When it comes to feeding your baby, it seems that everyone has an opinion. “Just put some rice cereal in her bottle,” or “Mash up ripe bananas with oatmeal and cinnamon,” or even my personal favorite, “Just be careful not to give her a big piece so she doesn’t choke.”
While the people in your life who (mostly) have the best intentions can’t always hold back their opinions, it’s important to remember that there’s no one “right” way to feed your baby. What it really comes down to, experts and parents agree, is what works best for you and your child.
Fostering Independence with Baby-Led Weaning
A popular buzzword in Portland’s parenting circles, baby-led weaning seems to be on the rise. Corey Fish, M.D., a local pediatrician at Pacific Crest Children’s Urgent Care, says he first noticed the trend shortly after completing his residency, and hearing “more and more from parents that they were choosing to skip the traditional way of introducing solids and [instead try] a baby-led weaning approach.”
The phrase “baby-led weaning” was first coined by Dr. Gill Rapley (a Ph.D. who has studied infant feeding methods) in her book, Baby-Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods “as an approach to introducing solid food where baby is allowed and encouraged to self-feed solid finger foods instead of receiving purées via spoon.” For some parents, this approach induces severe anxiety, and images of a choking baby. But those who choose to embrace it say they have powered through these initial fears in exchange for giving their children the choice to control their solid food experience.
Carley Stead, 26, who lives in Milwaukie with her family and is the mother of 14-month-old Harlow, describes it as “an independent choice” and something Harlow “has a lot of fun with.” Despite initial misgivings about baby-led weaning, Stead, a former child care educator, says she’s glad she chose to stick with the approach.
“She’s been a foodie from the beginning,” Stead says. “She likes a variety of foods and we don’t have to sit there and feed her.” Another big advantage of baby-led weaning for the Stead family is that at the dinner table, they can all sit together and eat, instead of sharing the task of feeding baby.
As for dining out, the Steads just bring along a divider plate and cup when they go out to eat, and Harlow shares their food — no need to bring separate food, or worry about mashing up restaurant food at the table.
When a Traditional Approach Does the Trick
There are still lots of parents out there that like to take the traditional route to baby nourishment, with soft purées of fruits, vegetables and proteins leading the way. For this cohort of parents, the “soft, mushy stuff” seems to do the trick, resulting in enjoyment, triumph and sometimes even faster growth for their kiddos.
For Sara Bennett Crowley, 35, who lives in Southeast Portland, giving her 12-month-old daughter Maggie soft solid foods was vital to her growth. Sara recalls her doctor suggesting they get more “aggressive” with solids due to Maggie’s lower-than-average weight. After 3 months of trying various soft, pureed solid foods in the form of proteins, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables, Maggie’s weight increased more than 40 percentage points — putting her on track with the national average for girls her age.
But taking a more traditional approach to feeding baby doesn’t have to result in boring food. As Crowley points out, there are lots of ways to incorporate colorful, flavorful and creative food into your baby’s diet. “A typical daily meal starts with something like scrambled eggs, chicken liver pâté, mashed peas, or a sweet potato with butter,” she says.
Making otherwise bland foods taste more flavorful and hearty is something that Crowley does on the regular, adding “high-quality healthy fats such as avocado oil or coconut oil” to foods like beets, apples, avocado, and even puréed chicken.
For dining out, Crowley said she often makes Maggie a “bento box of food” that they take along with them. And though she’s never met with any complaints from restaurant owners, she isn’t shy about asking for any additional items that Maggie might require, like a healthy side dish, fruit or an avocado.
“A little bit of this … a little bit of that”
While some parents are partial to one kind of feeding approach, many families blend different feeding styles and adapt the parts that worked for them and their children. For 33-year-old Northeast Portland resident Jenna Moran, the mom of 11-month-old Tobin, it’s not about how she feeds her son, as “everyone eventually learns how to eat,” but more about “influencing him to try a broad range of foods from different cultures and flavor profiles.”
While she and her partner give Tobin pretty much everything except for honey and spicy foods, they let texture lead the way in how he eats it. “When the texture is right, we’ll let him feed himself, but when it’s not realistic (such as with hummus or oatmeal) we’ll give it to him with a spoon,” Moran says.
Kristen Zimmer, 34, who lives in Southeast Portland and is mom to 10-month old Noa and 3-½-year-old Leila, says a hybrid strategy worked well for her family. “We started with a few spoonfuls of puréed sweet potatoes or oatmeal a few times a day and it has evolved into three meals a day with quite a bit of solid food and a good variety,” she says. Playing around with texture, Zimmer sometimes turns to silicone feeding pacifiers (Lullababy makes a great option), which store food inside of them that Noa can “work on” at mealtime or when the family dines out. “They’re great for teething, too,” Zimmer says, relieving sensitive gums with something natural.
Another benefit of this approach, say Northeast Portland residents Oscar Murden and Bethany Gumper, the parents of 14-month-old Maxwell (and 3-year-old Milo) is the independence it fosters and the dexterity it builds. After taking a more traditional approach with Milo, both parents agree that they prefer mixing in baby-led weaning with Max.
What the Experts Say
Since each child’s nutritional needs and preferences are so unique, pediatricians don’t recommend any one approach, but they’re always there to answer questions. “Probably the most common question I get from parents is around coughing and sputtering when first introducing solids. I typically tell parents that babies have to learn to eat much like they have to learn to do everything else and that a little coughing is part of the learning process,” says Fish.
Doug Lincoln, M.D., a pediatrician at Metropolitan Pediatrics, Happy Valley (and author of PDX Parent’s monthly column, Ask Dr Doug!), encourages parents to “trust your intuition when it comes to feeding your baby. Aside from avoiding choking hazards, there is not one right way to introduce solids.” He’s also a fan of simple, natural foods as first options and advises parents to try “veggies, fruits, cereals and meats” first. “Save the chicken pad thai for when they’re a bit older,” he advises.
For parents who are eager to try baby-led weaning, Dr. Fish recommends that food is “either soft enough to be mashed between the roof of the mouth and tongue or hard and tough enough that small chunks cannot be bitten off that might clog the airway.” He also recommends staying away from foods with tough skins and says you should not cut hard or rubbery foods (carrots or a hot dog) into coin-shaped pieces.
“Regardless of which feeding method is chosen, I like parents to know that they should offer a single new food at a time, and wait a few days before introducing a new food,” says Dr. Fish.
SARA’S ROTISSERIE CHICKEN PURÉE
Start with a high-quality rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and strip off all the meat. Reserving small pieces for finger food, make a quick purée by tossing the meat and skin into a blender with a little butter and splashes of bone broth to desired consistency. Then, pop the carcass into an InstantPot immediately with veggies for bone broth (cook for 120 minutes in pressure cooker mode) or freeze it to be used later. One chicken makes two to three weeks of protein.