This mom was following the suggestions of Baby-Led Weaning, a best-selling book on how to feed babies. The subtitle: The Natural, No-Fuss, No-Purée Method for Starting Your Baby on Solid Foods. As described on Amazon, “Baby-Led Weaning explodes the myth that babies need to be spoon-fed and shows why self-feeding from the start of the weaning process is the healthiest way for your child to develop. With baby-led weaning (BLW, for short), you can skip purées and make the transition to solid food by following your baby’s cues.”
The premise of baby-led weaning is that mom doesn’t need to spend any time in the kitchen making purees for her six-month-old child, but that baby can be fully nourished on chunks of food like broccoli and rice cakes. The idea is to put “a variety of foods in front of baby and baby will know what to eat.” Furthermore, according to the authors, babies need this training in order to learn to put things in their mouths. (Seriously!) Babies need to eat with the family at the table and baby-led weaning is the way to accomplish this. Also, babies might be traumatized and grow up to be axe murders if you put a spoon in their mouths. Please forgive my sarcasm, but as a mother of four children who grew up just fine after their infant diet of purees, I have to wonder where this deep-seated aversion to pureed baby food is coming from.
So, according to baby-led weaning, baby’s early diet should look something like this:
Really, you have to ask, how much nourishment is baby getting from carrot sticks and pieces of lettuce? How much is even going down the gullet? And what about the danger of choking?
There is just so much wrong with this book. . . Let’s start with the dietary guidelines themselves. Suggestions for baby’s first foods include raw carrot, raw broccoli and a strip of meat–remember, baby doesn’t have molars yet. Even adults sometimes have trouble chewing a strip of meat. Baby gets full-fat dairy but no butter. Instead he gets “healthy fats” such as vegetable oils, oily fish and olive oil. Salt is bad for babies, insist the authors of Baby-Led Weaning. Baby gets whole grains, including oat cakes, rice cakes and dry breakfast cereal (Rice Crispies are especially recommended). Pasta and pizza are OK—they make great finger foods! And microwaving is OK also. The key is that mom just puts a few of these objects on baby’s tray, and baby then tells mom what he is going to eat. Once baby learns to talk, he can dictate all his food choices! Don’t be surprised if he wants to eat nothing but pizza.
As justification, proponents of baby-led weaning point to the baby feeding studies by Clara Davis, carried out at the Mt. Sinai Hospital in Cleveland in 1926. In this study Davis fed a group of orphans by putting a variety of foods in front of them every day.
The first thing to notice is the choice of foods that Davis considered important for babies. These included “sweet milk”—in 1926, that would be whole raw milk—as well as sour milk. In addition to fruits, vegetables and grains, the babies got to choose from beef, lamb, chicken, bone marrow, bone jelly, sweetbreads, brains, liver, kidneys, fish and eggs. Notice all the organ meats and the lamb jelly! To top it off, babies got to dip their fingers in a bowl of sea salt!
The babies did well—they thrived and had rosy cheeks. Does that mean the babies know what they should eat? No, it means that Clara Davis knew what babies should eat—far, far better that what modern moms know, plunking slices of green pepper down on the high chair tray.
Commentators have declared that the Davis study shows that “All the babies ended up eating a balanced diet.” The babies did well, for sure, but how do we know they all got a balanced diet? Were nutrient levels in the foods measured? Were the babies followed into adulthood? Were they given blood tests to determine blood levels of vitamins and minerals?
The babies developed definite tastes. For example, one baby ate two pounds of oranges in one day. I’m not sure I would call that a balanced diet, and if I had a child who only wanted to eat oranges, I would not let him tell me what he wanted to eat, but do my best to vector him to other foods.
But the key point is this: in the Davis study, the foods were mashed, ground up or finely minced—not raw and in big chunks. The babies indicated what they wanted and then the nurses fed them with a spoon. Babies also ate with their fingers. The baby-led weaning folks have definitely twisted the Davis study to justify giving babies raw broccoli or raw carrots as their first foods!!
Another flaw: the cover of Baby-Led Weaning promises “no purees, no stress, no fuss.” But moms are advised to “expect a mess,” something like this:
I’m sorry, but motherhood is hard enough without having to clean up a mess like this three to four times per day! Making purees for your baby is a joyful, relaxing activity—but cleaning up a horrendous mess at every feeding time is stressful indeed!
Please watch this short video of a baby of about five months old, getting fed his pureed liver:
A few things to point out:
- Baby is not traumatized. He seems to be having a wonderful time (and definitely clowning for the camera).
- Notice that puree—it is very thin and easy to swallow. The food can get thicker as baby gets older, but the first purees should be somewhat watery.
- Notice that baby is still pushing a little food out with his tongue (called tongue thrust), even though he has been getting solid food for several weeks. On the first feeding, he will push most of it out. Just be patient and keep putting it back in his mouth, and he will soon get the hang of it. (You can also let baby lick the food off your fingers for the first few tries.) Baby pushing food out does not mean that “baby is not ready for solid foods” or “baby is not hungry” as I have heard mothers say. It just means that he is still learning how to eat.
- Notice how engaged he is with the person feeding him! Rather than leave a child alone with some food objects on his tray, you can make meals a time of real engagement with baby. You are looking at him, talking with him, laughing with him. This is the right kind of training for family meals—the association of food with pleasant social interaction.
- And finally, there is no mess! No yucky food on high chair, floor and baby for mom to clean up.
What about family meals—do we need to practice baby-led weaning to have baby participate in family meals? Not at all! In fact, a lot of family members would not find it enjoyable to eat with a baby making a terrible mess with his food.
Instead, feed baby his puree before the family meal, so that he is well-fed, satisfied and not fussy. Then at meal time, put a few small pieces of banana or cheese on his tray—something nourishing but not too messy. Let him play with those while the rest of the family eats. If he is teething, give him a bone to chew on—it’s a great teething tool, but definitely not a source of nourishment at that age. As he grows older, you can give him some of the family food, such as soup or finely minced stews, fed to him with a spoon until he learns how to do this himself.
So what’s the downside of baby-led weaning? Let me count the ways: malnutrition; wasteful; choking; mess; horrible for family meals. But most seriously, it pretends to put baby in charge of what he eats.
Mom and Dad need to be in charge of what baby eats—baby does NOT know what to eat, only wise parents know what and how to feed baby. If you put a cookie on baby’s high chair tray, he will eat it even though this is a horrible choice for a baby. Of course, if baby exhibits a real aversion to something you are feeding her (like throwing up), then you will need to find a substitute but equally nutritious food.
The precedent of parents deciding what baby should eat needs to be established from the start. Give baby plenty of freedom to play, to develop, to explore on his own, but take full charge of baby’s diet—his good health and optimal development depend on it.
In my next blog, we will talk about the kind of foods that baby needs for optimal nourishment during the critical first year of life.