A nutrition expert explains the many merits of baby-led feeding
Babies have very effective appetite monitors.
Nutrition expert and mum of two Vanessa Clarkson is a huge advocate for healthy eating and has recently launched her first book Real Food for
Babies & Toddlers. We asked her to share her best tips for feeding babies safely, with nourishing, delicious foods.
Q What are the benefits of baby-led feeding?
AWhile there are obvious benefits to babies feeding themselves, most notably in providing the opportunity to practise their motor skills, there are many other positives that are perhaps more subtle. Babies learn to like foods through a couple of routes – firstly, by being repeatedly offered foods so that they become familiar and, secondly, by observing what others around them are eating.
We know that there is an early window from around the six- to 12-month mark when babies are more open to exploring new tastes and textures, and by introducing real, whole, recognisable food from the get-go we are making the most of that important time. As such, if given the opportunity, babies are very quick to learn what a broccoli floret looks, smells and tastes like, which should translate into a liking for it.
Sharing one family meal has clear benefits from a practical point of view, but it is also reinforces to a learner eater what is safe and acceptable to eat, when they are watching you eat the same thing.
Finally, allowing babies to set their own pace at mealtimes enables them to retain control of what and how much they want to eat. Babies and young children have very effective appetite monitors that will ensure they eat enough to fuel their growth and development.
Q What age should you start your baby with self-feeding?
AI would encourage you to look for signs that your baby is ready to self-feed. These signs include the ability to sit upright comfortably, with little or no support, and being able to reach and grasp for food. Most babies will have developed these skills by around six months. Starting first foods before a baby can self-feed means that only purées can be offered from a spoon by a parent.
Q Does it matter if your baby doesn’t seem to be eating that much?
AIn the very early days of first foods it's unlikely your baby will manage to eat much. Their feeding skills need time to develop and their nutritional needs will mostly be met by breast milk. In time, and with ample opportunity to practise, they will start to eat more, but remember that making a mess is all part of the learning experience for little food explorers. I'd recommend being guided more by your baby's overall sense of wellbeing. Ask yourself whether they are growing and thriving in a broader sense.
Q What are some good foods to start off with?
AGood starter foods are those that are long, thin and relatively soft, often called finger foods. These enable a baby to easily hold one half and put the other half in their mouth. Even without teeth, most babies can effectively munch soft foods with their hard gums from around six months old. Ideas include soft fruit pieces such as banana, orange segments (no pips), very ripe peach or pear, sticks of cooked vegetables such as carrot or zucchini, slow-cooked strips of meat or poultry, strips of omelette or toast 'soldiers'.
Q What are some good options for older babies?
ABy 12 months their self-feeding skills will be well-honed and probably aided by some teeth. Older babies will also be relying more on their food than breast milk for nourishment. Continue to regularly offer a variety of wholesome family foods to keep up with their big appetites but small tummies. Three meals and two or three snacks is about right for this age.
Q What are some foods to avoid?
AUnless a baby has a diagnosed sensitivity to a food, there is very little restriction in what you can offer them. The most important thing to be mindful of is choking and ensuring that foods offered are age-appropriate. So, hard foods such as raw carrot or apple, or very small foods such as whole nuts that can get lodged in the throat should not be given. Babies under one year should also not be offered honey in any form because of the risk of botulism.
Q How can you prevent choking?
AProvided that the foods offered are age-appropriate, research shows that self-feeding babies are at no greater risk of choking than babies fed from a spoon. Gagging is a common response regardless of how a baby is fed, and learning to recognise the difference between gagging and choking is important. Paediatric first-aid courses are a good idea for parents.
You can minimise the risk of choking by offering food shapes and textures that your baby can manage. Be mindful that babies take longer to eat, so plan for mealtimes that are free from distraction and not rushed. A baby should not be slumped in their seat or too tired to focus on what they are doing.
VANESSA’S BOOK REAL FOOD FOR
BABIES & TODDLERS (MURDOCH BOOKS, $35) IS AVAILABLE FROM GOOD BOOKSTORES NOW.