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When baby knows best

A Baby-Led Weaning meal of spinach, dal and rice. Photo: Special Arrangement  

My friend from New York, visiting us in Amsterdam for the weekend, watched in fascination as my nine-month-old son Sami pulled apart and devoured a flaky, buttery croissant at the breakfast table. “I have never seen a kid this young eat so well,” she said admiringly, as she ate hers a tad more daintily.

Ever since he started eating solids regularly at seven months, Sami has been feeding himself during family meals, sitting at the table along with us. He is offered age-appropriate sizes and textures of what we are eating, without added salt, sugar and honey. His main source of nutrition is still breast milk, because “food before one is just for fun”.

My Dutch husband and I have been following a method of introducing solids called Baby-Led Weaning (BLW), which is getting increasingly popular in Europe. The term was coined by Gill Rapley, who co-authored the book, Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby to Love Good Food, in 2008.

With BLW, the baby is exclusively breast or formula-fed until about six months, or when he shows signs of being ready for solids – he loses his tongue thrust reflex, can sit up unassisted or with little support, shows interest in mealtimes and can efficiently grasp objects and bring it to his mouth. He then sits at the table with the family, watches and learns from the others, while experimenting, playing and tasting the food. He continues to drink breastmilk or formula, so these solids are not a replacement but a supplement.

Mealtimes are now both joyful and messy in our house. We eat as a family, at the table, with the television off, a practice we only managed to enforce after Sami joined us.

Sami is endlessly fascinating, as we watch him try a new taste or texture. Or learn a skill that we take for granted.

For the first few meals, we giggled along with him as he tried to figure out how to bring the food accurately to his mouth. His aim rapidly improved, and by week two, bath-time produced less steamed broccoli and meatball bits from behind his ears and the creases of his neck. He was soon expertly chomping through slices of musk melon, asparagus spears and shrimp pancakes.

When I was pregnant, I came across the Rapley method online, and I was hooked. Here was someone with a logical explanation and a concrete method to do what I knew instinctively — that I should trust and respect my baby’s cues while rearing him. BLW is solely about feeding, but the philosophy to let the baby take the lead can be applied to other aspects of child rearing.

For us, as a family, BLW is a success. It is fun to plan meals and think of new tastes to introduce to our baby. We ourselves eat healthier and cheaper, as we eat out less, cook from scratch and without salt to ensure our son is offered a wide range of fruits, vegetables, grains and meat. He (and therefore we) doesn’t eat much processed food apart from bread and cheese, which is an important part of our diet here.

The biggest concern about this method is safety — will the baby choke? No, but he will gag a lot as he learns to manipulate food in his mouth. Gagging is a safety reflex that prevents food from being swallowed unintentionally, and a baby’s gag reflex is extremely sensitive. We did a first-aid for babies course in preparation for Sami, where you learn the difference between gagging and choking, and what to do if the baby does choke. Babies can choke on purees, water and solid pieces of food, and according to the first-aid teacher, our paediatrician and every other medical source we have referred to, traditional spoon-feeding of purees and BLW are equally safe.

As for allergies, new research shows that waiting till the baby is at least six months old before introducing solids gives enough time for his digestive system to mature, and reduces the likelihood of allergies. There is no solid evidence to prove that delaying the introduction of known allergens can prevent allergies, something that our paediatrician agreed with. But due to a few family dairy and shellfish allergies, I was cautious while introducing these foods, as well as different nuts and seeds in the diet.

The other concern (the biggest concern for my family) was whether Sami would get enough food to grow. For my family, giving up control to the baby, trusting him to know how much and whether he wanted to eat seemed ridiculous. Over the phone, they would want to know how much kichri he ate, did he eat the whole banana, to which I would carefully reply that he ate as much as he wanted to and then stopped. And despite their misgivings of letting Sami eat saltless clumps of scrambled eggs, pavakkai fry and chunks of slow-cooked chicken, by himself, he eats well. Sometimes, he wants seconds, and just like us adults, sometimes, he takes a bite and is done.


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Printable version | Oct 14, 2021 8:24:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/When-baby-knows-best/article16441813.ece

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