(This article was originally posted on at http://mammainpearls.com/weaning-your-baby/ on 03.04.17)
Very often when it’s time to take the exciting leap to the weaning stage, our focus is so much on the present that we forget to think about the longer-term eating outcomes we’d like our children to develop.
But with the number of people diagnosed with both eating disorders and obesity still steadily on the rise, these considerations are more important than ever.
I strongly believe that we need to be thinking about these aspects right from the start; teaching our children how to listen to their internal hunger and satiation cues and fully respecting their autonomy over their bodies.
So, here are four very important things to know and consider before you take steps to wean your baby:
1. Your baby will tell you when he’s ready for solids (not the other way around)
This is particularly hard when it’s your first baby and you are excited to get started. You have well-meaning advice hitting you from every direction, and plus ‘all’ your baby’s peers are allegedly gobbling down pizza and tofu stir-fry by the plateful. But just as every baby hits every other developmental milestone at very varying ages, starting solids is no different. Whatever you may have read (particularly from baby food manufacturers and the media), there is no nutritional benefit to ‘real’ food over milk, and no generic ‘critical’ age when a baby must start eating.
So how do you know if they are ready for solids?
They will reach out and grab food off your plate, they will cry when you eat something and don’t share it with them, they will gum said food intently, they will cry when you take it away, they will open their mouth in anticipation if they see a spoon passing nearby. Trust me, you will know.
If he’s not showing these signs, attempting to wean too early for your baby will start you on the slippery slope of coercing him to eat when he doesn’t need to, and lead to power struggles and an early negative association with mealtimes.
2. There is no proven relationship between eating solids and sleeping longer
How many one year olds have you heard about who still wake several times in the night? And two-year olds? And three-year olds? And even 4-year-old too? Yes, I definitely know lots of all ages!
Is this because they’ve not been fed properly and are waking up hungry? Very, very rarely. Conversely, it is also the case that some exclusively breast-fed babies do sleep through the night from a very young age. Yup, sorry to break this to you, but children are all unique and lots of things impact sleeping.
It is entirely normal for many children under the age of 5 to wake up (briefly or otherwise) several times in the night- it’s thought possibly to be a survival instinct to check they are still being cared for. Although I get that solid food = more sleep makes intuitive sense on some level, there is absolutely no science behind it.
And unfortunately, all this sleep myth does is way too easily lead to justifying premature ‘force’ feeding of a baby who is not quite ready to eat or who is not hungry or needing to eat much (see number 3).
3. Coercing your baby to eat is not necessary or helpful
Of course I don’t/wouldn’t force my baby to eat I hear you say, that sounds cruel and mean and I love my baby!
I know you do, but it’s amazing how easy it is to do things in the ‘name’ of love. Very often we think we know best and forget that our baby arrives in the world with the instinct to know exactly what they need to eat to fulfil the precise requirements of their body. So, if they are refusing to eat something, this means they do not want or need it. End of story.
Except it’s not, because very often our own fears and (usually groundless) expectations get in the way and block us from trusting this. For example, our preconceived ideas about what baby ‘should’ be eating at this age, worries about where he is on the growth chart, worries that he will become malnourished if he doesn’t eat a particular nutrient or food group, to name a few.
And I’m not suggesting there are many parents who are so anxious that they literally hold their child down and push food down their throats (although it most definitely has been known). But anything that becomes a regular way of ‘getting’ our children to eat such that they are distracted from listening to their body counts as using coercion in my book.
Sadly, as a culture we have moved so far away from our ability to listen to our inner wisdom that we rarely consider that our ‘tricks’ to entice our offspring to eat are anything but ‘normal’. Watching the TV, here comes the aeroplane-type games, silly songs, ‘hiding’ food, shouting, bribing, bargaining and pleading are all frequently part of a standard dinner time parental repertoire.
That’s not to say that EVER doing any of these things is terrible and will ruin your child for life. But, if you find you are resorting to these things on a regular basis as the only way to get your child to eat, then I do urge you to consider what you are teaching your child in the long-term.
4. They do not need to eat from every food group at every mealtime
Or even every day. Seriously, let’s stop over-complicating things.
The dubious and continually-changing research results that claim to tell us exactly how much of each particular food group or nutrient we ‘should’ be feeding our kids each day make me mad. They result in a series of requirements that are confusing, overwhelming, guilt-inducing and frankly just plain unnecessary.
Yes, of course, fish fingers and chips every day is not balanced or healthy, we all know that. And it is definitely desirable to offer from different food groups and offer as much variety and whole foods as we can. But just offer and just as much as we can. Our children will do the rest.
Studies analysing baby led weaned children found that over the course of a few weeks, they independently chose the foods containing the perfect balance of nutrients they needed. Again, it very often comes down to us getting out of our baby’s way and learning to trust them, they are so much clever than we often give them credit for!