Having a baby comes with all sorts of unfamiliar (and often overwhelming) territory. Sleep schedules, diaper changes, feedings, and more. But in both my personal and professional experience, there is one milestone that seems to leave the vast majority of parents feeling uncertain and often even confused. I’m talking about feeding your baby, specifically starting them on solids. (Yes, breastfeeding and bottle feeding have their own set of challenges, but I’ll save that for another post).
It seems like it should come naturally. After all, we all feed ourselves everyday and are probably at least moderately successful at it. But teaching a baby who doesn’t even know how to hold a spoon to do what you do every day is no simple task. Especially because the modern baby feeding blueprint is chock-full of rules, recommendations and a decent amount of controversy. Should you start feeding your baby solids at 4 months or 6? Should you start with cereal or an avocado? Feed purees or practice ‘Baby Led Weaning’? And when do you introduce eggs? Milk? Peanuts? Are baby food pouches bad or a lifesaver? And on and on.
To be clear, I will NOT be able to address all of these questions in one post! But I hope to give you a starting point, or framework for tackling some of these tough baby feeding questions. And keep checking back for more posts! Infant feeding is a particular area of interest and passion for me.
My Own Baby Feeding Awakening
I have been a dietitian for 10 years and have been working in pediatrics since day 1, so baby feeding has been something I have been teaching to new parents for a decade. But, my interest in the topic really blossomed after having my first daughter (who is now 6). When it came time to feed her solids, I “knew” what to do. I had been reciting the recommendations to parents for years. But it all still felt a bit clunky and uncertain.
It was at this point that I realized that much of what I was teaching to parents was hard to translate into the day to day feeding process. I was focusing on specific foods, specific amounts, specific feeding rules (all good things, for the record), and neglecting the big picture of empowering parents to confidently feed their children. While I was communicating accurate information, I fear I was somehow missing the point. But three babies of my own and countless feeding clients later, I am pleased to say that my strategy has matured.
The Goal of Baby Feeding
This may seem like a strange question, and maybe a bit of a tangent. But stick with me. This is fundamental to my approach to baby feeding. We need food. Healthy food. Every day. So that we can maintain healthy lives. And so obviously, our babies need healthy food too. Isn’t that the main goal of feeding our kids? To help them learn to eat a balanced diet so they can lead healthy lives? Well, yes. But that’s only part of the answer. Because, you see, food is so much more than just the nutrients it provides. Food is culture, food is family, food is enjoyment. Meals are spaces where we come together, connect, and share life. And research continues to affirm that family meals are a crucial ingredient in the recipe for healthy kids. So I would suggest to you that the long-term goal of baby feeding is to teach our children to consume healthy foods, yes, but to also to integrate them into family meals and our specific cultural food norms.
When we only focus on the nutrients we are providing to our babies, we do them a disservice. If we want our children to grow up to enjoy meal time, to agree to sit at the table, and to accept the foods that we value ourselves, we would do well to refocus our baby feeding strategy. I’m excited to share my thoughts on this with you today.
The Baby Feeding Framework
I’ve summed up my feeding strategy in this handy dandy little acronym: LEARN. Because when we feed babies I think we often forget this simple truth: they are learning. Learning about foods, flavors, textures, meal routines, and what it means to enjoy food together as a family. And we, as parents are teaching them. Gently guiding, encouraging, and working at things that may not come naturally the first time around.
Remember, this is a framework, not a comprehensive plan. There are many more specifics I could fill in (and hope to in subsequent posts), but we need to start with a basic foundation for how we approach feeding babies. So without further ado, let’s look at the acronym.
L- Let baby participate in feeding
E- Embrace messes
A- Always keep the end goal in mind
N- No special foods necessary
L– Let baby participate in feeding.
Whatever method of feeding you start with (spoon feeding or finger foods), it’s very important to include your baby as an active player in feeding time. They should not be a passive participant just accepting what is offered and finishing the serving. If you spoon feed, give your baby their own spoon to hold and bang with while you feed. Dip it into whatever you are feeding (or let them do the dipping if they are coordinated enough) and let them enjoy playing. If the food ends up in baby’s mouth, great. If not, that’s all okay too.
Along with this, be sure to watch closely for baby’s fullness cues and never ever force feed your baby when they are not interested. Finger feeding (when age and texture appropriate) as well as self feeding has been shown by research to help babies learn to self-regulate their intake and is even correlated with a healthier BMI (1).
We are establishing early that mealtime is enjoyable and also that baby knows a thing or to about what he needs to eat.
E– Embrace messes.
Stressing too much about the mess can so easily take away your mealtime enjoyment as well as your baby’s, not to mention that mess is generally good for baby! It provides a lot of sensory information that baby can learn from and also can help facilitate independent feeding. You can read more about that on a previous post: Mealtime Messes.
A– Always keep the end goal in mind.
We can so easily get lost in the day to day in parenting (and feeding is no exception) that we forget to zoom out and remember what it is we are really striving for. With this in mind, I strongly suggest feeding your baby what you are eating from day 1. Perhaps you will need to modify a bit, but the principle remains. This is challenging for a lot of parents to embrace as the “baby-food culture” has given us a different blueprint for baby feeding.
So here’s an example: You are ready to start your 6 month old on solids. That evening, you plan to make chicken with sweet potatoes and green beans. So you feed your baby a baked sweet potato as her first food (mashed smooth with some added liquid or soft cooked pieces). You then save some leftovers and use that for her meals for the next two days until you are ready for her next new food. The “rules” still apply: introduce single foods, introduce one new food every 2-3 days, allergenic foods okay after 6 months as long as texture appropriate, etc.
Obviously, this will not work every meal or even every day. But when we remember that the goal is to have our children eat what we eat anyway, this strategy makes a lot of sense and actually prevents a lot of unnecessary frustration down the road. (Topic for another time, but research shows that familiarity is one of the main factors affecting food acceptance in young kids (2). This alone should convince us to offer them the foods we eventually want them to eat.)
I get that this is much easier said than done. There are very important rules to be followed with baby feeding (NO honey, No juice, one new food at a time, 2 days between new foods, avoid choking hazards, etc). But I hope to empower you to feel confident and comfortable in your role as caregiver (and therefore, baby feeder) so that we can tip the scales towards relaxation during mealtimes. No, it doesn’t usually come naturally, but I have seen mealtime relaxation take root with a little education and practice. A relaxed approach regarding food quantities is especially key. Research continues to highlight that attempts to control, by either restricting or pressuring a child to eat specific foods, are linked with obesity later in life as it diminishes the child’s innate ability to self-regulate their intake (3).
N– No need for special foods!
Our grocery stores are saturated with foods specifically marketed to babies (aka “baby food”). Many are harmless and certainly nutritious, but they are not NECESSARY. I find that many parents do not even consider (or are never exposed to the idea) that there are alternative ways of feeding babies (i.e. giving your baby modified versions of what you are eating). Unfortunately, I think some pediatrician’s offices perpetuate this view. Many of the handouts given to parents that address infant feeding refer to types of foods by the commercial baby food categories (i.e. Stage 1, Stage 2 foods, etc). If you feed your baby from the food you have in your refrigerator, the term “Stage 1” has no meaning. I have lots of pediatrician friends, so please hear me when I say that this is not a slam on pediatricians. But it is a call to simplify our baby feeding messages and empower confident parents.
While you may have many unanswered baby feeding questions, I hope you will take some time to think about your baby feeding approach and where it is taking you. Are you aiming for a child who eats confidently without a lot of pressure from you? Who eats with you and experiences the same/ similar foods? If your feeding approach is only focusing on nutrients, I’d encourage you to take a step back and consider how you can alter course. It is never too late to start new habits!
If you are feeling overwhelmed or uncertain about baby feeding, call today to schedule a nutrition consult. I’d love to join you on your journey to raise a healthy, happy eater!
Ventura, AK, et al. Early Influences on the Development of Food Preferences. Current Biology. 2013: Vol 23 Issue 9. Available at: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822
Bergmeier HJ, et al. Reported and Observed Controlling Feeding Practices Predict Child Eating Behavior after 12 Months. J. Nutr. June 1, 2015 vol. 145 no. 6 1311-1316. Available at: http://jn.nutrition.org/content/145/6/1311.long