Why aren’t more babies allowed to self-wean?

Registering for a first baby shower is overwhelming. It gives me anxiety to even revisit the experience. The never-ending list of suggested items printed in size 4 font on powder blue paper. Towers of binkys, blankets, booties, bloomers, bottles, breast pumps, breast pads, breast shields, boppys, bumpers, blenders, bibs, bouncers loom over tightly packed clothing racks with the most stinking adorable, tiniest outfits you’ve ever seen. Glaring fluorescent lights, shiny tiled floors, and sickeningly sweet customer service.

Like so many first time parents, my husband and I registered for everything we didn’t need– including the Baby Magic Bullet.

Several months after our shower, a plume of dust mushroomed from the had-to-have-it baby food blender as I pulled it from storage. I blended fresh produce and excitedly offered my six month old ice cube sized portions.

Eye brows raised, Willow unenthusiastically poked the puree.

I took the hint. The Magic Bullet was destined to collect dust.

Willow devours an artichoke.
Willow devours an artichoke.

Enter Baby-Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Food by internationally recognized Baby-led Weaning (BLW) pioneer Gill Rapley and co-author Tracey Murkett.

Willow was no longer disgusted by pulverized produce with Gill and Tracey as our guides. Instead, she experimented with new textures and flavors and enjoyed mealtime as you and I might.

Recently, I was lucky enough to speak with Gill again for Our Milky Way. She’ll be presenting on BLW at Healthy Children Project’s upcoming International Conference where she’s looking forward to reuniting with old friends, meeting new ones, and recharging her batteries.

At one point while Gill and I spoke, she wondered how weaning was going with Iris, my youngest daughter. Silence. I couldn’t think of anything that stood out about Iris eating solid foods. I began to panic. What a horrible mother I was for completely forgetting this important milestone.

Wait a minute! I announced. We actually got BLW right this time around!

Iris enjoys beets from the farmers market.
Iris enjoys beets from the farmers market.

There was nothing significant about weaning Iris, because she simply integrated into our mealtimes at her own pace. We didn’t have to do anything but allow her to be with us. Iris took control and we respected her competency.

Gill calls this “recognizing baby’s right to autonomy.” She says that BLW encourages autonomy and out of that will come true independence. This seems to be the way it goes with experienced parents; BLW sometimes happens without recognition.

In our culture, there is a strangeness about wanting to control our children and do their feeding to them and at the same time wanting them to act independently, Gill goes on. BLW helps us focus on babies’ innate abilities.

Gill and Tracey explore the idea of independence further in their newest release Baby-led Parenting: The easy way to nurture, understand and connect with your baby.

In fact, all of the Baby-Led books have this overarching theme of respect for our children’s autonomy.

And with respect, comes ease. Parenting is simplified, and who doesn’t want that?

So, I wonder: If BLW simplifies, why aren’t more babies given the opportunity to experience food at their own discretion?

Speaking with Gill put a lot into perspective. BLW has two big things working against it– inconsistencies in messaging to parents and our irrational fear of relinquishing control.

Inconsistencies in messaging makes weaning frustrating and confusing. Parents hear various infant feeding recommendations from health care provider to health care provider, family members, friends, and the media.

Gill tells me this is nothing new.

“Until we had any decent research, everything was at the whim of your particular doctor,” she says. “It’s like before we had standardized infant formula; doctors had their own recipes and it was guesswork, frankly. So they did the same with solid feeding.”

Evidence shows that six months is the ideal time to introduce solid food to most babies, but practitioners, health visitors, lactation [professionals] decide arbitrarily if they agree with the current recommendations, Gill continues.

With BLW, we don’t need to be given an age. Babies who are developmentally ready, will show interest in solid food. Physically, they will be capable of picking up the food, directing it into their mouths, chewing and swallowing.

Rather than apply a specific age to all babies, we could simply put food in front of our babies from birth on and when baby is ready to eat, he will eat, Gill suggests.

“Not all babies are going to be ready at the same time. Maybe that’s the root of the inconsistencies,” she wonders. (Just a reminder from your friends at Healthy Children, the recommendation of international and national health authorities is to introduce solid foods at around 6 months of age.)

This holds true with my children. Willow consumed more food at an earlier age than Iris.

Even so, both of them have what I would consider sophisticated palates. They devour steak and pork chops. In my experience, I’ve found that most young children dislike meat. Although anecdotal, I wonder if it’s because most kids are introduced to it in puree form. Nasty.

Willow and Iris love beets. They enjoy broccoli and hummus, Indian curry, radishes, persimmons, artichokes and of course, chocolate. Tonight they ate anchovy filets, olives, and tomatoes for dinner.

To reiterate, Gill says that when we honor baby’s right to autonomy, true independence can be achieved. If we as parents and caregivers can’t relinquish control and allow baby to manage what he eats, will he ever?

Our compulsion to control starts early on. We obsess over ounces of breast milk pumped and ounces of milk consumed, no matter how baby is fed. We’ve lost so much trust for how our bodies and our babies’ bodies were designed to work.

We’ve tricked ourselves into thinking that our babies are incapable of something as simple and ubiquitous as eating.

Willow and Iris share an apple.
Willow and Iris share an apple.

You’ve surely seen the mesh contraptions, fresh food feeders, teething feeders, silicone baby food feeders (I’m not making this stuff up) to aid young children in consuming food.

“They are so far away from the way I eat my meals,” Gill comments.

Not to mention that most of these products are promoted for babies four months plus. Again, parents are hit with inconsistencies in messaging.

Gill points out that the law for marketing these products in the U.K. and the U.S. in particular doesn’t match the official recommendations on infant feeding.

In a flurry of unreliable information, babies granted the opportunity to self-wean become poster children for what works.

Gill tells me the story of a mother grossly criticized by her mother-in-law and friends for BLW. When her baby was about nine months old, they went on a picnic with her friends and their babies. As the other mothers attempted to spoon dripping gobs of puree into moving targets, the nine month old handled pizza and sandwiches with ease.

“How did you do that?!” the mothers gasped.

The BLW mother straightened her shoulders, smiled and replied, “I didn’t do what you folks are doing.”

Learn more about the fuss-free way to introduce solids at www.rapleyweaning.com/

Meet Gill in person at the International Breastfeeding Conference. Register here.

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