Plant-Based Eating And Baby-Led Weaning
As I mentioned in my very first post, I knew if I had a child I would want to raise him or her as a vegan. Well, here we are, almost 8 months into my daughter's life, and she's a vegan! And, as I mentioned in my last post, I am 99% plant-based, 1% junk food vegan. For the time being, my baby girl will be part of that 99%. The food we provide our baby is from the earth, and it will be a while before we start offering her meat, dairy, and egg replacements, because she's just getting to know food at this point and she obviously has no clue what meat, dairy, and eggs are. Why give her replacements for something she doesn't even have a taste for yet? Additionally, it's becoming more commonly known that feeding a baby vegan diet is perfectly healthy. Her pediatrician knows and is on board. (Here is the position of the American Dietetic Association on vegan diets.)
There are different methods to introduce your baby to solid foods. On top of choosing to feed our girl a whole foods, plant-based diet, we are feeding her using a method called "baby-led weaning (BLW)." We aren't following the rules to the letter and have modified it to work for us, but we certainly follow the concept. Three of the things you have to wait for before introducing solids in this way is they have to reach 6 months old, be able to basically sit up unassisted, and no longer have their tongue thrust reflex. Some people choose to start feeding solids earlier than 6 months (some as early as 4 months) and before their child can sit up on their own, but we felt strongly that we wanted to try BLW, so she had to meet these criteria before we jumped in. The first 6 months went by so dang fast anyway and, though getting to a new milestone is exciting, we also didn’t want to feel like we were rushing into anything. There are essentially two ends of the baby feeding spectrum: on one end, you have purees and traditional baby foods, i.e., traditional weaning, and, on the other end, you have strict BLW. As with any spectrum, there is always a middle. Some parents elect to do a combo of purees and BLW, but, with actual BLW, there is no combo; if you are spoon-feeding your baby at all or giving him or her pureed foods that are not naturally pureed (like soups or yogurts), then you are technically doing traditional weaning. If you are giving your baby soup or something else that requires using a spoon, you pre-load the spoon and let your baby feed himself or herself.
It is commonly known that babies are supposed to get the bulk of their nutrition from breast milk or formula for the first year, and any solids you introduce to them during that first year are just for them to get to know them ("food before 1 is just for fun"). So there is no real need to be concerned if your baby isn't all that interested in solids for a while. That's also why I wasn't worried about trying BLW with her. They also should not be getting water before they are 6 months old because their immature kidneys can lead to something called "water intoxication." They get plenty of hydration from breast milk or formula until this point, so water is unnecessary. Once they reach 6 months old and are starting to get solids, you can offer some water, though you don’t have to. Some say it helps with digestion as their system learns how to process these new foods. By the way, you can start to look out for some pretty smelly poops once you reach the solids phase. Anyhow, my baby happens to be super into food for the most part, but some days, depending on whether she's tired or bored, she just kind of plays with it and moves it around her tray. And that's totally fine! But there are other days where she literally stuffs her face. It's quite a sight to behold. :)
So, while we are feeding our baby using BLW principles, we are not following every single rule. Following it to the letter is impossible for us because this style of feeding has no "first foods" or anything like that; instead, your baby eats what you eat, usually in a deconstructed form modified for him or her. That is, you don't prepare a separate meal for your baby; you can maybe prepare his or her food without added salt or sugar, and you can cut it to age-appropriate shapes and sizes, but that's it. It's basically family mealtime and baby gets nothing different. With both of us working full-time and coordinating child care and schedules, I wasn’t even sure how I’d really introduce her to foods at first since the weekends are the only time I have to sit and watch her to make sure she’s eating safely. Our household does not have family mealtimes at this point, so that already doesn't work for us. We did do first foods (hers were steamed potatoes and steamed sweet potatoes), but that's about as far as we have strayed from the principles thus far.
At first I was giving her different steamed veggies and some avocado, all cut in spear shapes (similar to the shapes in the photo I included) so she could hold them with her hand. We wanted to start with vegetables and the more bland foods kids tend not to like as much when they start to have strong opinions on what they put into their mouths. It’s often advised to start with the bland or non-sweet foods before you start introducing fruit, because they are said to be more likely to turn their nose at the sight of broccoli once they’ve had the taste of some sweet watermelon. I have given her blueberries at this point, and I make sure to slice them small enough to pass through her little esophagus. The early days were slightly stressful because one of the things you have to do is let them work it out and not help them, which means they might gag/puke and that's just part of it. Of course you have to jump in if they're choking, but there's really not actually a huge risk of that if you prepare their food properly and don't give them things they can't have at such a young age, like whole nuts or even nut butters. It seems super scary, and you really have to be calm and patient, so it's not for everyone. I will put that out there. Also, you have to keep in mind the number of teeth your baby has. There are some late blooming 1-year-olds who don’t have more than 4 teeth and their food needs to be modified more than another kid who might have 8 teeth at the same age. Though their gums ARE super strong! As she started getting the hang of it, I decided to start seasoning her food and preparing actual meals for her. For example, I put nutritional yeast on her steamed broccoli and she DEMOLISHED that. Then I made her a pasta made of brown rice and quinoa, and I covered it in marinara and added more nutritional yeast and sprinkled some hemp seeds on top for added nutrients (super rich in Omega 3) and demolished THAT! From then on, I decided that I wasn't really going to give her singular foods anymore if I could help it. Once I started preparing little meals for her, I started making them for all of us. So technically she DOES now eat what we eat. And she has loved all of it! The best part about this is that, once you understand that there is nothing too mature for a baby's palate, the possibilities are endless! Again, as long as food is prepared in age-appropriate shapes and sizes, you can give them practically anything and you might end up with a little foodie! I do keep in mind that my little only has two tiny teeth that have popped through, so I still steam or roast veggies, though raw is totally fine, but she gets to experience the full sensory part with the true textures of various foods, which is one of the huge benefits of BLW.
There are also so many other benefits to BLW! It actually reduces the risk of choking, whereas switching from purees to solid food creates a greater risk because babies get used to sucking down food a certain way and then have to learn how to use their mouths differently. It also familiarizes babies with different tastes and textures and reduces the chances that you'll have a super picky baby (I'm not talking scientific proof or anything, but it's supposed to help). One of the greatest benefits is that it helps babies develop their fine motor skills, including their pincer grasp, because of how they handle food.
As for thinking ahead to how I'll make sure she gets all her proper nutrients when she's no longer on formula, I will do exactly what I do for myself. While babies don't require any milk after weaning off formula or breast milk, I will likely give her some plant milk to help with the weaning if she is having a tough time. If I do give her plant milk, it'll most likely be Ripple, which is made of peas and is chock full of nutrients! All the vitamins you could ever want or need are available in abundance in plants. I have mentioned that the only thing vegans really should supplement is B12, but it's not absolutely necessary because it can be found in fortified foods, such as nutritional yeast and many plant milks. But there are SO many things you can do to add nutrients to your meals, and I plan to do that with hers, just as I'm doing now. I've already mentioned blackstrap molasses for iron and calcium, and I've mentioned hemp hearts for Omega 3s. There are also chia seeds and ground flax, both of which I add to my pot of oatmeal...All these things can be added to make everything that much more nutrient-rich. If this is something you would be interested in, I highly recommend it. While it is not a super common feeding style in the U.S. (I think it may have started in the UK but I could be making that up), it is catching on. You might not hear doctors recommend it yet, because I think people do prefer the puree route, but pediatricians should know what it is and can advise accordingly. I mentioned it to mine and she knew right away and said that was fine. And I think I may have already mentioned that her daycare teachers have thanked me for choosing this method because they're normally the ones who end up having to teach kids how to feed themselves. It's totally fine to choose traditional weaning! BLW requires a lot of patience, which I'm usually pretty short on, but it's worth it if you want to give it a go!
I'm including a few photos below from our BLW journey so far. The meals look pretty similar but it's because she gets the bulk of her different foods at daycare and I don't have photos of every single thing she's eaten. :)
I’m loving these Bamboo Bamboo plates (I registered for them for my baby shower because I'd heard great things) for her because they’re environmentally friendly and they have suction on the bottom to help discourage her from picking up the whole plate and tossing it around. Also, they’re super cute. The down side is they’re hand wash only, but it has been worth it. I have a couple Qshare plates, too, and I love them just as much! I got them on Amazon here. (All products I have are ones I found on my own or that were recommended to me; I make nothing from recommending products.) They make mealtimes just a touch more fun. :)