Sarah Han-Gilliam’s son, Liam, has always been a fan of food — even stealing morsels off his older sister’s plate when he was younger, says the Toronto mom who allowed her children, Laura, 5, and Liam, now 2, to self-feed, when they were around six and a half months old. “My two loved sliced baked sweet potatoes, beef ribs and anything else on my plate. It was less work and more free hands for me and less constipation and better eating habits for them.”
Self-feeding, also known as baby-led weaning (BLW), works like this: babies feed themselves solid foods, in sizes they can handle and at their own pace, rather than being spoon-fed purées.
Those in the BLW movement assert letting baby choose what to eat is a more intuitive approach to feeding. “A combination of medical and industrial influences means many parents nowadays are too ready to rely on professionals and baby food manufacturers in advising them how to feed their babies,” says Gill Rapley, co-author of Baby-Led Weaning (Random House UK). To find out more about BLW, we sat down with Rapley, a 20-year veteran in the health industry, including several years as a midwife and breastfeeding counsellor.
Rapley: “It’s respecting babies for what they know and what they can do. If they can self-feed at their most vulnerable point, when they’re born and find their own way to the breast and latch, why do we suddenly think they can’t pick up and manage any fruit and vegetable when they’re ready? Breastfeeding is about the baby deciding how much and how often, and BLW is a continuation of that self-control. It’s also much easier, less stressful and cheaper.”
Rapley: “Of course. Some parents find it tricky to make the switch, as you’re no longer defining how much he’ll have by controlling measurements. BLW may be a different mindset to get into, but formula-fed babies reach out and grab things just the same as breastfed babies.”
Rapley: “Children not subjected to the deception of disguising foods and airplane games will likely be more trusting. If you get orange slop one day and it tastes like something and you get orange slop another day and it tastes completely different, how are you to recognize food? If you can tell that a carrot is different from a nectarine, you’ll be able to identify which foods you like, and which ones you don’t. Of course, children will still have cyclical preferences.”
Rapley: “Research indicates that in about one-third of cases starting solids early does help baby sleep through the night, in another third it does nothing and in the other third it makes it worse. Very often these babies will accept a feed at night, because it’s a good way to go back to sleep. That’s translated as a need and it’s this misunderstanding on what we mean by hunger, and the outdated notion of four-month milestones, including wakefulness and waving the hands around, being pinned to food readiness.”
Babies aren’t capable of intentionally moving food to the back of their throats until after they’ve developed the ability to chew, which happens after being able to reach out and grab things accurately. Swallowing food starts when their muscles are sufficiently coordinated — but this natural safeguard against choking works only if it’s baby, not you, who puts the food in.
NOTE: Parents of premature babies or babies with medical conditions should consult their health-care advisors.
CF’s lifestyle editor Melissa Carter’s 15-month-old son, Sebastien, continues to insist on using his own hands or fork at meals.
This story is part of our New Baby Guide. Check it out for more info on bringing home, planning for and surviving having a new baby.