Should Infants Control What They Eat? Thoughts on Baby-Led Weaning

How you raise your child is a personal choice. I am not usually judgemental. I hate the mommy wars. I hate when one group of mothers looks down on another. We are all doing the best we can and have different guiding principles, which determine everything from how we feed our children to the discipline policies we establish. Yet…. there is one recent trend in the way foods are being introduced to babies that has me wondering what is happening to parents.

Yes, I realize this breaks my moral code of not judging other moms. I can not help it this time. You see, there is a growing trend among parents to bypass purees/mashed foods and simply place cut-up foods in front of infants as young as six months and allow them to pick-up and choose what to eat. They start off by licking the foods and then nibbling before finally eating what is pleasurable to their palates. This process is called Baby-Led Weaning (the term “wean” is used in the British sense – to add complimentary foods).

After researching several sites, including BabyLedWeaning.com, I have learned that there are a few ideas behind this philosophy:

  • Baby knows best and will ultimately choose not only what is pleasurable to their palates, but what he/she is lacking in nutritional deficiency.
  • It is more convenient for parents because they don’t have to spend so much time holding a spoon to feed their baby and can actually eat their own meal in peace.
  • It is much nicer than “forcing” that dreaded spoon into your child’s mouth.
  • Anything other than milk (and really they mean breast milk) during the first 12 months is “just for fun,” so why waste your time with purees.

I am not a doctor. I have not conducted scientific studies to either prove or disprove any of these claims. I am not trying to sell a book or convince parents of the “right” way to introduce foods. I do have to say though that this sounds like a bunch of crap ridiculous. In my opinion of course.

People who oppose the Baby-Led Weaning (BLW) style, which includes many doctors, worry about the risk of choking, the lack of a balanced nutritional intake since the babies are in control of what is actually consumed, and that this method does not introduce foods one at a time to rule out sensitivities or allergies.

Putting the choking and allergy worries aside, the part I can not get past is the idea that babies should have this kind of control. They are babies. They do not know what to eat. Since when do babies know better than their parents? Since when did parents start giving their infants and toddlers so many choices?

I have cared for more than 40 children, many of which started with me as infants. I have fed many of these children with that dreaded spoon. I have NEVER force-fed a baby. When an infant is developmentally ready (and some are not until eight months), he/she will eat from a spoon just fine. They will eat mashed vegetables, fruits, meats, pastas, cereals, etc. just fine. Many will even cry out for this said mushy food. Contrary to the claims on the pro-BLW sites, these infants are not suffering because they are being forced to eat such unappealing food.

One bullet point on the Getting Started section of BabyLedWeaning.com had me shaking my head.

“Actual hunger can be frustrating for the babies when they’re still getting to grips (quite literally) with things. Timing ‘meals’ to between milk feeds seems to be best, and because it’s just finger food you aren’t limited to staying in. There’s no reason why you can’t pack a wee Tupperware with some carrot or cucumber, buy a banana when you’re out or just pull some bits out of an undressed salad”

Let me translate this for you. Your baby will be HUNGRY because he/she cannot get enough food in his/her mouth at first. Well, of course not because a six-month-old is not capable of sufficiently feeding him or herself. That is why they have parents – to make sure they are getting the calories needed to satisfy their hunger and meet their needs.

I know what a child labeled as failure to thrive looks like. I know what it means when a child is allowed to go hungry for so long that he/she no longer has the sensation of hunger – meaning he/she will no longer cry out or want to eat because their natural signals are screwed up. It is a vicious cycle. They need to eat, but will not because they do not have an appetite. I am not implying that BLW will lead to this. I am saying, however, that relying solely on your baby’s natural instincts can backfire.

Many specialists will also tell you that babies know when they are full. That they will turn their heads away from the spoon and stop eating when they are satisfied. Many times this is true. Yet, I have cared for several babies who would never stop. They did not have a rare syndrome. They just enjoyed eating and would keep going until they spit it all up. As a caregiver, I had to decide when enough was enough. I had to be in control – not the infant.

I watched a recent news clip about BLW in awe as a 20-month-old had a variety of foods placed in front of her and was allowed to pick and eat whatever she desired for breakfast. The choices were wonderful – kiwi, strawberries, yogurt, a bagel. Yet, in my experience offering too many choices can backfire. The pickiest eaters I know are that way because their parents were too quick to offer multiple options to replace the ones they did not want to eat. I know many parents who have fallen into this trap.

It goes something like this:

Well-intentioned parent: “Oh.. you’re not eating.. what’s wrong? Is it the fish and vegetables? How about some chicken nuggets and a yogurt instead?”

The child quickly realizes that he/she has the control. That he/she can simply refuse to eat what is not desirable and hold out for what is really wanted. You see, children are smart. Very smart. And how you start them off does matter. I would like to see how many of these parents that used BLW experience trouble with their children down the road.

I would like to see if this concept of giving their babies the control over how and what to eat translates to other things. Do they allow their children to decide whether or not to watch TV? How about whether or not to do their homework? Is there such a thing as a bedtime in those households?

I know I may come on a bit strong, but I really do not like these all or nothing “trends” in parenting. Why do parents have to abandon all purees/mashed foods in order to embrace the idea of teaching their children to self-feed? Since when did purees become the enemy?

Oh and did I forget to mention that ALL the children in my care move on from eating purees and learn how to self-feed without any lasting damage from that pesky spoon.

I want to hear from you. Was I too critical of BLW? Have you ever tried BLW and did it work for you? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

You can also join the discussion on the Tiny Steps Mommy Facebook page.

About 

Nicole Dash is a writer, blogger and business owner who lives in the suburbs outside Washington, DC with her husband and four children. She started her career as a journalist and copy editor. She also managed public relations and corporate communications for a national franchise company, but in 2009 started a home-based daycare. Nicole has enjoyed success as a small business owner and is a leader within the child care community in Northern Virginia. In 2012, she began her heartfelt blog, Tiny Steps Mommy, where she writes about family, life, parenting and finding herself amid the chaos. She is an active member of the Washington, DC blogger community and is listed on the blogroll of more than 20 local blogs. Nicole is also a Huffington Post Blog Contributor and writes for The DC Moms. She is extremely social and loves connecting on Facebook and Twitter.

Comments

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Comments

  1. Oh boy. This is a big one. I have 4 children, all of whom I have nursed into toddlerhood. All of their eating habits have been different, because each child is different. I was a La Leche League Leader for many years, and spoke a lot about “baby led weaning”, which has now apparently been branded and turned into yet another parenting style for people to argue about. Back in the old days, it meant mother’s milk as the primary source of nutrition, and gradually introducing safe, simple foods, close to their natural state, when the baby showed signs of readiness and interest. Moms were still being told to introduce rice cereal at 4 months, or even worse, in a bottle, back then. I have done very little puree-ing, and virtually no jarred food. My kids’ firsts have always been sweet potato, banana, yogurt…sometime after they can sit up on their own. They also manage to grab handfuls of whatever I am eating. By the time they are one, they are usually eating whatever the rest of the family is eating (whole, natural, simplified sometimes). But, they still get the bulk of their nutrition, comfort, and liquids from me. By two we have usually shifted to lots of healthy snacks, a complete dinner, and nursing for naps and bedtime. Then, when I can’t stand nursing anymore (usually around 2 1/2) we quit completely, and they eat and drink like everyone else. I have 2 picky kids, and 2 bottomless pits. We have no food allergies, and all of my kids have been a healthy weight their whole lives. I loathe “parenting styles” as brands, hard and fast systems, or labels we put on ourselves and each other. I would agree that feeding a 6 month old cubes of raw carrot is not a great idea. And I can imagine, as a day care provider, you are very concerned about safety and balance when caring for your little ones. The topic of offering kids choices is a whole other post! I can’t believe there is actually yet another website for how to feed a baby.

  2. I feel like you read the right information and then interpreted it to push your agenda which is anti-BLW’ing so you made it sound idiotic. Yes, we did BLW, yes, it worked great. I am not anti-spoon nor do I share any of the batty rational that you worked into your post.

  3. I would like to clarify that my blog post was not written to push an agenda, but as a response to the extreme agenda being pushed on these pro-BLW sites. As Shannon above points out, they are creating a new category of feeding and are turning it into a movement. I am not opposed to a commonsense approach to feeding our children. This is a natural process that requires flexibility. These sites were very anti-spoon and the people on the forums were extremists. This is what I have a problem with. Not people who gradually allow their babies to explore different foods and textures. My kids all self-fed and ate regular foods by 12 months. I did not have to avoid the spoon in order to accomplish this. I do respect other choices in parenting. What I do not like or accept are extremists, like I found on the pro-BLW sites. If my rational sounded batty, then that was a reflection of what I was finding on those sites.

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