FOOD INTRODUCTION + BABY-LED WEANING
Introducing solid food is a fairly flexible process. Feel free to look for signs of readiness in your own baby. If they show interest at an early age, then they may be ready slightly ahead of the recommended age of six months. In general, though, I would say don’t rush the food introduction. A baby’s stomach is delicate, and we know the microbiome in the gut is linked to brain function and immune function, so you want to avoid overwhelming their system right out of the gate. Food introduction and diet recommendations have evolved substantially over time, so this is one area in particular that I would seek current advice on rather than relying on past practices. You hear it all the time, from parents who have kids born just a few years apart, how specific recommendations for things like this can change even between the two birth dates.
Baby-led weaning is gaining in popularity, but I know it still falls under the unpopular category by the way I’ve witnessed people react with frightful shock when they see a ten-month-old eating any kind of food that isn’t puréed. This type of weaning is not weaning in the way North Americans refer to it, which would imply stopping breastfeeding. Breastfeeding can still be a big part of the baby’s health and caloric intake for months or years after the decision to include solid food. Baby-led weaning is essentially introducing finger food alongside or instead of purées. The baby has a lot of control in the sense that they can choose what pieces to pick up and try, as well as when to stop when they are no longer hungry. The key is to make sure the pieces of food are appropriate in size, shape and texture. Long, narrow shapes allow them to grab on and bring it up to their mouth. It also minimizes choking risk. Don’t be alarmed if they gag at times – this is a normal part of the learning process. It is never a bad idea to brush up on your baby CPR knowledge, however, even if you do not practice baby-led weaning. The given food should be soft, particularly in the beginning. Babies cannot chew food like we do with so few teeth, however they are able to chew more with their gums than you might think – any nursing mother who has experienced a gummy chomp can attest to this. Starting out with naturally soft foods, like bananas and avocados, is a safe bet. As you progress, you can start offering them pieces of whatever you are eating for your own meals. Variety of texture and flavour is wonderful for them – you need not keep it simple or bland. It’s an exploration and it takes time, so be prepared for a lot of faces and a lot of mess and a lot of fun watching your little one dive in to the exciting, interesting, strange, new and yummy world of food.
There is no one-diet-fits all for adults and babies alike. I believe healthy and nourished children can result from households that eat vegan, paleo, keto, organic, gluten-free, dairy-free or various other diets, just as they can from a Food Guide-informed, free-style kind of eating pattern. If you do have a more specialized way of eating that seems to conflict with doctors’ recommendations, I would consult a naturopath or holistic nutritionist who can advise you on any adjustments needed in your baby’s diet. As a general rule, across all households, it’s a good idea to make a point of including proteins, healthy fats, probiotics and lots of vegetables and other nutrient-dense foods in your family’s daily diet. And, as a general rule, across all households, it’s a good idea to limit sugar consumption. Be wary; processed sugar is over-used and hidden in so many of the foods we are familiar with, like cereal and crackers, and especially in snacks and drinks marketed to children. Don’t assume that kid’s meals are healthy meals and be wary of the advertising that leads you to believe so. Sugar is addictive. Sugar is fattening. Sugar feeds disease. Sugar contributes to cavities. Sugar impairs brain function. Sugar influences behaviour. I don’t expect everyone to cut out sugar completely, but I encourage every parent to read labels and take an active role in responsibly moderating how much processed sugar and artificial sweeteners our children have access to.
My philosophy on kids’ diets is moderation. I think too much processed food and junk food is harmful to their health on all levels. I think a strictly healthy diet sets them up for failure down the road, when they are making their own food choices. Including small treats regularly and selectively prevents it from becoming an object of obsession. Moderation, erring on the side of a whole foods diet, is a noble goal to set. The fool-proof way to achieve this, in the long term, is by setting an example for them to emulate. Check your own habits when it comes to food. How you talk about food, how you stock your pantry, how you prepare food, how you plan meals, how you share meals as a family and your overall eating habits will transfer to your children.
Kids will inevitably still be fussy and picky about certain things. The key is, don’t give up. You can have days – heck, you can have weeks, if you need – of slacking and giving in, where anything goes. But in the long haul, keep at it. Keep healthy food and snacks stocked up in your home so they are readily available. Keep your own diet on track, and they will have no choice but to eat what you’re eating if they are hungry enough. Keep offering them the food they initially refuse. Don’t always force them to finish everything on their plate, but always include the onion, or whatever it is, on their plate when it’s part of the meal you made. Maybe after the third or fifth or twentieth exposure, they might actually start eating it without complaint. Be creative; this is a parental superpower. Do the airplane trick with the fork. Arrange the food into a smiley face on the plate. Teach them about eating the rainbow – how lots of different colours in our meals make us healthy and strong and gives us energy to do the things we love. Your approach and your language will inform their attitudes – labelling them fussy and picky, or reiterating they don’t like something, reinforces those ideas in their mind. Instead, try saying, “You’re learning to like zucchini”, or, “We’ll try it again next time”. Sneak in veggies like you are sneaking drugs across the border – you’d be amazed at the amount of vegetables you can cram into a smoothie, burger patty or pasta sauce without your kid realizing. When all else fails, bribery is your best friend with the toddlers. Save the one component you know they will enjoy in the meal, like fruit, and they can eat it once they’ve eaten a couple of bites of the other deplorable crap you served them for supper.