To gradually introduce what will be adult food to the infant while simultaneously yet slowly reducing the intake of milk, be that breast or formula. It's well recognised that current NHS guidelines suggest delaying weaning until 6 months of age to ensure the digestive system is sufficiently developed and ready to digest 'real' foods. As a strict rule of thumb, the lack of teeth in the baby would suggest the inability to chew and therefore solids as such should be considered a no-no. Thus by process of elimination, one is left to conclude a hand blender or sieve and a steady stream of pureed mush is the food of choice.
We all know or know of this method. We cook carrots (without salt), mush them, and shovel them in with a soft plastic spoon. We might try banana, or sweet potato, perhaps broccoli or pureed pear and apple. Shovel shovel shovel, gobble gobble gobble. (And no, I am not doing an impression of the poultry farmer mucking out the turkey shed). My point is, weaning in general, is about breaking down the foods we offer into a pulp, then offering it to the baby (or forcing it on the baby if we don't pay attention) and we keep control, and everyone's happy. It's the norm. Time consuming maybe - think ice cube trays full of ready mushed green beans, and one gets the picture. Or of course, we could just stock up on convenience jars from the supermarket. Either way, it's just glupe isn't it? I remember my sister rounding off a spoon of pulverised baby food ready to fire into her daughter's open mouth, and I distinctly remember thinking a) yuck, and b) what a faff.
Now a relatively recent concept, Baby Led Weaning, is likely to put the willy's up the older folk, but is now recognised by the World Health Organisation as a suitable alternative method which sees the baby taking control of the transition to solids from milk from the very first stages of weaning.... by self-feeding from the offset.
The WHO indicates the maturity of the digestive system and the baby's ability to cope with the transition to solids will likely be recognised by the external faculties that the baby is ready to wean. Meaning? Well, think about the ability to sit upright (supported perhaps, but nevertheless upright). Now think about the ability to reach out and grasp an object and to be able to direct that object up to the mouth. So that's digestive ability and the fine motor skills mastered - both necessary to self-feed.
So eating or just playing?
It's safe to say the early stages of baby led weaning are exploratory mainly with little food actually ingested - textures, tastes, colours and smell. Coupled with the benefit of copying those eating 'grown up' food at the table - baby's love to mimic and copy. So in a nutshell, instead of offering a spoon of pureed foodstuffs directly into the mouth at each sitting, the baby is offered a variety of finger foods which they can chose from themselves at their own pace. It makes sense. How many babies do you see refusing to eat from a spoon, or making a fuss over the process? And yet chances are the same baby would gladly pick up a baton of carrot and gnaw on it, or maybe just suck on it a while. The point is, the baby is in control and stress free. It's a game in a way. Mum and Dad can relax and eat their meal, while baby has a go on their own.
Weird? No, just different. Messy? Definitely. (Well, I say that, I have no experience of it yet, but I do have visions of spaghetti bolognese splatted over the dogs nose and half way up the wall).
My plan hence, is to offer soft foods to begin with - soft fruits and vegetables, or steamed vegetables softened so even a toothless gum can chew on them. Something the size of a chunky chip - big enough to provide a handle for Grace to grab hold of, leaving enough free for her to suck/chew on without it getting lost in her fist.
Choking? Yes, its a possibility. But it is with spoon feeding too, in fact more so. Think about it. Mum's spooning apple mush into baby's mouth, there's a few lumps in it, baby gags on it as she can't keep up with Mum's pace. It happens. Compare that to baby led weaning. Yes, its possible baby with pop too much in, but chances are she will be able to roll it back to the front of her mouth or cough it back to the front or out.... in principle - the ability to chew develops after the ability to grasp and place things in the mouth, and thus the baby's development keeps pace with the ability to process the food.
Fan or fearful, Matt the Husband and I have decided on baby led weaning as our route forward for Grace. She isn't 6 months yet, but she is showing signs of being ready. We can't go wrong really- we're taking it at Grace's pace. If she does nothing but pick the food up, that's fine, it's progress. If she picks it up, sucks on it a bit then drops it on the floor, that's also fine. When she is ready, she will start to chew and swallow. Until then, it's just fun and learning. A playtime in the kitchen where she wont go hungry as she will already be fuelled by her milk. And when she is ready, she'll cut back on her milk intake by herself.
Decision made, I'll let you know how we get on. We're excited, and Grace seems keen to be in her highchair now too...
Acknowledgements to the authors of "Baby Led Weaning", Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett for their inspiration. Thank you!