‘Dinner’s ready’, calls my husband, and the 12 month old mancub immediately looks up from what he’s doing and begins crawling excitedly towards the kitchen. He knows what’s coming.
On the menu tonight is baked salmon fillets with a pesto and parmesan crust, roasted baby potatoes and green beans. For all of us. The mancub’s meal is cut into small, bite sized pieces and is on a smaller plate, but aside from that it is exactly the same as ours. He will eat it with no help from us, allowing us each to savour our own food, while enjoying the time together to engage as a family. Welcome to the world of baby led weaning.
When he was 6 months old, we began the process of introducing the mancub to solids, opting to go down the baby led weaning route. This means that instead of offering him puréed vegetables and baby cereal, we skipped straight to wedges of peach and avocado, slices of pitta bread with homemade houmous and small pieces of organic cheese. ‘Food is fun until they’re one’ goes the mantra, and I was reassured by the World Health Organisation guidelines, which advise that milk is the main source of nutrition for infants under 12 months. Essentially, it doesn’t matter how much food they eat at this stage, just that they are being exposed to a range of different flavours and textures, and given the opportunity to handle food, smear it, drop it, play with it and yes, occasionally, if they feel like it, eat some of it.
The other key aspect of this approach is that, (as the name suggests) it is very much led by your baby. No one puts anything into their mouth, you simply place food on the table in front of them and see what happens. To me this feels like a very intuitive way to approach meal times, as there is no coaxing him to eat any more than he wants to and I have total faith that he knows his body’s requirements and will take what he needs to nourish himself. He is always in complete control of how much he chooses to eat and drink, just as he always has been when breast feeding.
According to Gill Rapley, health visitor and author of ‘The Baby Led Weaning Cook Book’, there are many benefits to this approach, from developing new motor skills to the pleasure of sharing meal times as a family.
I have found it quite amazing to observe the progression as the mancub has gone from clumsily picking up wedges of sweet potato, to expertly handling kernels of sweet corn, and had to resist the urge to film every meal as I found them so fascinating. Will the bit of mango make it to the mouth? Oh my word he’s picking up the courgette! It is so much more fun than trying to tempt your baby into eating spoonfuls of baby cereal.
Plus there’s the added advantage that preparing finger foods is generally much quicker than purees, especially as it is recommended that where possible you offer your child the same food as the rest of the family, which also leads to less waste if they don’t eat it, as you can polish off their leftovers.
However, a common misconception of baby led weaning is that it is just a matter of finger foods versus purées, which is not the case. Being baby led informs your whole approach to nutrition. In fact Rapley does recommend that you introduce some foods that require a spoon when your baby is ready, the difference being that they should be in charge of the spoon and how much of the food they choose to eat. For me the driving philosophy is not about the type of food that is given to the baby (although that’s certainly a part of it), but about giving them the opportunity to develop their eating skills independently, and more importantly, about making meals a joyous and celebratory experience for the whole family.
Rewind six months and the mancub was initially very tentative about eating. He wasn’t a baby who put everything in his mouth, so our first few efforts at introducing food ended up with lots of it on the floor or totally ignored. Feeling anxious, I questioned whether I was doing the right thing, but his appetite improved rapidly and as his dexterity developed we began to introduce mini meals such as pasta with homemade pesto and baby fish cakes, which went down a storm. If he struggled to hold food, but was obviously keen to eat it, I would hold small pieces a few inches in front of him and he would guide my hand towards him and eat out of my hand like a baby bird. Some might say I should have given him the opportunity work this out for himself, but this approach worked for us and I am happy that he was always in control of what was going in his mouth. At around 8 months we started to give him food such as yoghurt and porridge on a spoon. Most often we hold the spoon about six inches in front of him for him to take and feed himself with. If we’re out and about I keep a slight hold on the end of the spoon to give it a bit of guidance, but he is becoming more adept at handling it himself now. In actual fact this is often when he eats the most, and he happily demolishes a huge bowl of porridge and stewed fruit for breakfast, no aeroplanes required. At 12 months we now eat three meals a day together as a family and he is always able to try anything on the table from curry to quiche, broccoli to bananas. The only thing we have to consider is the salt and sugar content of foods. We avoid refined sugar altogether (well, until the mancub is in bed, when the chocolate occasionally comes out), and have learned to season our own foods on our plates, so that his remains salt free.
Of course he doesn’t always eat prolifically, but my bottom line is this: we don’t ever pressure, persuade or cajole him into eating. He has a rich variety of nutrients offered to him throughout the day and I trust him to nourish himself wisely. Because of this, we have no need to offer him any alternatives. He can pick and choose from a selection of foods on his plate, but beyond that nothing else is offered, even if everything goes on the floor. And believe me, sometimes it all goes on the floor. I hope that by sticking to this approach, that he will have a strong understanding of what he can expect at the dinner table and what our boundaries are at meal times.
Having breastfed on demand, taking a baby led approach to weaning complimented my parenting philosophy, and I was wooed by promises of a child who would eat anything, yes, even vegetables. Only time will tell how true this will be, but for now we have a happy and enthusiastic eater on our hands who frequently outeats me. When those fussy phases do inevitably arrive, I hope that we are equipped with the tools to guide us through them without making mealtimes a battle ground.
What you will need:
A highchair that pulls right up to the table help your baby feel involved in meal times and support the transition to eating off a grown up plate. The Stokke Tripp Trapp is the classic design, but there are lots of alternatives out there.
A wipe clean tablecloth or shower curtain beneath the highchair will help to catch some of the mess, and there is going to be A LOT of mess. I never thought I would find carrot behind our radiator, but in those first few months more food tends to go on the floor than into your baby’s mouth. This improved quickly and have now done away with the table cloth.
Similarly it is good to have warm flannels prepared to wipe down your child with after meals and some parents like to opt for a coverall style of bib to minimise laundry.
I would also recommend ‘The Baby Led Weaning Cook Book’ by Gill Rapley for lots of great meal ideas for the whole family.