Parenting “Experts” are everywhere. They’re there to tell us exactly what to do in just about every situation, usually with the moralistic, judgmental attitude of… well, parents. Parents voluntarily subject themselves to these “Experts” and their opinions because parenting is stressful, and it’s nice to think other people have this stuff figured out. In order to examine the ongoing biological, philosophical, moral, and psychological debates that other people have about raising your children, Full-Time Dad presents Parenting Expert Wars. Today’s topic is Baby-Led Weaning.
I have made no secret of my disdain for our culture of “Kids’ Food.” The willful damage that our society does to our children’s health, palates, and general well-being for the sake of just allowing them to eat mac and cheese for the fourth-straight meal disgusts me on a visceral level1. So as TD rounds the corner into an age where she is going to start eating solid foods, I have been frantically seeking out information on how to avoid turning my daughter into an adult that refuses to eat cauliflower2, avocados3, tomatoes4, or basically anything that isn’t McDonalds’ cheeseburgers, pizza, or something slathered in marinara or buffalo sauce5.
My obsessive probing brought me initially to Bee Wilson and her fascinating book First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, which opened my eyes to the fact that our palates for food are really under our control. Want to start liking cauliflower? Then all you have to do is start eating cauliflower with the intention to like it. It’s really that simple.
Wilson mentions a biological phenomenon in humans she calls “the flavor window.” During a short period of time during infant development– from 4 to 7 months of age– babies are hardwired to accept almost any flavor. This, of course, threw me into one-track mind mode and I immediately began steaming and pureeing all sorts of crazy things that sounded disgusting to me, but that I was willing to spoon feed to TD: carrots, onions, kale, celery, beets, you name it, I had ice cube trays full of disgusting purees ready to cram into my unsuspecting daughter’s pie hole.
And then I stumbled upon Baby-Led Weaning by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett. This style of introducing solid foods to babies is revolutionary only insomuch as there’s absolutely nothing revolutionary about it. It starts with a basic, common sense premise that is so reasonable that I can’t believe nobody had ever mentioned this to me before: put down the spoon and let babies feed themselves.
I know, right?
Here’s the common sense progression to Baby-Led Weaning proponents get to their conclusion: we let babies roll over on their own. We also let them learn to crawl on their own, walk on their own, talk on their own, hell kids even learn to read at their own pace. So why is it that of all the childhood development milestones we tick off, we have essentially scrapped eating and given a specific timeline and methodology to feeding children food starting with purees? It’s not like children need the nutrition that carrot and pea puree provides at six months. Babies this age still get all of their nutrition from breastmilk or formula.
Here is what you are teaching a baby by spoon feeding her: okay, so sometimes I’m going to cram something into your mouth. You may not want me to put this goop in your mouth. Even if it tastes good, you may not be in the mood to swallow it. But I’m going to do it over and over again until you eat it. You’ll have no idea when I’m going to start, nor do you have any concept of when I’m going to stop. The force feeding will happen on my schedule and will be dictated by my pace. Moreover, all food is creamy goop. There is no variance in texture. So when you can actually feed yourself in six months to a year, I’m going to get frustrated that you don’t like “lumpy food,” and I’m not going to be able to make the connection as to why you won’t eat anything that isn’t as slick as the purees I’ve been force feeding you since I decided it was time.
Okay, so how fucking stupid is this paradigm? Just even on its surface, it makes zero sense.
Part of the concern for parents, it would seem, is choking. But babies rarely choke on food they feed themselves. In fact, according to the Baby-Led Weaning advocates, six-month old babies don’t even have the physical capability to move food from the front of their mouths to the back to swallow it. What babies do have, on the other hand, is a very sensitive gag reflex. It’s more forward in the mouth than in adults, too, so if they stick something too far in their mouth they gag. And you know what gagging does? It prevents you from choking.
Babies love, love, love to shove things in their mouths. It’s how they explore a very new world full of tons of new experiences. They learn about textures, tastes, temperatures, and even how not to gag on something by putting it in their mouths themselves.
Spoonfeeding bypasses the gag reflex and basically slides food down the back of a baby’s throat. They learn nothing except that sometimes goop tastes yummy and sometimes goop tastes gross. More nefarious, subtle though it may seem, is spoonfeeding teaches babies to swallow before they know how to chew. This is the exact opposite order in which humans should learn how to eat, and is a core lesson to teaching toddlers that lumpy foods are bad. Of course they’re bad. They’ve never had to chew before!
Here’s what Rapley and Murkett recommend: Babies are super curious, love to imitate grown-ups, and want to be included, so treat mealtime like playtime. Give them soft, graspable foods like sticks of roasted veggies to play with. Let them explore the flavor, texture, and overall experience the food provides. Keep in mind that babies haven’t even made the connection that this tiny green tree-looking thing will satiate their hunger. They have no concept of what food is. Let them discover where the gag reflex is. Let them make a mess. As long as a baby can sit up straight and is not reclined, Rapley and Murkett say there’s no real danger of choking6. As long as the baby shows interest in what’s going on at the table, you can start putting small, graspable bites in front of them for them to play with.
We have been doing this with TD for a few weeks, now. Even though she can’t sit up on her own, she loves to sit on our laps during mealtime and play with us. So we indulge her and give her bits of food to experiment with, and she’s having a ball. And you know what? We are, too. It’s fun to watch your baby play with food. The look on TD’s face when she stumbles upon a flavor she really likes is priceless7.
Truth is TD is an experiment of one, and I am simply running a tiny laboratory with results that may not be particularly useful to anyone outside of myself. But I can say that I’m glad I learned about Baby-Led Weaning when I did. I just wish it wasn’t something I didn’t have to learn about, because the way we feed our babies today seems patently insane after you’ve looked into it beyond the surface.
- This is in large part a side effect of my own formerly-broken relationship with food.
- A friend of mine.
- A relative of mine.
- Another relative of mine.
- Yet another relative of mine.
- They even make the point that the foods that are choking hazards, like nuts, are foods that babies aren’t even physically capable of picking up until the pinscher grasp develops at 9 or 10 months. Still, don’t feed your baby foods that are choking hazards, duh.
- She tried a dill pickle and went berserk for the taste. Though we need to limit her salt intake, so pickles will have to be a sometimes thing until her kidneys are developed enough to process sodium on the regular.