Weaning: Quality or Quantity

People have been weaning their babies since time immemorial and yet in the baby world this seems to be one of the topics with the largest degree of misinformation and confusion around it (I still think breastfeeding holds the top spot on topic with the most misinformation).
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I was fully intending to wait to start the weaning journey until Elphie became six months adjusted to her expected due date so that her gut would have developed to the same extent as a full term baby’s would have. But a Health Visitor gave me pause for thought when she said that their guidance is to only wait until six months unadjusted, however premature your baby. This seemed a bit bizarre to me because surely their guts wouldn’t miraculously have become ready for food just because they have been on the outside for longer, so I thought I would do some digging.

And blow me down with a feather, her advice was at least partially backed up by BLISS, the charity for babies born too soon, too small, too sick, which recommends weaning premature babies between five and eight months unadjusted. It is not totally clear from BLISS why the guidance is five to eight months unadjusted, but the Leicestershire Nutrition and Dietetic service shed some light on that, stating:

“The government guidelines recommend that healthy term infants should not be weaned before 6 months of age. Premature babies are not included in this guideline as they have usually missed out on some of the normal nourishment that occurs in the womb during the last trimester of pregnancy. Some preterm babies need extra nourishment to help them ‘catch-up’. Some preterm babies may also take a little longer than term babies, to establish onto solid food.”

The minefield that is vitamin and iron supplementation, especially for a premature baby, best be left for another post as the gold standard of confusing advice, but given the above I thought “What the heck, let’s start her at Christmas”.

I was planning to go down the baby-led weaning route anyway (as described in Cath’s previous post on weaning) which gives total control to the baby on what food if any they eat (from the selection you have parentally controlled for them). So starting to do it a bit early from an adjusted standpoint didn’t seem to be the end of the world as in theory if she wasn’t ready she wouldn’t try and eat anything, so where was the harm?

So on Christmas Day, Elphie feasted on avocado and satsuma (from Father Christmas) alongside roasted carrot and parsnip and even some turkey!
And by feasted, I mean she attempted to pick things up, licked them, and often triumphantly threw them to the floor (or actually the shower curtain repurposed to allow food to be retrieved and re-offered).

Going the Baby-led Weaning (BLW) route made a lot of sense to me – I didn’t see the point in spending my life pureeing stuff and shovelling it into Elphie when instead I could present 3-4 pieces of the food we were eating (plus extras) in shapes she could grab and she could experience how food felt to touch, what its texture was like and how it tasted all by herself. In fact a key part of BLW is that Elphie should join in our mealtimes, sit up at the table and we should continue as normal without overly focussing on her. The theoretical benefits of it made a lot of sense:

  • she should be less fussy about her food as she’s been introduced to a wider range of tastes and textures from an early age;
  • by choosing how much she eats herself she should learn to regulate her own appetite;
  • by starting on normal food, she should be less likely to choke because she has learnt how to eat food and has done so when her gag reflex is much further forward in her mouth than it would be later;
  • it helps develop motor skills and hand-eye co-ordination.
  • So far it has been a lot of fun watching Elphie experiment with food. She likes avocado but finds it a tricky minx to pick up. Her favourite foods are sweet potato, mini corns and beef – perhaps helped by her introduction to beef being an amazing steak in New York. Spoons are her favourite thing to have food on, but also cause the most mess. I have found that feeding her yoghurt is best done with the spoon laid on the table towards her and upside down if there is any hope of it being transferred anywhere near her mouth (a lot still fails to make it).

    When you think about it, eating is a tricky skill to master. First of all you need to pick up the food – some foods make this easier than others (I am looking at you Mr Avocado). Second, get it to your mouth without it falling out of your hand or you realising that your fist is entirely enveloping the food and you can’t get anything in your mouth (or it’s sticking out of the bottom of your fist – doubly annoying!). Third that you need to bite of a bit and that that bit should be quite small (Elphie is often biting off more than she can chew). Fourth that you need to move it to the side of your mouth, and fifth, learn to chew it up into smaller pieces. Finally move it to the back of your mouth and swallow it. All of the above needs to be achieved without your pesky tongue with its overactive gagging feature getting hold of it like an annoying baddie in a console game and pushing it back out of your mouth. Surprisingly complex, which is why it has taken almost two months to see evidence that Elphie is eating some of what is offered and it’s not just all ending up smeared into the table or on the floor.

    There is no pressure for solid food to take the place of breastmilk as Elphie’s primary source of food until she is over a year old; indeed it is only expected that from nine months there might be a drop off in the milk feeds requested. So for now, if it seems like five bites of food have actually run the gauntlet and seem to have been ingested, then that is a triumphant meal – but if it’s any less or more, I am not going to stress about it, she’ll get there in the end.

    It is an approach you need to keep the faith with though. As those providing purees are managing to get whole bowls of food into their babies and providing three meals a day and snacks; while you are managing a few mouthfuls a meal and the idea of your baby needing snacks that aren’t boobysnacks seems bizarre, then it’s easy to lose the faith and worry you aren’t getting your baby the extra nutrients he or she needs. As an approach it puts a lot of trust in the assumptions that your baby will take what he or she needs when he or she needs it. And maybe it’s the right approach to take, maybe it’s wrong, in parenting you have to make choices and just hope they are the right ones.
    But so far, I think it’s been going fabulously and I’m happy with the choice. Given both her parents like their food, I am pretty certain that Elphie is going to follow in our footsteps!

    But if your do head down this path with its myriad of purported benefits, then be warned, the mess generated by one baby and a few bits of food is truly something else!
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