Last week we attended a weaning class, run by our area Health Visitors in a local surgery. Babies at the class ranged in age from four to five-and-a-half months. The practice nurse started off the discussion by asking if anyone knew the government-recommended age for weaning babies. 'Six months' piped up someone from the other side of the room. 'Yes, it's really changed from my day, when people started weaning as young as three months. So, how many of you are weaning?' It turned out about two thirds of the people at the class have already given their baby solid foods, mostly baby rice or pureed fruit - even though they were fully aware of the government advice.
Now, I'm not one for believing everything the government tells me and I also firmly believe that as a parent I should be able to choose what feels right for myself and my child, without being made to feel guilty by the state, the health service or friends and family. Yet, I'm afraid I've got to ask: 'What is the rush?' Although many of these babies had good head and neck control none of them could sit unsupported. None of the mothers had been advised to wean for medical reasons. They'd just felt it was 'time', either based on conversations with friends and family, or the fact that their baby had started to show an interest in what they were eating, or had started waking in the night. It can be argued that none of these are truly 'signs' that a baby is ready to eat. He may just be showing an interest in you eating, because he learns all his social and physical cues from you. He may be waking in the night because something else is bothering him, or for no real reason at all. And just because someone else's baby is eating solids, or 'you were eating two meals a day when you were his age' doesn't mean that you should rush to catch up! Apparently the best sign that your baby is ready for solids is if his weight gain tails off for at least a couple of weeks (just one week could be the result of a cold, a growth spurt or some other factor).
After this somewhat leading opening, the class was then shown a DVD of the baby-led weaning method popularised by former midwife and health visitor, Gill Rapley. I'd already heard of this approach and as a result have actually read her book, but the DVD was a good summary of what I'd consider to be the main points:
- don't offer any food until at least six months, when a baby's gross motor skills and digestion are better developed;
- to start, offer baby food cut into easy-to-hold shapes;
- initially they won't eat it at all - it's just a new game to them - but one that is developing their sense of taste, their chewing action and their ability to move food around their mouths;
- be prepared for a mess and you won't be taken by surprise;
- always eat with your baby, let them eat the 'meal' at their own pace and avoid trying to help them by picking food up and giving it to them or putting it in their mouths;
- when they're starting to 'eat' more purposefully, give them a baby-sized portion of your meals (assuming you eat a healthy, balanced diet, the only thing you might need to change is the amount of salt you use in cooking).
- once your baby is able to sit in his highchair, allow him to sit with you for family meals (or alternatively, sit him on your knee). At this stage, you might want to give him a spoon or plate to play with too;
- if he seems interested, start offering him food from your plate;
- when this interest becomes regular, give him his own food, cut into appropriate shapes with a 'handle' for him to grasp.
The class were then given some information relating to more 'traditional' methods as well as a brief discussion of the DVD we'd just watched. It was really quite surprising to hear people ask questions about 'how long' babies should feed for when weaning, 'how many' meals to give them and 'how much' should they eat. The vast majority of these mothers have breastfed and are still breastfeeding, so surely they should be used to the idea that their baby will eat when and if he is hungry, and will take as much as he needs to satisfy himself? Trying to control how much your baby/toddler eats is surely a straight road to eating problems later on?
Personally, although I'm excited about her reaching this next stage, I'm prepared to wait until Izzy's ready. This is helped, somewhat, by the fact that I'd love her to mainly eat things that we've grown ourselves, and for that we need to wait until August/September for the bulk of our crops anyway. With little hands, mouths and stomachs in mind I'm hoping to get good crops from our runner beans, baby carrots, apples, raspberries, plums, brocolli, sweetcorn and globe courgettes in particular, for the finger food phase, before she moves on to joining in fully with our meals.