I want to start by saying that I believe fed is best. Whether that is accomplished with breast milk or formula, I believe that we all do the best we can for our babies with the resources we have available to us and in the circumstances we face. This is simply the story of my experience feeding my one and only child and that experience has been breastfeeding and a baby led weaning introduction of solid food. If we have another child, I imagine that the experience will have some similarities but also be unique and different and personal to that child. I’m not a lactation consultant or a pediatric nutritionist, so I say again – this is simply the story of my experience. I did learn a few things though from lactation consultants and my extensive online research (wink wink), so I’ll put those little gems (wink wink again) in bold font in case anyone is interested in what I actually learned and not just anecdotal story.
Breastfeeding was not easy. For the first 6 to 8 weeks (it’s all a blur – I don’t remember exactly), I would start each nursing session with the goal of simply making it through that session. If there had been the slightest obstacle to me continuing to breastfeed, I don’t know that I would have persevered. The stars aligned though and really, I had the best situation possible. I never had a milk supply problem, I didn’t go back to work until Ava was three months old and even then, I only went to the office for four hour stretches, I pumped a bit to be offered to Ava in a bottle when I wasn’t with her (she was never very interested in a bottle), and really – I know I had it easy. But it was still hard. It was painful and it was emotional. But we made it work and at around four months, we really hit our stride and I started to enjoy breastfeeding. She got her first two teeth at six months old and then the second set at seven/eight months old. Between six months and nine or ten months, I would be really tense during each feeding session because I had felt the sharpness of those teeth and I did not care for it. I returned to the mindset of starting each session with the simple goal of making it through THAT session and that session alone. Ava was overall, in hindsight, not a biter, which I’m very thankful for, but the anticipation and uncertainty was nerve-wracking. At some point, I grew more comfortable and while my guard is never completely down, I guess I’ve just accepted the fact that she may bite (on purpose or unintentionally) and I’ll survive. As of now, Ava, at 15 months old, is down to three milk feedings a day and that is working well for us. She would probably nurse more if I offered – sometimes she tugs at my neck skin, which is her way of saying, “Hey Mama, is the milk shop open?” (she’ll also sometimes pull at Kevin’s neck and look down his shirt, which is pretty funny) but I have stuck with only feeding her milk three times a day for the past couple of weeks. My goal is to continue to nurse her around three times a day until she’s eighteen months (if she gets a cold, I’ll likely up the feeding count), then feel out if she seems ready to start weaning further. I imagine we’ll drop to two feedings a day and then one, so I anticipate that it’ll be a slow and steady process. I’m definitely ready to not feel like a milk cow, but I know I’ll miss the quiet moments that we share. The thought of weaning is bittersweet, for sure.
As I mentioned, I was lucky and never had a supply problem. If anything, I had oversupply, especially if she went more than six hours between feedings. I’d use a hand pump when I first woke up to slow the flow a little bit because otherwise she would sputter and choke a bit. I know that sometimes there are health issues and supply simply isn’t there, no matter what. I found that drinking a lot of water (80 ounces a day), eating a balanced diet, and offering milk often was key in establishing and maintaining a good supply. I used this lactation cookie recipe, which may or may not do anything to help but they’re delicious and any excuse to eat cookies, amiright? Provided there are no underlying issues, it is truly a supply and demand system. The more the baby is offered the breast and the more the baby consumes, the more is produced. I pumped around once a day from the time Ava was about three months old until she was around six months old (I think – I don’t remember for sure) and built up a little supply of frozen milk for her to drink when I was away from her. I hated pumping and didn’t get much from a pumping session so it felt kind of pointless. If you pump and don’t get much, don’t worry about how much the baby is consuming, provided the appropriate number of diapers are being change and weight gain is on the curve (even a low curve – Ava was in the 3rd-5th percentile for the first 9 months or so, but she was gaining steady and staying on that curve, so there was no need for concern.) A baby is always going to get more milk than a pump! Always. That’s how our bodies are made. If we have another child and our lifestyle remains the same in terms of when I go back to work and how often I’m in the office, I anticipate that I won’t pump and we’ll have formula on hand for when I’m not there to feed the baby (provided I am able to/decide to breastfeed in the first place!). But who knows – why make that plan before it needs to be made?
We got the go-ahead from our pediatrician to offer cereal at four months, but I was intrigued by the idea of baby led weaning. After reading Baby Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods-and Helping Your Baby Grow Up a Happy and Confident Eater and talking to Kevin about what it entails, we decided to go that route. Official baby led weaning means that the baby is only offered breastmilk or formula until they are at least six months old and even then they need to meet other criteria like being able to sit up unsupported, have lost the tongue thrust reflex, and be able to grasp and hold on to food. The book talks about how a baby’s digestive system isn’t fully developed at four months old. I am no doctor and know nothing about the development of a baby’s digestive system, but I genuinely believe that it does not hurt to let their little systems develop without the introduction of solid food (even something as mild as rice cereal) in the first six months.
When Ava was six months old, she met the above criteria, so we started introducing solid food to her at that point. We started slow, but basically gave her whatever we were eating. Ava loved food from the beginning. She loves flavor, including a bit of spice, and she’s been very good about trying things. It was really, really cute to watch her discover different flavors and such a relief to skip right over the puree stage. If baby led weaning is something that interests you, I highly recommend the aforementioned book. A few things that stood out to me as I read it are as follows:
- An advantage of baby led weaning is that a baby learns to chew early. With purees, the baby can continue to suck, like they do from a bottle or breast, and they do not learn to chew. When solid chunks of food are eventually introduced, the baby has a tendency to suck rather than chew because they are accustomed to sucking. This can lead to choking.
- Speaking of choking, there is a difference between gagging and choking. A baby’s gag reflex is much, much further forward in their mouth than an adult’s gag reflex. It is triggered very easily! This is a defense mechanism because it forces forward anything that has triggered the reflex before the item moves further back and gets lodged in a baby’s throat. The baby learns early on how easy it is for their gag reflex to be triggered and how to control the amount of food they put in their mouth because they, by instinct, want to avoid triggering the reflex. Baby led weaning can include A LOT of gagging. The baby is learning about that gag reflex and because it is so far forward, it doesn’t take much to trigger it! The gagging part of baby led weaning is scary. It is so hard to sit idle and watch a baby gag. But it is really, really important that the baby is allowed the opportunity to let the reflex push the food forward and that they work it out for themselves. Adult intervention can cause the food to move backwards and get lodged in the throat, which can lead to choking. If the baby is turning blue and not breathing, follow the steps of infant first aid/CPR, obviously! But if they are gagging, let them be. This was by far the scariest and hardest part of baby led weaning to me. And Ava wasn’t a frequent gagger at all, so we were lucky. But it’s still nerve-wracking.
- Baby led weaning allows a baby to eat at their own pace. They have control over what goes into their mouths and the quantity. If they try something and don’t like it, they can spit it out and not try it again during that meal; the food can be offered to them repeatedly but it isn’t forced on them. (Recently we have repeatedly offered vegetables, and Ava has repeatedly refused them and that’s okay. We’ll keep offering and eventually she’ll come around to them.) Eating is enjoyable to them because they’re in control and they’re part of the family gathering at the table. There aren’t any tricks like zooming the airplane (spoon) into their mouth to get them to take another bite of something they don’t really want. They follow their own instincts and also learn by example. They won’t forever be eating with their fingers as long as they are given the opportunity to use utensils, because ultimately, they want to do what mom and dad and older siblings are doing. Mom and dad can focus more on their meal because the baby is picking up their own food and bringing it to their own mouth, versus mom or dad wielding the spoon.
- A baby learns to recognize when they are full which can help them develop healthy eating habits as a child and later as an adult. Rather than meeting a “quota” amount of jarred pureed food, the baby follows its own instincts, eats at its own pace, and stops eating when he or she is full. Healthy eating habits are established as young as infanthood, and can help prevent obesity later in life.
I haven’t read the book in around a year and I know I’m not mentioning so many perks, so again, read the book if you’re interested in learning more! The biggest con is the mess, but really, isn’t feeding a baby and/or toddler messy regardless of how the food is delivered to them? I reiterate what I said above – we all make the decisions that we feel are best for our child so if that means cereal at four months for you and your baby, you do that, mama (or dad!)! Baby led weaning was simply the option we chose for introducing solids to Ava and we have been very, very happy with how it worked for our family.
How did you introduce solids to your kids? What did you like or not like about the process?