A few months ago, our farmer neighbor told us how her grandmother would give her babies a picked-clean chicken bone to help with teething; I laughed, thinking how odd and even dangerous that seemed for our then 3-month-old entering the throes of sore gums. Our dog doesn’t even get bones.
Surprisingly, our baby’s first solid-food event included a giant, shorn beef rib bone from a smoked-meat vendor at the farmers market. I not only got over the shock of offering a baby a giant inedible object, but also wholeheartedly changed my tune after doing some research into baby-led weaning (BLW).
The BLW movement is somewhat of a misnomer. It’s assumed that the baby is weaning from breastmilk or formula, but really the focus is on weaning onto solid foods while babies continue to nurse or receive a bottle on demand. The baby is trusted to decide when to increase solid feedings and decrease breastmilk or bottle feedings, which typically happens later in their first year.
I went to a workshop offered on the subject to find myself happily enlightened about this easy approach without many rules other than the food being offered needs to be larger than an adult pinky finger. This way of feeding babies is not as new as the recently coined name and body of writing around it. BLW is really an age-old practice that encourages self-feeding solid finger foods instead of pureed foods by spoon (which rose to fashion when doctors suggested starting solids around 4 months old, instead of the current recommendation of 6 months old or later).
We started solids for our daughter around six-and-a-half months. My single-most important qualification for making the leap was the milestone where my baby could sit up on her own without a special chair or any other support. Physiologically, it makes sense that our digestive system is probably ready once our bodies can sit unassisted.
Many of my friends reported that starting solids was a confusing time because babies might not know what to do with solid foods. The tongue thrust reflux can still be in place and one might find more food everywhere but in the tummy. Our experience was one of pure enthusiasm and joy. Our daughter knew precisely what to do with food because we tried to always eat with her and lead by example. We also allowed her to just have fun and make a mess instead of focusing on a specific amount of food ending up in her mouth.
Early on, we only aimed for one meal with solids a day, if at all, but as we caught our groove and followed our baby’s lead, we began to find a few opportunities throughout the day to include her at meals or snack time and let her try new things. We use BLW as a guide and enjoy seeking out nutrients and identifying shapes and textures that will be most successful for little hands and blossoming motor skills.
There are about as many opinions on what baby’s first solid foods should be as there are opinions on how and where babies should sleep. Babies need protein, iron and fat—nutrients found in breastmilk—so a diet of soft fruits and veggies is a nice addition and offers vitamins, but it doesn’t cover all the bases for the rapid development taking place in a baby’s body. Red meat, liver, legumes, fish and cooked egg yolks are all great foods to incorporate early on. Animal bones leftover after the family meal are an excellent source of iron, minerals and good fats, because babies will gum and suck on them to extract nutrients. (Looks like our farmer friend’s California grandma knew what was up!) Good fats and oils, such as butter from grassfed cows and coconut oil, are also important additions to foods prepared for babies.
Our baby’s favorite first foods were local duck confit and liver pâté, sourdough pancakes, crust from sourdough and other crusty breads, whole milk yogurt, mashed avocado, sprouted oatmeal with mashed blueberries and coconut oil, meatballs, roasted beets and banana quartered lengthwise and rolled in shredded dried coconut for easy gripping. At any meal, I can usually find something to hand over to my daughter, and she can regulate how much and how quickly to eat. It is such a joy to watch her discover a love for eating.
By Kate Payne • Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo