baby led weaning

Baby Led Weaning

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The What, How and Why of Baby Led Weaning to get you started and save you money.

Update: This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for over a year. My son is no longer a toddler and we weaned over a year and a half ago. I want to get this post up and finished before he’s a teen!

Babies are incredibly expensive, right?  Diapers, baby food, all kinds of stuff.

I have a toddler.  I know our spending has went up, but really, I don’t think babies HAVE to be expensive.  I’m also not able to say much more than “think” because I didn’t actually track our spending.  But aside from diapering supplies, I really don’t think we’ve increased our spending that much.

What is baby led weaning?

There are whole blogs and websites devoted to baby led weaning.  But basically, at an age greater than six months old, you begin introducing food to your baby, but not necessarily as any significant source of nutrition.  You follow their lead from there.

As the name would imply, you follow the babies cues as to what they are ready to take and what their interest in food is. A favorite motto is:

Food before 1 is just for fun!

It seems that many baby led weaning followers are also breastfeeding, and though for MANY reasons I think breastfeeding is the preferred option if you are able, and also significantly less expensive (granted, there are opportunity costs).  Perhaps I’ll address what I weighed in my decision to breastfeed (I was at the time of writing this, we weaned just shy of 2.5 years old) at another time.

I mention this because, though many are who do baby led weaning are breast feeders, the same principles would apply to formula feeders.

My parenting/healthy kids philosophy:

Everyone has different opinions on these things.  Naturally, I’m going to think that my opinion is a pretty good one.  BUT all this is my personal take.  I’m not an expert.  I am medically educated and did PLENTY of research before settling on any method of baby raising.

Ultimately, most of my parenting journey has involved things that seem easiest on us as a family and keep everyone happy.  I fully believe we should trust our parental intuition as raising healthy offspring to make the next generation is basically the only reason we exist.  A pretty “natural” parenting philosophy that involves just letting things evolve and come about organically.  We’re programmed to do this shit! Don’t over think it!

Why wait to introduce solids?

So, after the “disclaimer” above, I’ll now say, I think we are entirely preoccupied with forcing babies to start eating food.  It’s stressful.  IT’S EXPENSIVE.  And IT’S UNNECESSARY before six months of age.

I could get into ALL KINDS of data on gut health, future health and epigenetics (how environment changes ones genes).  That would make this blog post a book.  So let’s just say, I really think in the scheme of things it’s healthier to wait to give babies food (and HEALTH IS MONEY, so that’s a frugal thought too).

But mostly it’s just flat out expensive.  The baby food market is a racket and even the “good” healthy organic foods are mostly just crap, so, why bother?!

Caveat, some of the actual cost issues I bring up are probably null and void if you’re a formula feeder (because that stuff is pricey!).  I get that.  It doesn’t make the other points invalid though.

When should baby start getting solids?

Ok, so you’ve bought in at this point that feeding rice gruel and basically pure sugar via applesauce (+/- kale in applesauce) isn’t getting you or your baby any further in life.  So when do you start giving solids?

Usually around 6 months.  Some babies will be ready a little earlier, some a little later, these are the things they tell you to look out for (borrowed/adapted from

  • Good head control. …
  • Sitting well when supported. …
  • Gaining weight. …
  • Interest in food and watching others eating.
  • Ability to let you know when full. …
  • Growing appetite. …
  • Understand the dynamics of their mouth, lips and tongue. …
  • Loss of the tongue-thrust reflex.

Tongue-thrust reflex?  What’s that?  It’s that thing where when you give a baby a glob of mush on a spoon they immediately force it out with their tongue.  My un-expert take on the tongue-thrust reflex: baby anatomy screaming at you “I’m not ready for anything other than MILK!”  Don’t fight the baby! Their body knows!  Did you see that thing come crawling up mom’s chest straight out of the womb and inching towards a nipple like some kind of blind kangaroo?  It’s got instincts!

Now that you’ve started solids:

It’s pretty dang easy.  They eat what you eat (assuming you have a relatively healthy diet here)

Actually, let me back up for a second.  If you DON’T already have a healthy diet, following this weaning approach could be what gets you on track.  And you’re setting the whole family up for better eating habits moving forward.  Score double here!

You typically are going to start with “hand sized” as in, baby can grasp with their whole hand (since grip and finger control are still in early development).  Or also think of sizes as an adult sized finger or so.

You try:

  • Whole ripe fruits (or big slices) like pear, plums and melons
  • Softened via cooking/microwave things like apple slices
  • Things like carrots, green beans, squashes, and root vegetables cooked soft
  • Avocado, bananas etc.

You can see you will typically start with fruits and vegetables.  At the time we started this my family was vegetarian so we didn’t have the question of meats, but you can give meats in the forms of large meatballs or cut meat into graspable strips.  Chewing and gnawing on this will give some nutritional content!

If you remember that slogan from up top “food before one is just for fun” then you’re less worried about what they are or are not eating and what nutritional benefit baby is getting out of this.

Just keep following your baby’s lead!

Take the traditional model of feeding a baby vs this baby led weaning:

Traditional Baby Feeding

You sit down with baby at a different time or aside from your normal mealtime to force feed them something out of a jar (or something you pureed yourself into an indiscernible tasteless mash with expensive or unnecessary equipment).  Baby spits 3/4 of it out and you keep trying to shovel the food in, making a huge mess.  You’re upset that baby wasted another $2 jar of organic baby food (which was mostly applesauce or sweet potato based anyway, with little to no fat or protein, basically, pure carbs).

Problems: You’re separated from the rest of the family in an activity just for baby.  Baby doesn’t necessarily learn to eat with the family.  If you are me, you’re going to do your best to make sure that baby eats all of that food that your purchased especially for them.  Because baby still has the tongue-thrust reflex and spits everything out, you really don’t know if they were hungry or when they are done, you just keep pushing in the food.

Again, plenty of posts could be written on this topic, but from a health perspective, I think it is incredibly important to begin building healthy eating habits early.  I don’t want the bulk of my child’s early calories coming from simple carbs and sugars.  I also don’t want them to get in the habit of eating when they aren’t hungry.  You can easily overfeed a baby since you keep spooning the food in.  They might keep eating it, but are they hungry still?  Diabetes and metabolic syndromes are epidemic the in US. Can’t we start our kids out right?

Baby learns to over-ride the protective tongue-thrust reflex that keeps them from swallowing solid objects, increasing your risk of choking when you finally start “real” solids.

Baby-Led Weaning

After giving baby breast or bottle (we feed them first so they get the good calories they need), you sit down with the family at dinner.  Baby gets chunks of whatever UNSALTED, HEALTHY, REAL FOOD is on the menu tonight in big chunks.  The parent gets to enjoy dinner with the family while baby plays with and explores foods, tastes and textures mostly on their own.  You do not use spoons or forks.

You cook one meal for everyone and baby learns early on that what’s on the menu is what’s on the menu, and you eat when you’re hungry, and you don’t eat if you’re not.  Family is thinking of health of little one and cooks a relatively healthy meal for everyone to share.  You didn’t waste money on special foods that might be wasted (and you will be annoyed were wasted).

Yes baby makes a mess.  But their are tons of developmental activities going on in picking things up and exploring.

Yes baby gags a lot.  That’s a good thing!  They’re learning how to keep from choking!  All parents should have CPR training and know what to do if their baby or kids choke, and the gagging can look pretty dang dramatic and alarming.  Dramatic as it looked, my toddler hasn’t choked once.

Eavesdropping inspired this post.

I was at a baby playgroup and heard a mom talking to another mom about baby food.  She was incredibly excited that her baby “loved vegetables” because baby preferred the kale-applesauce.  I really have to bite my tongue in these situations because I’m so passionate about trying to bring up the healthiest babies we can. 

Further, I know this is a family with multiple babies is on a limited income (yes, I KNOW this from the conversations).  I’m going to guess that maybe the baby food buying is being subsidized by WIC. This is a fair assessment for the county I live in. My thoughts on the subsidization of subpar foods could be yet another blog topic.  Maybe she is spending money that could she doesn’t have to on jars of baby food.  They are doing what they think to be best based, and it’s hard to fault someone for that.

I was glad to hear that mom is trying to do right by the baby and is giving the Kale applesauce.  But the amount of misinformation and or lack of understanding is so high.  Coupled with family knowledge on how we’ve been doing things for the last 100 years or so… we’ve lost sight of our instincts!

Now, A Short Baby Food History Lesson

How did our species survive before the advent of Gerber rice cereal and jars of baby food?

I’m gonna give you my take on this too.

In the twenties Harold Clapp came out with Clapp’s Baby Food.  Shortly thereafter what we know now as Gerber and Beech Nut came into the market. 

Baby food was probably marketed as healthier and fit for the busier lifestyles of mothers as more women entered the workforce.

Baby wed weaning? Nah, we’ve got better living through science!

If it’s “healthier,” it must be better

For hundreds of years having a suntan was a sign that you were a poor laborer. Then, the 20th century rolled up. Suddenly, a suntan signaled you had the time and money to lead a life of leisure.

Like suntanning, if you could afford baby food became a way to measure affluence. This was also the time of modern science and innovations taking off to increase the health of humanity.  We had flash frozen foods coming out in a few decades.  Science must be better than nature!

Baby food was also coming about in the era of infant formula development.  The first widely marketed formulas came in the 19-teens and twenties (vs. powdered milks). It’s logical that if formula is good, you would transition to a “specially packaged for baby” whole food as the next step as well.

By the 1950’s commercial formula such as Similac were very popular. Breastfeeding became seen as something that poor and uneducated people do.  Reasons for this include heavy marketing about improved health “through science” even from pediatricians.  Plenty of free samples helped the situation as well.

Breastfeeding is regaining popularity

Arguments rage on message boards about who’s right and what is better.  Because we’re a society where right and wrong must be black and white. “ThEre MuSt Be OnE rIgHt AnSwEr!!” we argue instead of recognizing how there are many pieces to this puzzle.

I think it’s important for people to have an understanding of why we were motivated to do the things we do and how money, marketing and industries had a huge effect.

Sadly, this is a controversial opinion, but, I am confident that as more research comes out, there will come a time when no one will be able to say that feeding formula is just as good as breastfeeding.  It may take 50 years until we can get a better handle on the epigenetics related to breastfeeding.  We are also going to have to get for a better picture of the gut microbiome and it’s role in health, and how breastfeeding plays a role in its development.

When all of this comes about, hopefully our societies respect for the act of breastfeeding will make it easier on mothers to to do it.  Hopefully we will not need to be having arguments pitting parent against parent based on choices they have made that are complex, relating to finances, subsidies, work and also lack of unbiased, research based information.

I understand that for a mother who has to go back to work and send a child to daycare, formula is often a must.  We are supposed to have laws protecting our right to pump milk. Sadly, even in my medical profession of pharmacy, putting that in to practice is a totally different story.  Many may not be able to exercise those rights and keep their job.  So formula feed orlose control of the home finances and the ability to support the family?  There’s an obvious answer there.

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Regina is That Frugal Pharmacist. She’s a PharmD, mother to a son with cancer, breadwinning wife, personal finance enthusiast, artist, writer, and entrepreneur. Regina’s single-income household has been debt-free, including her home, since she was 28 years old.
Her money approach is “holistic financial health.” She encourages mindful spending, awareness of the non-monetary costs of choices, and aligning personal values with money habits. Regina sees a frugal lifestyle and mindset as an important part of environmental stewardship. As such she’s interested in ongoing efforts towards self-sufficiency and sustainability.

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