6 Steps for Baby's Self Feeding Success
There's a lot of buzz about feeding babies these days!
Some important guidelines have been revised that shed new light on child feeding practices. These will no doubt impact how health practitioners and parents approach starting solid foods:
- In a position paper in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, feeding experts agreed that complementary foods (those added on top of breastmilk or infant formula) should not occur before age 4 months and not be delayed beyond 6 months
- The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) updated their advice about what type of fish are considered to be safest and lowest mercury choices for pregnant women and children to eat in a handy new "Advice About Eating Fish" chart
- And most notably, an expert panel sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued clinical guidelines that advocated for introducing peanuts to babies at high risk of developing peanut allergy as early as 4-6 months of age, for those with moderate or mild eczema to have peanuts at around 6 months of age and those with no risk to have peanut-containing foods freely introduced in their diets.
The chatter about introducing peanuts to babies was of particular interest in our household. As a dietitian working with families, I've been following the emerging body of research that has been pointing to earlier introduction of peanuts as a way to prevent peanut allergy. As a mom of baby quadruplets who are just learning to eat, I've been struggling with how to safely provide peanut protein without increasing choking risk.
I also have the great fortune to be able to teach child nutrition and family feeding principles to college students and nurse practitioner and medical students. They have incredibly in depth conversations and raise wonderful questions about the various approaches to starting babies on solid foods, they dissect the importance of family meals and we strategize about how to prevent picky eating, childhood obesity and disordered eating in our kids.
What is Baby Led Feeding?
I love sharing with my students that in our family we practice a baby led approach to introducing solid food. Baby led feeding (or baby led weaning as it is sometimes also called) is an alternative to spoon feeding.
Baby Led Feeding is an approach to starting solid foods based on the premise that babies who feed themselves the wholesome foods provided by their parents accept a much wider variety of foods through their lifetime, may avoid picky eating and might even have lower rates of overweight and obesity as they get older.
As a mom and dietitian with a bunch of little mouths to feed, I like a baby fed approach as opposed to spoon-feeding my babies because:
- My babies learn to recognize, love and eat real food. There's no need to feed watered down bland pureed vegetables when your baby can handle whole food.
- It honors my babies' ability to recognize and respond to his hunger and fullness cues. Pushing spoonfuls of purees (especially to a baby who is not yet ready to eat) can override those built in cues. Babies automatically stop eating when they are full, I love letting them determine when that occurs, it lets me off the hook!
- It's easier. I'm going to be honest: I don't want to make separate food for the older people in my family and then other food for the babies. With a baby led approach, we all can eat pretty much the same type of foods and my babies love all sorts of food I never used to think a baby could eat.
- It's safe. A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics found that babies who start solids with a baby led approach are no more likely to choke than are babies who are spoon-fed.
6 Steps for Baby's Self Feeding Success
Letting your baby feed himself age appropriate solid foods from the get-go can seem like a daunting task. But if you're up for skipping the spoon feeding of bland purees, here are a few tips that I hope will help set you on the path to baby led weaning success:
1. Make sure your baby is ready
Wait until your baby is about 6 months old, sitting up on his own and starting to grab for and put things in his mouth. Your baby does not have to have teeth to start successfully eating.
2. Learn to identify the difference between gagging and choking
Babies who are 6 months or older are prepared to deal with foods and quickly learn how to handle them. Choking happens when the airway is totally blocked, which is rare. Coughing and spluttering means the baby is dealing with the food, and although it's hard to stand by and watch, an age-appropriate baby will be able to successfully get out of the gag.
A baby who can place food in his mouth is in control, whereas someone else placing food in the baby's mouth (or by spoon) can actually increase the risk of choking. Gagging is a natural part of learning to eat and a baby led approach to feeding does not increase the risk of choking.
3. Offer a variety of squishy foods
You may have to introduce a food to your baby or child numerous times before she accepts it. Try different cooking methods for the same foods and strive to flavor and season food without added sugar and salt. Repeatedly offering a variety of foods - even if your baby doesn't accept the food at first - is one of the key ways to help prevent picky eating.
The first food my quadruplets tried at 6 months was avocado. It's the perfect squishy texture, not to mentioned packed with nutrients. Provide your baby with chunks of soft foods that he can easily chew or gum, even without teeth. Avoid hard foods or raw fruits and vegetables in the earlier stages of learning to eat.
4. Prep ahead and batch cook
You'd be amazed how much a baby can eat (or how much 4 babies can eat)! I used to feel like every day I was cooking up a storm, only to face an empty fridge later that night.
I've found that preparing a loose outline of a menu for the week, trying to consolidate my shopping and batch cooking favorite foods in advance helps cut down on total time spent in the kitchen or at the store.
5. Clean up quickly
I'm not going to lie: this baby led feeding stuff can be messy! (But in its defense: so is spoon feeding!) There's no way to avoid the mess, but you can minimize the madness by cleaning up quickly. The only thing worse than a soupy, slippery baby food aftermath is when all that food dries and cakes and you can't get it off to save your life. Clean up quickly and don't let that mess dry!
When it comes to feeding your baby, attitude is everything. Babies can sense stress, and if you're stressed out, it can negatively impact your baby's ability to feed herself successfully. Try to create a peaceful feeding environment, where you get into a mealtime routine, bring your baby to the table with family and friends, and enjoy a slower eating pace than you do in your adult world.
Here's a video highlighting some of these self feeding success tips that you can hopefully put into practice for your family: