Why baby knows best when it comes to food

Spoon-feeding purée to our children is unnatural - and it could even make them ill in the future, says Annalisa Barbieri

Just how much excitement can puréed carrot promote? Well, let me tell you: a lot. When it's time to introduce solid food to your baby for the first time, mashed-up root vegetables and fruit become symbolic and magical foodstuffs. Unfortunately, baby's reaction rarely mirrors the parental investment.

When I look back at weaning my own child on to solids, at six months, I despair slightly. Hours spent steaming, puréeing and freezing carrot, pear and sweet potato. Ages sat - not that I begrudge it - spoon-feeding my daughter, who wasn't really interested until she was eight months old. But then she got constipated, and although for a few months she devoured whatever I gave her, at 13 months she was rejecting almost everything. I had an instinct, based on nothing, that I should just "leave her to it" with finger foods. But I had neither the confidence, nor the facts, to back it up.

When my child was about 14 months old, I heard about Gill Rapley. Rapley, a health visitor for 25 years and now deputy director of the Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative, had pioneered Baby-led Weaning (BLW). Or rather, she brought it back into fashion, since this was the way we used to feed our babies before the multi-million-pound baby-food industry made us believe we needed purées. Although the premise of BLW was simple and logical, it went against much of the current thinking of how we should feed babies.

Rapley had realised, after years observing babies, that they should be in charge of what went into their mouths and when. "When I was a health visitor, parents would come to me with the same three problems: 'my child is constipated, my child is really picky', and they couldn't get them on to second-stage baby food. So I started to wonder what would happen if we never took the control away from them in the first place and let them feed themselves."

The idea behind BLW is that you should allow your baby access to a variety of healthy finger foods and, provided he is sitting up straight, and you are with him, leave him to feed himself with his hands. As long as there are no known allergies in the family, you can give your child pretty much anything, except for whole nuts if your child is under five. This approach takes a leap of faith for many parents, but the benefits are great.

First, a baby will take as much or as little as it needs; this approach, Rapley has observed (she conducted a study in 2000/1), stops them becoming constipated. Constipation is something that seems to trouble many babies not long after solids are introduced; it's not certain why, but it could be because if they are spoon-fed, they are fed more than their young systems can handle.

Babies allowed to feed themselves tend to become less picky, develop better hand control more quickly, and seem to avoid foods that they were later found to be intolerant to. Another advantage is that babies can eat what you're eating, so no "special cooking". And definitely no puréeing.

Parents who have tried BLW tend to be evangelical about this method of weaning. This is Kerry talking about her daughter, Faye. "People are amazed at what she can manage to eat, even now that she's 14 months. She has her own knife, fork and spoon at mealtimes and needs no help from us at all. The thing I've enjoyed most, though, is leaving it up to her. Watching her regulate her own appetite is lovely, I never worry about how much or how little she's eaten."

Parents may be concerned that their baby will choke.But although anyone, in theory, can choke on anything, nature gives babies a natural prevention against choking by teaching it to chew before it can swallow. The risk factors are if a baby is not sat up straight, and if suction is introduced, such as the action involved in sucking off a spoon.

Rapley explains: "Imagine eating tomato soup - you suck it in. Now imagine eating minestrone, a mixture of liquid and solids. The way you eat it is different, you can't suck it in, you chew it." It's because of this that purée-fed babies often refuse second-stage baby foods, which involve lumps and purée. They don't know whether to suck or chew so, as a natural defence mechanism, they do neither.

The premature introduction of solids isn't just a timing issue, it can have implications on a baby's health. If a baby is not ready for solids, it can stress an immature system, and has been implicated in compromising appetite control (which can contribute to obesity) and can make a child more susceptible to allergies. Introducing solids is a complex physiological state the baby has to arrive at; he has to be immunologically ready, he has to be able to produce the enzymes to digest the food and he has to have lost the tongue-thrust reflex and be able to chew and swallow food.

Tongue thrust is a protective mechanism that all babies have - but it can be overridden by spoon-feeding. Their tongues will push out anything they can't handle. As a baby gets older, its tongue-thrust reflex is triggered further back in the mouth until it eventually disappears.

I started letting my child eat what she wanted, when she wanted, at 14 months. Others around me panic about how little she eats, but I've since learned that children, if not interfered with, will naturally regulate their appetites: eat to fuel growth, stop when they're full and, if given a good selection of foodstuffs, will automatically take what nutrients they need.

Obesity studies have shown that children aren't meant to put on too much weight too quickly. Sadly, at 40, it's too late for me to do the baby-led weaning diet. But it's a thought.

Baby-led Weaning: A Developmental Approach to the Introduction of Solid Foods by Gill Rapley is available on DVD, £25, from www.markittelevision.co.uk; 0117 939 1117. Annalisa Barbieri is co-founder of www.iwantmymum.com

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