Yes, Your Baby Can Feed Himself

Our two children, Havalah and Micah, are considered big eaters. They both eat a lot and enjoy a wide variety of food. Both teachers as well as other parents at CCNS have remarked on how much they enjoy their food and how willing they are to taste new things. As a result, Miss Stephanie asked us to write about the role of food in our family and how our kids learned to eat so well.

We spent Havalah’s first year in Scotland. At that time, many parents in Britain were trying out a “new” method of introducing children to solid food in which the baby would “self-feed.” This method was popularized by a book, Baby Led Weaning by children’s nurse/midwife Gill Rapley. In Britain, the word “weaning” means to introduce a baby to non-milk foods. It doesn’t have the meaning we use in the states, stopping breast feeding.

The idea behind baby-self feeding is simple. As parents know, at around six months, babies start to put all sorts of things in their mouths. At this time, so long as they are healthy and interested, they can start feeding themselves (or at least put food in their mouth and taste with highly sensitive taste-buds). It helps if the food is cut into stick shapes, about the size of a French fry, so that the baby can grasp half in their hand and eat the half that sticks out. Most foods are great for babies: Havalah’s first food was sticks of parsnip, and she loved carrots and apples sautéed in butter, as well a cheese sandwiches cut in finger shapes Micah tried out all sorts of vegetable.

Here is a picture of him sucking on a beet-green stalk. (I do look at the picture and ask, why didn’t I put a bib on?). He wouldn’t actually eat, them, but he would suck and chew until the beet turned grey (grabbing all the nutrients)!

Both kids loved dipping sticks of toast or broken rice-cakes in yogurt or thick pureed soup. They happily gnawed on chicken legs or pork chops, gumming the meat, while holding on to the bone. And, if they didn’t want to eat on a given day, it wasn’t a big deal since they were still getting lots of nutrition from nursing. As the guidelines suggested, we did avoid salt, choking hazards, and potential allergies like peanuts (peanut allergies run in our family).

Self-feeding reverses the order in which babies learn food skills. They practice chewing first, swallowing second. During the first months, Havalah and Micah mostly explored the foods in front of them. They learned how to move it around their mouths. If the food went too far back, they would gag and eventually spit it out. When educating ourselves about baby-self feeding, we’d learned that babies would gag and by gagging regain control of the food in their mouths, usually spitting it out and then trying again. It was tense to watch this happen, but also amazing, because I could see them learning to control the food in their mouths and they always got it out! At around 9 months, both Havalah and Micah really started eating their food, rather than just sampling it.

With the traditional method of starting with purees, babies learn swallowing first, and then chewing second. There can be two issues when introduced to non-pureed foods, they might refuse to eat it, because of the lumps and bumps, or gag because they are swallowing, not chewing. Also by one year, the gag reflex has moved farther back in the throat, so if food gets all the way back there, it is a more serious choking hazard.

The process was messy! We’d sometimes spread a table cloth on the floor to catch spills and we’d have to wipe down baby and chair after each meal! On the other hand, by about a year, both kids became really good at feeding themselves and the mess decreased dramatically!

Baby-self feeding worked really well for our family. I loved that:

  • The kids mostly ate what we ate and when we ate! I didn’t have to fit feeding my baby between preparing and eating my own dinner;
  • They enjoyed the social time of eating together;
  • They developed great hand-eye coordination and they tried out forks and spoons from early on
  • It was cheaper and more environmentally friendly than buying packaged purees from the store and less time consuming then making purees myself;
  • There weren’t food struggles. We’d put a variety of food on their trays and they could choose what they tried and what they didn’t. Micah “explored” oatmeal for three months, not swallowing any of it, and then suddenly started devouring it!
  • It was easy to eat out in restaurants and just give our babies pieces from our own meals;
  • They learned to try and like lots of foods.

All parents need to figure out what baby-feeding techniques work best for them. But if this peaks your interest about baby-self feeding, I’d recommend reading Gill Rapley’s Baby Led Weaning. There’s a copy in the Salt Lake City Library system, and it runs less than $10 on Amazon. Also, searching the internet under “Baby Led Weaning” produces lots of resources and blogs, as well as cute pictures of babies learning about food!

(Note: My husband Bret was really interested on studies of this approach and looked up a number of scientific studies. If you are interested, do ask us)

Baby led-Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods – and Helping Your Baby to Grow Up a Happy and Confident Eater
Amazon (link)