducing my baby to solid food. For me the focus was on fun and the experience of tastes and textures, not giving her a “meal” per se. And really, for me, I feel happy with this approach. We don’t wait until a baby can put the boob in her own mouth before we give her breastmilk. Being baby-led is all well and good, but at the end of the day, babies are unable to do a lot of things for themselves that we do for them until they develop the ability to do it themselves. As parents we have to make a lot of decisions on behalf of our children every day.
I have absolutely nothing against baby led weaning and think it can be wonderful choice for many families. I still intend to incorporate some of these principles when Bubba gets to about 6 months. I do believe in the value of babies handling food in its original state, not always mushed to oblivion.
But for now, we are really enjoying mushed food. Right from the start, Bubba has enjoyed exploring food and has never coughed, gagged or spat food out, which to me was a good indication to continue. In fact, she very quickly learnt what the spoon was all about and began excitedly kicking her legs and opening her mouth when she saw it. As soon as she stops opening her mouth for more, I stop the feeding.
Basically, my main conclusion from all this was the importance of allowing yourself to be led by your baby. So I guess, in a way, I do believe in “baby-led weaning”, but not in the sense that the baby has to do everything itself. Rather in the sense that you can trust your mother’s intuition on what your baby is ready for. Some babies under 6 months may gag, spit or get upset when tried on solids – I consider this a good indication to wait a little longer. But if you feel your baby over 4 months is ready for a little taste, I don’t think there is any harm in it, and there may actually be some good. Above all, trust your baby – if you can attune to their form of communication, they will tell you what they are happy with and what they aren’t.