I was calmly chopping vegetables with Radhika, a friend and member of Ask Amma today when she asked me this question. What is baby-led weaning? I thought.
“What are the possible thoughts about this?” I asked.
“I mean, should you purée the food? What about the baby food they sell in the store?”
Hmm … As someone who never bought baby food from the store, and who did not purée food that is not normally puréed, I had to take a few steps back to answer this question.
Meanwhile my daughter piped up, “Amma’s view on this is: do what they did before they had blenders.”
Of course just because people did not have blenders, it does not mean they did not grind foods. People have been eating roti, dosa, and other foods that require grinding of flours and batters, spices and peppers for generations. The difference is not the technology. The difference is that people of all ages eat these foods.
Taking my daughter’s cue, I warmed to my topic. “To make idlis, for example, we have to soak and blend the stuff anyway.”
“What about fruits and vegetables?” Radhika asked.
“Why would you want to purée fruits and vegetables?”
“What if they don’t have teeth?”
“What is the hurry?” I wondered. Of course a food like ragi porridge does not require teeth and may be all the solids a baby needs till the teeth arrive. At the same time, some babies get teeth rather late and are interested in trying solids even though they don’t have teeth. Fortunately, even before babies have teeth, their gums get firm and at some point are capable of chewing food that is semi-soft. Radhika had steamed some sweet potato and I picked up a piece from the plate. “A baby could chew this with his gums,” I said.
In fact it is perhaps easier for a baby to pick up a piece of steamed vegetable than to get it on a spoon and deliver it to his mouth without spreading or spilling it. See also How Children Learn to Eat.
If it means anything, baby-led must mean that baby leads the food to his mouth, with his own hand and without coaxing or hovering from others. There are enough foods that are soft enough for a baby who has firm gums to chew without teeth that there is no need to purée foods just to make them edible for toothless babies. Again the issue is not with the purée per se. The question is why one would purée food just so that a toothless baby could eat it, rather than sticking to foods that are soft enough to chew with the gums.
- Steamed vegetables including carrots, sweet potato, potato, ripe plantain
- Ripe fruit such as banana, sapota (chiku), watermelon
- Porridge made of ragi flour or other whole grains
- Idli (made of whole grains and dals)
Even when they have a few teeth babies may use their gums for much of their chewing. I used to put rice in a small dry-grinder (or the small attachment in a blender or mixie) and just turn it on for a few seconds to get broken rice, which I would cook till very soft. Oats, millets and other grains can also be cooked soft enough to chew with the gums. See also Introducing Foods.
Whatever you do, remember that this phase will go on only for a few months and eventually baby will be able to chew food in general. By that time there will be no such category as baby food or children’s food. Rather it will simply be a subset of food that grows until it eventually encompasses the full range of foods that the family eats.
They key tool in facilitating this gradual maturity of the palate is breastfeeding. Breastfeeding serves as a child’s introduction to the diversity of food and also as a safety net, ensuring that a child’s nutritional needs are met regardless of outside food consumed. This freedom is the key to joyful embrace of the appetizing world of food. This freedom, which some call “baby-led weaning” can also be called, “Do-Nothing Feeding.”
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Actually I don’t think I ever thought about “baby-led-weaning” in so many words. I have seen the phrase but it wasn’t something that came up when mine was a baby. Come to think of it though, I do believe there was a phrase called “child-led weaning.”
This brings us to the different ways people use the word weaning. Technically, weaning begins when a child begins to taste food other than breastmilk, while continuing to breastfeed. People also use the term to indicate when a child discontinues breastfeeding and relies on food for all meals and snacks, just as the elders of the species do. The weaning process is gradual and progresses in response not only to the maturity of the digestive system, but also emotional, intellectual needs and the maturity of the immune system. If a baby seemed to be stopping before the age of two, mothers in my circle would often seek ideas for encouraging them to continue. The phrase “Child-led weaning,” as I heard about it when mine was little, referred to the gradual process of discontinuing breastfeeding, of a child’s own volition, well after the WHO suggested minimum of two years.
A parent need not do anything in particular to facilitate child-led weaning. Keep food available, and keep breastfeeding available, and a child will adjust the balance of the two as he or she grows through the stages of childhood. The phrase I used to hear regarding older nurslings was, “Don’t offer, don’t refuse.” How old is “older?” I think that it varies for each child. Norma Jane Bumgarner’s book Mothering Your Nursing Toddler summed it up for me when she said that weaning would happen all by itself. I personally am very grateful for the fourth year of nursing my daughter, because that was the year she fell ill three times and nursed like a champion through all of them. She didn’t lose weight while ill because she was able to keep on nursing. (I on the other hand did lose weight!) The comfort and nourishment of breastfeeding was absolutely priceless, and it allowed her to rest and recover and keep hydrated.
The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding exclusively for a minimum of six months and continuing to breastfeed for a minimum of two years and beyond for as long as mother and baby wish. Considering the rapid growth in the years of early childhood, and the capacity of breast milk to meet the changing needs over the months and years and even between morning and night, I am grateful for every year of breastfeeding and would not have cut it short for anything. While there may be unusual circumstances that require adult-led weaning, one should not doubt the value of breastfeeding or the ability of the child to wean on his or her own. One need not wean for the sake of weaning. Whenever you stop breastfeeding, the things you need to do instead extend to much more than food, so the concept of “child-led weaning” correctly refers to the growing ability of a child not only to eat solid foods, but to find ways to fulfill all the needs that breastfeeding satisfies.