Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Why do I...

... let my babies feed themselves solid foods? Why don't I buy, or at least make, baby food? Don't babies need to start with purees? Don't babies need the extra nutrition from baby food, and how will they get enough by self-feeding?

Short answer: Because I'm lazy and cheap. ;)

Okay, so letting a baby self-feed really is much easier, that is for sure. You don't have to spoon-feed the baby first and then feed yourself, or alternate between the two. Everybody eats together, in a social family setting. I like that aspect of it.

The main reasoning for me is this: breastmilk should be the main source of nutrition for at least 12 months - that's right, 12 months! - of a child's life. If a baby is being formula-fed, it should also provide the bulk of the calories received in the first year. Solid food is for learning, for experimentation, and for a bit of nutrition. But it should not be replacing large amounts of nursing time. Breastmilk still provides the most crucial, specially tailored nutrients and immunological factors for a baby. Breastmilk can easily sustain a child completely for his first year of life... it sure did for my first child, who didn't eat hardly any solid food until she was over 13 months old!

In our culture, it is considered the norm to begin solids at either four or six months, regardless of baby's readiness signs. Parents are often made to feel that their baby must eat purees right at this age, and that if they do not, their baby might not get enough nutrition. Many people recommend rice cereal at age 4 months - which really has little to no nutritional value and is just a filler than can actually cause constipation issues for babies.

If you walk down the baby food aisle in a grocery store, you will see all the foods: purees, chunkier jarred foods, finger foods marketed specifically towards babies, juices, and now even toddler meals and snacks. Don't even get me started on the toddler snacks - why can't a toddler just eat crackers and rice cakes and diced fruit that older children and adults eat? Anything to make money, I guess... I have even seen juice containing "less sugar" marketed to young children - and guess what, it is half water, and it costs more than the full concentrated equivalent! Why not just water down your own juice at home? Again, it's all in the marketing... it says "For Kids" on it, so it must be more appropriate for them and we'd better buy it!

So... following biological norms, a baby is breastfed on demand, meaning whenever he is hungry or wants to nurse for comfort or whatever, and this continues at least until he is well into solids at age 12 months or older. The baby then is assured of getting the proper nutrients he requires before too many of them are replaced by solid foods. His system can gradually get used to the new foods while he is still nourished in the best way.

So, some of the readiness signs for solids: baby can sit unassisted or with little support, can hold up his head well; baby is approximately six months old; baby is developing the pincer grasp - that is, the ability to pick up small objects between thumb and forefinger, and baby can bring objects to his mouth; baby has lost the "tongue-thrust reflex" in which he involuntarily pushes foreign objects out of his mouth; baby has the ability to turn his head away to show he is full or uninterested in the food; baby has gotten a tooth or two.

I was so glad to know that last one... when Caroline still had no teeth at age one, I could still rest assured that her digestive system was going to be a little slower to develop, and I didn't have to worry that she would "never eat." Other people tended to be amazed (in a bad way!) that she wasn't eating anything once she was over six months old. I would have been concerned as well if it hadn't been for the support from La Leche League and our pediatrician not being worried about it.

At first glance, purees seem developmentally appropriate... a baby hasn't eaten any solids before, so you wouldn't want to start with a huge hunk of parmesan cheese, right? Of course not. But it is possible to skip most or all of the purees if you wait until the baby is over six months. Once the baby is able to pick up foods and bring them to his mouth, you can start finger foods. These must be small and mushy at first... ripe banana and avocado are great first foods. They can even be mashed a bit if baby seems to have trouble with small chunks. There is even one line of thinking that babies can be given large chunks and can nibble off small bites, as long as they are watched closely in case of choking. I gave my second child large pieces at about eight months old and she handled them well. I also gave her small pieces, and she was able to practice fine motor coordination while picking them up.

I love the idea of the baby being able to control how much he eats. This can happen with spoon feeding as well, but it is easier to overfeed a baby by spoon than it is to overfeed him by letting him feed himself! Especially with a baby under six months old, he may not indicate when he is feeling full. Parents sometimes feel the urge to get the baby to finish off a jar of food or to eat "just one more bite," especially if they have been feeding out of the jar (because you are supposed to throw the rest away if you have been spooning directly out of the jar).

With self-feeding, the baby can begin to experience the family's "real" food rather than purees that nobody else is eating. The baby can take part in the family act of eating the meal, and he can have bits and pieces that are appropriate for his age, or he can have some plain fruits and veggies taken from the main meal if he cannot eat all the foods offered (such as dairy products, which are not recommended until ages 9-12 months). The baby gets used to the form of the foods and how they look and taste rather than to the feel and taste of pureed foods.

I think the baby food market really got into the swing of things when infant formula became popular. Measuring and accounting for what baby took in was seen as the "scientific" way of doing things. Also, with the idea of trying to get babies to become more independent sooner, feeding them "meals" at earlier ages has become common. They do not need solid food purees for nutrition, yet much money is spent on these things by many. I bought one jar of pureed prunes once (Cecilia had eaten a lot of banana as one of her first solids and was a bit constipated!), and that is all the baby food i have had to buy, ever, for two children. I love that I have not had to spend the money - it just hasn't been necessary! Many things that are marketed for babies and toddlers just isn't necessary - and if babies don't need any nutrition from solids until they are old enough to eat actual foods rather than purees, then they are not necessary. They can just earn about foods and learn about feeding themselves by experimenting with bits of real food. A banana, an avocado, a little container of peas, some O cereal - all can easily be tossed into the diaper bag for convenience for a baby who might need to a little food to play and learn with while the big people are eating a meal out.

Now, I don't mean to sound like people should never spoon-feed their babies... if the child is lunging for your applesauce or yogurt at age 9 months, it is probably a good idea to hold the spoon for him at first. There are some foods that adults eat in pureed form, after all, and we require a spoon to do so! Once a baby is close to a year, he really can control a spoon decently if given the chance to practice a bit, especially with something thick like yogurt before moving on to watery soups.

Self-feeding encourages a baby to move toward independence, but at his own pace - not in an effort to fill him up on solids, but in a way in which he can control what he is eating - just as he does when he nurses. Breasts do not have lines on them marking how many ounces the baby consumed... so in the same way a baby regulates how much he takes in at the breast, he can do the same if allowed to self-feed.

I really like the above-linked article for good info on this topic... it is what first opened my eyes to this way of baby-feeding. As with many things for me, I am skeptical of the cultural way of doing things and of marketing techniques for more products than just baby-related ones... I tend toward the "is this really the way nature intended it to be?" and "is this necessary, or can I use my money better somewhere else?" when it comes to choices I make about my babies. I try to stick to doing things as close to naturally as possible overall, and baby self-feeding seems to fit in line with that.

photos are of Cecilia's first self-feeding attempts around seven months of age


Kris said...

When our first son was born I had to go back to work for about 6 months, until he was 9 months old. Although I pumped, so that he exclusively got breast milk, the day care kept pushing baby food on him (and me), assuring me that the breast milk was not enough, he wasn't drinking, etc. I have since learned that he was simply drinking "enough" to get him through the day from a bottle, and waiting for me to get home to him!! In any case, he is my worst eater now, and I am convinced it is from the force-feeding of the baby food. My other three never showed an interest in pureed food, so I never pushed them on it. They went straight from breast milk to table food, and all of them are great eaters. They went to table food ranging in age from 7 months to almost a year, and I just waited for their cues. I agree totally with your post - and it makes so much more sense.

Maureen said...

I think the baby-food fads have a lot to do with parents not taking the time to research what their baby really needs as far as nutrients and how easy and cheap they can provide for their child. It is easier to buy 20 jars of baby food in 5 minutes than to read books and articles and learn for yourself...because that is what society tells us is "enough" for them and most convenient for us.

I love your blog! It will be so great to come back and re-read all of this when we start having kids!

Kate Wicker @ Momopoly said...

This is a great post. Thanks for directing me here. We have so much in common, Erin. I was just thinking about it's been difficult for me to find AP parents who are also Catholic. Many of my Catholic mom friends don't subscribe to the AP style, and then most of my natural mothering friends aren't Catholic. It's comforting to find a comrade (or should I say "momrade"?). :)

God bless you!

Erin said...

Kate, it was your friend Kris who first directed me to your blog because she thought we had lots in common, too! I have visited your blog here and there but I am not sure whether I had left a comment there before. I loved your article on nursing babies at Mass!!