Aileen Cox Blundell
Baby-led feeding works from the same principles as baby-led weaning. It begins when your little one is around the six-month mark and has started to show signs of being able to pick up food. You will know when your baby is ready when the piece of toast in your hand is suddenly being stuffed into their little mouth or your stem of broccoli disappears with only remnants left on your little baby’s face.
It is this curiosity and adventure that makes baby-led feeding so special. It’s a natural exploration of everything around them and this is encouraged by giving them wholesome and naturally delicious foods that they will grab, explore and put into their mouths all by themselves.
It is such an enjoyable time for the baby and the entire family. You get to watch this little human being you have brought into the world take complete control over what they eat.
You watch them poke holes in muffins, peering in to see what the soft textures contain, and experience that joy of seeing them try a mushroom for the first time and loving it or hating it, but knowing they picked up that food all by themselves, put it in their mouth and tried.
The main belief behind baby-led feeding is that all food should be healthy food, and with the growing statistics of obesity in Ireland, it is more important now than ever to make sure we are giving our children the right foods to help nourish them for the long term.
Healthy food choice
If you only give your baby healthy food then that is what they will grow up knowing – good food is healthy food. It takes a while for your baby to happily munch on a lettuce leaf but you will be astounded when they do so for the first time.
There are no spoons, no choo-choo trains, no ‘Daddy’s gonna eat your dinner’. Your baby gets to choose from here on in. They decide what they want to eat and what they don’t, how much to eat and, more importantly, when they are full.
Learning to chew
If a food is soft enough to squish between your finger and thumb then your baby’s gums, even without teeth, are strong enough to break it down. This chewing develops naturally with the new foods you give your little one and also aids in the natural digestion of food.
Your baby will learn to explore and manage different textures and shapes of food from six months old. They will have the opportunity to practise their fine motor skills by grasping and picking up food at every meal.
As your baby tries new foods, they will experience a world of new textures they would probably not have had the opportunity to try if they were traditionally weaned. This is so important because, in the long term, they will be more inclined to pick up and try new foods than ‘taste with their eyes’.
Your baby eats what you eat. There is no mashing concoctions of foods you probably wouldn’t eat yourself: you simply cook healthy, delicious food for your family and then let your baby get to work on it on their own.
The biggest plus for me is being able to eat my own dinner while my little one munches away on his own food.
Because I’m not trying to get him to eat one more bite and he is eating at his own pace, we get to eat dinner as a family and it is so much more fun.
Watching a seven-month-old feed himself spaghetti and meatballs while the rest of the family eats them too is what it’s all about.
The great thing about the baby-led way of feeding is that you don’t need much to get started. There are just a few basic principles to follow:
∗ Invest in a long-sleeved bib: The long-sleeved bib saves on changing clothes after every meal and if you can get one with a catch pocket that’s even better, as it reduces spillages on the floor. Forget the bowl: unless you can find a really good suction bowl your baby is just going to fling it across your kitchen floor. So just place the food onto their high-chair tray and let them get to work.
∗ Teach them how to use cutlery: I gave my baby a kiddie spoon when he was about seven months old. Sometimes you have to pre-load a spoon. This simply means you put the food on the spoon and let your baby pick it up and put it in their own mouth. Essentially, you are still not feeding them – they are doing the work.
It’s a great way for them to master the art of using cutlery, and before you know it they’ll be drinking soup from a spoon on their own like a pro!
∗ Let them use their hands: They will want to use their hands regardless of how messy the food is and will learn about so many textures and tastes.
∗ Start slow: Introduce soft foods at the beginning like banana or roasted sweet potato. I also gave my kiddies roasted butternut squash, avocado, steamed carrots, broccoli and scrambled egg. It’s so much fun watching them explore their new food and having that first magical taste.
∗ Make it manageable: When you are giving fruits and vegetables on the side, cut them into thick chip sizes. This makes it much easier for small babies to manage, as they get frustrated if the food is too small to pick up. Just remember that all food should break apart when squashed between your thumb and index finger.
∗ Ensure a balanced diet: Until babies are six months old, they get all the nutrition they need from either breastmilk or formula. After that, iron-rich and nutritious foods need to be introduced to their diet.
Baby-led feeding has been one of the best and most enjoyable things we have done as a family. It is so much fun watching this little human explore their food and taste new things for the first time. It flies by so take a deep breath and enjoy it. Honestly, the mess gets less and less and before you know it you will have a pro on your hands.
Edited extract from The Baby-Led Feeding Cookbook by Aileen Cox Blundell, published by Gill Books.
Choking vs gagging
Choking is a really scary word and one that is at the forefront of our thoughts when we start letting our little babies feed themselves. However, once you only offer soft and safe foods, your baby is quite capable of chewing and breaking up the food with their strong gums.
Gagging is a common occurrence in early baby-led feeding, although it might never happen at all. The gag reflex is a safety mechanism that prevents choking as babies learn to move food from the back of their throats to the front.
Gagging also teaches them not to stuff their mouths with food.
As babies get older and more skilled at eating, they gag less and chew more.