My eldest and my youngest child are nine years apart. It seems this time was long enough for the pediatricians to completely overhaul the concept of feeding babies solid food. If nine years ago I was supposed to start with rice cereal once my baby turned six months old (even that was revolutionary, other moms started their babies on solids at 4 months of age), with the last child I got the advice "start on different food, one at a time, but give her a variety of choice, and by the age of 12 months she is ready to eat family food ". I could not agree more and was happy to hear it because I have been an adept of the idea to introduce solid food naturally into baby's nutrition for quite some time now.
Let us make a little journey back in time. Some hundred years ago families were big with a lot of children. I guess feeding babies special food was unheard of. Mothers would not cook a separate meal for a baby and then puree it so that it would be easier to eat. It would not occur to anyone. Everyone had to eat whatever there was for dinner, no exceptions. So a mother would hold her baby and eat with her on the lap, sometimes giving her a bite or two of the food from her own plate. In this way the baby was gradually introduced to the family food.
I find this approach to feeding babies very natural and easy to implement, perfect for busy moms with more than one child. In Russian-language baby forums it received a nickname "pedagogical feeding", as opposed to "pediatric scheme". Let me give you more detail.
When to start?
Not earlier than 6 months. Before that, the digestive system can not handle food other than breast milk, which is digested in the intestines, not in the stomach. While every baby is different, and some might be ready before that age, you never know for sure in each case, so it's a good idea to wait – better to be safe than sorry! Also look for the psychological readiness: your baby will become interested in what you are eating and will try to reach for food on the table: a good sign that the baby is ready to try new food.
How to start?
Place your baby on your lap when you are eating. Have a variety of healthy choices on the plate. If your baby gets interested in your food, offer a so-called "micro-dose", 2-3 grains of rice, a piece of boiled potato or bread, small enough that the baby will not choke on it. You can also offer your baby finger food: a piece of apple, or banana, or carrot, or dried bread – anything she can hold in her small hand and nibble on. She will not eat much, the idea is just to taste it. Often after getting a micro dose a baby would have some breast milk to finish the meal. Do not exceed the amount of 2-3 micro doses at first. If your child consistently eats the same food 2-3 days in a row, increase the amount up to one teaspoon.
Why start with pieces of food?
Receiving pieces of food your baby gets used to them. Sometimes babies who were eating only pureed food had difficulties handling pieces of food. Your baby is able to mush those pieces with jaws and tongue and then swallow. "At the exit point" in the diaper or potty you would sometimes see the food almost undigested: do not worry! It is hard for digestive system at this age to deal with fiber, especially in raw food, so it will transit the system. It will not do any harm to the child. The main purpose here is to get used to this food, to try different kinds of it and to learn to break it into nutrients.
Why purees are no good?
Purees are hard to "deal with" and often result in constipation. They form a layer in the stomach (which is not trained to break it down yet because breast milk goes straight to the intestines and is digested there) and thus overload the whole system. They are also not the food everyone else in the family eats at the mealtime, so the child would think she's missing on something. She will not be interested in the purees; she'll be interested in the contents of her mom's plate. It's true that a baby can eat more of pureed food, but that's totally unnecessary at this stage. Babies create a "bank" of all types of food their family members eat to form their own preferences later. Breast milk is still their main source of nutrients.
What kind of food to offer?
Use common sense. Your meals should be healthy and have a variety of products from all food categories. Of course, feeding babies with hot dogs, French fries or chips is not a good. Even if you eat pizza, which is generally not bad because it contains dairy, veggies, meat or alternatives and grains, do not eat it three times a day – find something different. It is a wonderful opportunity to change your eating habits and start eating healthy food – for the sake of your child and your own well-being.
Some important points.
- Pedagogical feeding work best of all if you are nursing naturally (on demand), and are not using pacifiers or bottles. This ensures that your baby enjoys full benefits of nursing.
- Babies learn to digest family food. They know the taste of it: they first learned it before they were born, from the amniotic fluid, then from the taste of their mom's milk. So they are ready to digest it.
- Never force feed and insist if your child does not want to take another bite: you want to keep him interested in the food. On the other hand, do not over feed him: the amount of food increases very slowly.
- To become interested in food your child needs to see what and how you eat. The main trick here is not to pay attention to the child and eat with good appetite. The children will imitate your behavior, so teach them early and teach them well!
- Do not allow your child to do whatever she wants in your plate. Give her bites of the food she reaches for. If she had enough, offer something else. If she is not interested anymore, take her away.
- Your food should be rich in nutrients: proteins and carbohydrates. Never offer junk food to the baby.
In a couple of months your baby will have tried all kinds of family food. At 9-11 months he will be ready to sit in his own chair and eat from his own plate. Help him to learn how to use a spoon: he wants to do it himself and would typically put food on the spoon and then take it to the mouth. Around this age babies start to drink water from a cup. Generally, when babies turn 18 months old, they start eating significant amounts of solid food. Most importantly, the baby is still being nursed: it is recommended that breast milk accounts for 70% of a baby's food at the age of 12 month, and that babies are nursed until they turn 24 months old.
Benefits of "pedagogical feeding".
It does not replace nursing times, it complements breast milk, which, in its turn, carries the information about the enzymes which are necessary to digest the food the baby is getting. A baby quickly learns to swallow and chew solid food. Your child participates in family meals and learners proper table manners. There's less potential of developing food allergies. It is easier to organize because there's no need to cook separate meals for a baby. It is a win-win situation for everyone!