Including Baby at the Family Table: The Ease of Baby-Led Weaning
Traditional wisdom requires mashing and blending early foods for baby. However, as baby matures, allowing him to enjoy the foods from the family table is easy and enjoyable. Baby-led weaning, or what I like to call the “less-stress method” of feeding baby, allows the older baby to confidently feed himself with many of the same foods the rest of the family is eating. Besides time-saving benefits, allowing baby to take charge of feeding himself also supports speech and motor development and encourages an overall more accepting attitude toward wholesome foods. So let baby join in at the family table and dig in!
Chase heartily enjoying a bowl of soaked oatmeal with butter, blueberries and raw honey.
KEEPING TO TRADITION
Cultures still living their traditional ways offer real, whole foods to their weaning babies with special preparation to ensure that they are soft and digestible. Cynthia Lair details a sampling of traditional first foods in her book Feeding the Whole Family: “Around the globe, babies start solids on a variety of foods. In Oceania babies are given pre-chewed fish, grubs and liver. The Polynesians prefer a pudding-like mixture of breadfruit and coconut cream. Inuit babies are started on seaweed and seal blubber, while Japanese health care providers recommend a thin rice porridge, eventually made thicker and topped with dried fish, tuna, tofu and mashed pumpkin.” Closer to home, traditional foods included “milk” made from bone marrow, liver (often pre-chewed), soft-cooked egg yolks and well-mashed tubers (along with breast milk or homemade formula). Pre-chewing food, usually meats, softens the food and adds enzymes from the saliva to aid digestion. Mashing also makes food more digestible, ensures that baby gets enough to eat and—most importantly—protects against choking.
Nutrition pioneer Adelle Davis says in Let’s Have Healthy Children, first published in 1951, “As soon as our children could sit up comfortably, they were usually put in the high chair near the dining room table during meals; thus they were included in the family social life and since children learn by imitation, they could observe how they would eventually be expected to eat. After teeth appeared—the signal that a baby is physically and emotionally ready for solids—I started offering tiny bites of nutritious foods prepared for the family; they were usually placed on the high-chair tray for finger-feeding. Thus solids were gradually introduced, but neither of my babies ate meals until about the age of eight or nine months. No foods were purchased or prepared especially for them; and neither was allowed baby cereals or canned baby foods.”1
It is natural to be nervous about feeding baby solid foods, yet it need not be complicated or an overwhelming drudgery in the kitchen. For details on the ideal baby feeding principles and guidelines, see the article “Nourishing a Growing Baby,” found in the Children’s Health section at www.westonaprice.org. As early as four months but definitely by six months, puréed foods can be introduced. Meats puréed with broth, soft boiled egg yolks with a touch of grated liver and salt, liver mousse, and ripe banana mashed with whole yoghurt are superior choices for baby’s nutritional needs. But these first few months go quickly; before long, it will be time to include baby at the family meal table and let her eat the very same foods the others are enjoying.
The age at which baby starts to feed himself depends on his maturity and your own tolerance for mess! Some babies can feed themselves as early as eight months, others not until a year. A good compromise for moms who find spoon feeding a baby less stressful than cleaning up a messy infant and high chair is to feed mashed foods to baby before the family sits down or at the beginning of the meal and then let baby amuse herself with a few pieces of soft vegetables or a chicken bone to chew on while the family enjoys their dinner.
The one caveat to this way of feeding baby is you must be serving your whole family nourishing, real foods! In other words, offering the most nourishing foods to baby means studying up on traditional foods and giving yourself the time to prepare them in your own kitchen for everyone.
FEEDING BABY FROM THE TABLE 101
Is your baby ready for table foods? The simple way to answer this is to let baby show you. There are signs and stages for readiness, but the best way to know is his just to gauge his interest. Although teeth are indeed a sign of readiness, some children don’t cut teeth until later and some children with teeth are not ready to feed themselves. Gums are fine for chomping, sucking and masticating. Exploration comes naturally to babies and is all part of learning, which is really how to view their first encounters with food. Below is the basic progression.
1. Include baby: The first step is to include baby in meal times early, hold him in your lap, give him a baby spoon and talk about the foods in the meal. Eventually, out of simple curiosity, he will grab at food and want to do what the rest of the family is doing. When the time comes, set him upright in the highchair at the family table. And to make this early experience even better, ask Dad or an older sibling to be in charge of baby and allow Mom to sit and simply enjoy the meal and company.
2. Blend baby’s very first foods: Until eight to ten months, baby’s foods should be blended and spoon fed. Mashing and blending makes foods easier to digest and ensures that baby gets enough to eat. This is a time when baby figures out the process of chewing, sucking and swallowing. These skills will develop on their own. As time goes on, add new foods with lumpier textures. Blended table food is even appropriate at this time, such as finely cut up vegetable stew, soups, sweet potatoes with liberal amounts of fat or the liver mousse or pâté. Invest in a small food processor or baby mouli (http://www.amazon.co.uk/CKS-Stainless-Steel-Baby-Mouli/dp/B000LCLV28) to make this job easier.
3. Let baby grab and choose: When baby reaches eight months—sometimes sooner, sometimes later—his ability to grab food with his little pudgy hand will mature. Before you know it, one of his attempts will do what he will with food (except toss, in my opinion), will encourage an interest in different tastes, textures and smells. This is quite a shift from the typical baby food blends, where it is all puréed together. Help her if she shows frustration and wants assistance, but don’t press.
Once baby can sit up, chew without choking and efficiently get food into his mouth, the principle of baby-led weaning really takes off. Food is becoming a fun experience; baby can pick and choose what tastes good, what feels good and what is right to nourish him at the time. Now you can offer longer, thicker finger foods that baby can hold and that will stick out of his clenched fist such as:
• Steamed, sautéed or roasted veggie sticks: carrots, sweet potatoes/yams, squash, green beans, parsnips
• Sticks of fruits: papaya, banana, pineapple (with skin to help grip)
• Thick slices of avocado
• Cheese sticks
• Thin slices of meat (stewed is often softer); consider making fish or beef fingers
• Chicken leg bones, lamb or pork chops (especially helpful for teething discomfort)
As time goes on, baby will become more proficient at this new skill and hit the target with more precision. Good timing too, as baby’s need for calories and nutrients is growing. Breast milk or homemade formula (see Nourishing Traditions or www.westonaprice.org for more on formula recipes) still make up a majority of baby’s calorie and nutrient needs. Stay flexible while finding the balance between milk and food. Each baby will be different. If baby seems fussy without milk beforehand, feed it first. If she is happy to grab at food for a while and get a good helping down and still takes a good portion of milk, great! Just as with the gradual increase in food, baby will slowly give you signals to help you figure out this balance. Eventually, the complementary foods you offer will begin to make their way into baby’s tummy and count for more and more calories. And with this method of feeding, you get to decide what to serve, but baby chooses how much and how fast.
FULL-FLEDGED TABLE OCCUPANT
As baby approaches one year (again, sometimes sooner, sometimes later), she eventually will be able to scoop and dip and might even be interested in using a little bowl and spoon on her own. Use your best judgment about which foods to offer (see basic principles in “Nourishing a Growing Baby” available in the Children’s Health section at www.westonaprice.org). If there are allergies in your family, use more caution in introducing new foods. (For all babies, hold off on grains and egg whites until baby is at least one year old.) If not, include baby in with your family meals and offer what you are eating with the exception of certain choking hazards that persist for the older child: whole nuts, whole grapes, whole cherry tomatoes and boney fish).
Keep quick nourishing foods handy, including:
• Dried anchovies
• Nut butters (preferably made from crispy nuts)
• Cheese (highest quality, raw if possible)
• Summer sausage
• Cooked meats, poultry, fish and bratwurst coins
• Ripe fruits, especially berries (frozen blueberries are yummy and sometimes soothing to hurting gums) and bananas (kids love to grasp them)
• Dried and freeze-dried fruits, especially during the winter when fresh are less available
• Flaxseed/nut or seed crackers, properly prepared
• Pieces of dates or date logs
• Nori sheets for making quick rolls ups with leftovers
• Liver mousse
• Full-fat yogurt (ideally homemade)
• Carrot and cabbage sauerkraut (or other fermented veggie combo your family enjoys)
• Fermented apple butter
Having foods such as these readily available will make feeding baby and your entire family easier.
OUR PERSONAL JOURNEY
With my youngest son, Chase, this less stressful method of feeding happened unintentionally. I had less time and less of a desire to make separate baby foods. It felt more intuitive to feed him what we were eating than with my first.
Around six months, for his very first foods, he was very accepting of spoon feeding. We started with soft boiled egg yolk with grated liver and sea salt. Banana fried in bacon drippings mixed in yogurt, and liver mousse were two other favorites. Instead of the typical ice cubes of food, my special baby food preparation involved two tasks. One was liver mousse, which I made in large batches and froze in small glass Pyrex containers with plastic lids. The other was small dollops of grated liver frozen on a cookie sheet and then transferred to a glass container so they were easy to pull out and stir into warm egg yolks. The rest of the food I offered Chase was either generally available in my pantry or fridge or a mashed up portion of the family’s meal.
More solid finger foods were introduced about five or six weeks later and his eagerness was a hoot to watch. It helps that he has a big brother he wants to emulate. Not long after that, Chase’s meals turned into much like what they entail now at twenty months, I am just less involved. I will toss a new selection of foods—three or four choices—on the highchair tray to see what is desired. His raw milk is in a sippy cup (sometimes spiked with raw cream, baby probiotics, acerola powder or an oil or two), which he drinks as desired. Most foods are from the family table, such as bits and pieces from a pot of stew made with bone broth, veggies and chunks of grass-fed meats, broken bites of a cornbread muffin, a clump of chicken and chard casserole or broken up pieces of bacon and tomato frittata. If we are eating a salad, I will offer selections of what’s in our bowls, such as hunks of chicken, halved cherry tomatoes and sticks of salted avocado. If the food can be eaten with a spoon, I toss it in a bowl and let him at it. I will also often include a selection or two from the handy foods listed above. Don’t be shy about herbs and seasonings: your child’s likes and dislikes may surprise you.
Some of the foods I place on the highchair tray are eaten, some aren’t. There is a lot of smiling, sorting through his options and looking around at the rest of the family. If a food is devoured, I give more. The foods that are left on the tray are either eaten by another family member, go back to where they came from until another meal or become chicken feed. Sometimes my sensor goes off when he doesn’t eat much, but I step back and remember that he will eat what he needs.
RELAX AND STAY COOL
Being a first-time parent can send one into a tailspin of worry—deciding on the best first foods, choosing the best diapers or the ideal music to boost brain power. Many questions I receive center on finding that “perfect meal plan” for one’s baby. I wish there were a way to telepathically transfer some of the sense of calm that comes with just good ol’ experience. However, it is these challenging experiences that make us who we are, and nothing compares to the learning acquired during the day-in-and-day-out raising of our own little angels.
What I can say is that babies have been eating traditional foods for millennia, so do your best to relax. Make sure you are setting aside the time needed to procure and prepare the highest quality, most nourishing foods for the whole family and then include baby when the time is right. Enjoy your baby, smile a lot and use your mommy-sense. The vibes you send—intentional or not—will speak volumes, and staying relaxed will make it much more pleasurable for you and baby.
One side note: do not allow this self-selection method of feeding babies to become an excuse for pickiness (see the article Taking the “Icky” out of Picky for more on this subject in the Children’s Health section on www.westonaprice.org). I do not believe we should be a personal short order cook for each member of the family. Fortunately, this early baby-led weaning method reduces the chances of a picky attitude as a child grows and his palate matures.
Just like the nurses in Dr. Clara Davis’s experiment, stay emotionally neutral. Give off the sense “eat it, don’t eat it, it makes no difference to me…” For example, if you, the parent, don’t enjoy the taste of fish roe, avoid the “yuck” facial expressions. Or if baby just won’t pick up and try something, don’t force it into her mouth because “it’s good for her!” Smile, glance like you do at other family members during the meal, refrain from commenting much at all or even doing the “food rumba” when she willingly eats that first flake of seaweed. And most definitely avoid being cross in any manner. Do your best to let her figure it out on her own. Being overly interested in any direction may turn her off to experimenting and being adventurous with food. Just like walking and talking, it will happen in your baby’s own unique time.
Put first things first: lovingly prepare each meal for your whole family and then modify ingredients to make them work for baby. Start moving away from the idea that baby needs to eat baby food after those first few months; simply include him in the family table. It is easier, more time-efficient and better for baby in the long run. And even though the messes may need a little extra attention, get the camera out because they sure do make for some sweet memories!
1. Davis, Adelle. Let’s Have Healthy Children. New American Library, A Signet Book. 1972, p 217
2. Ibid, pp 218-219
DO THE FAMILY A FAVOR—TEACH YOUR BABY TO SIGN
Teaching baby to use sign language has a host of benefits, the best being reduced frustration, especially when it comes to feeding time. Both of my boys learned basic signs early, such as “food, eat,” “milk,” “all done” (one of the most important), “more” and “please” (although not necessary, I do like good manners!). Others we added to their repertoire included signs for mommy, daddy, banana, cracker, various animals (monkey is especially fun), shoes, etc. Not only do children get a kick out of it, but some experts believe that learning sign language early actually improves later vocabulary skills.
My little 20-month-old uses his food signs in other parts of life, such as telling me I need to be “all done” with reading a book because he wants me down on the floor to play. And our oldest, who now has a large vocabulary, will occasionally include a well-known sign when he speaks just because it comes naturally. I find that it is useful when I am trying to keep a reminder discreet, such as saying “thank you” for a nice gesture or gift. I simply use the sign to remind Tate instead of saying, “What do you say?”
Baby sign language materials abound; you’ll find information just surfing the web. However, there are fun tools to help out. One of our favorites is Signing Time books and DVDs (www.signingtime.com). The songs are catchy and they teach American Sign Language (ASL). Check out your local library to preview their collection.
Back in the 1920s, a pediatrician by the name of Dr. Clara Davis conducted an experiment that illustrates two important points. First, sacred foods—such as eggs, liver, fish roe—are ideal for baby to thrive. Second, babies have an intuition about their nutritional needs. Dr. Davis’s experiment took place in a time when food recommendations for babies were becoming more rigid and unappetizing. Babies were clearly not enjoying these new “healthier” standards, as evidenced by the opposition experienced by many parents. Dr. Davis believed these new standards were not what babies needed, and her experiment confirmed her suspicions.
Davis evaluated fifteen orphans between the ages of seven and nine months, who were given free rein to choose what and how much they wished to eat from a smorgasbord of real foods with little preparation—no mixing foods and no refined or processed ingredients. Foods offered—thirty-three to be exact—included whole milk (sweet and sour), hard-cooked eggs, meats, fish and fish roe, cooked cereals, raw and cooked veggies and fruits. The foods weren’t salted, but a bowl of salt was set out for the babies to partake of if desired. The nurses involved in the study made no comments, didn’t send spoonfuls of “airplanes” in for a crash landing in baby’s mouth, and refrained from scolding when a baby declined a new food or ate “too much” of another.
With no refined foods to muck up their palates, these children demonstrated an innate wisdom to self-select the foods that met their nutritional needs to create vibrant health, which was monitored by extensive testing. Food selections were not always pretty. One day a child ate seven eggs, while another opted for a handful of salt. Some children ate more fruits, yet others gravitated to the meats. A child with poor bone structure was partial to cod liver oil one hundred thirteen times, on his own accord. While each day’s meal did not provide a perfect “balance,” over the long haul, their nutritional profile conformed to just what they needed.2 Not surprisingly, none of the children chose to eat a diet dominated by grain and milk.
Although small, Dr. Davis’s study gives good reason to consider baby-led weaning. Setting out thirty-three different food choices at each meal is a little over-the-top, but feeding a reasonable variation of traditional foods to baby at each meal is doable. Being able to consider several choices and having the opportunity to decide on his own, baby will pick and choose what is best for his growth and development at that specific time. To me, the findings from this experiment offer freedom to relax. Babies know. A key element to this experiment was the fact that Davis provided healthy foods and let children eat as much or as little as they wanted. Would the study have turned out differently if Davis had included processed, sugary foods laden with fake fats? Perhaps, but we don’t know and are not likely to find out since this setting might not fly with today’s research criteria.
Sometimes baby will chug down a sippy full of raw milk, another day not so much. One week he might eat two fried eggs each day, the next week pass them up. Don’t panic if food selections seem a little irregular at times—it all balances out in the end. And since you are feeding from the family table, none of the food goes to waste.
THE UPSIDE AND DOWNSIDE TO BABY-LED WEANING
The advantages of this less stressful method of feeding baby are many. For example, it:
• Gives baby a chance to experience different textures, smells and shapes.
• Encourages confidence and an adventurous attitude about food.
• Makes mealtime more enjoyable for baby and less frustrating for parents.
• Promotes chewing skills and muscle development, which is important for speech, digestion and choking safety.
• Allows baby to be more in control of likes and dislikes and to exercise instincts regarding nutritional needs.
• Puts appetite in baby’s own control because there is no coaxing or cajoling.
• Improves dexterity and eye-hand coordination due to more grasping and handling of foods.
• Involves baby at the family table, which supports the need to mimic and learn by example.
• Makes eating away from home easier since baby is accustomed to eating table food and a wide variety of choices (for example, sushi was no sweat with our little guy a little after one year).
• Discourages pickiness later in toddlerhood because table foods are already the norm and there have been so few battles over mealtime.
The only downside to this process is the mess, particularly when the family is eating something goopy, like porridge. So stock up on little thin washcloths to keep handy in the kitchen and, when the weather permits, feed baby outside in the buff (baby is adorable and easier to clean)!
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2009.
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