I began my journey of Baby Led Weaning with my classroom full of boys over a year ago and now they are all well-rounded and hearty toddler eaters. I had used this method of offering foods in their more natural state and in a way that an infant is able to feed themselves with my oldest son with much success at home and so I entered into my classroom with enthusiasm. I learned many things that have now shaped how I will approach it with my next group of infants. A few things I discovered surprised me, just as these boys do in many wondrous ways throughout the day.
* Less is More
When getting your child's food ready, it works really well to have a dish to serve from and then place a very small amount in front of them at a time. This plays to their sense of orientation and order at this age and allows them to be able to focus on the 2 or 3 peas and 1 chunk of banana that is available, instead of becoming overwhelmed by a huge pile of food. As they grow older they will be ready to have more in front of them at a time, but my boys who are now toddlers still benefit from having one small scoop of food from each item we're having at a meal, finishing it, and then getting more. I've noticed when the high chair tray, plate or table is filled to the brim it becomes much more of a sensory activity, where they smear and manipulate the food, sometimes bringing it to their mouth.
* Bigger Chunks vs. Small Bites
Every child is different, but I have found that I had the most success when introducing new foods to a child by first offering a larger chunk of food that they are able to bite off themselves. When I made thinner slices of apples, carrots or potato the infants were able to bite of pieces easily, yet the pieces they bit were often too large to swallow right down, yet were tricky to be mashed on their potentially toothless gums. A great example of this is when I prepare apples to serve. My typical procedure is to quarter an apple and remove the core then steam until the fork I insert comes out easily and the apple begins to fall apart a bit. After refrigerating them for a bit they are easy to grab onto and I found the infants were able to bite off just the amount that worked for them. The only thing that is important to watch for is the child who wants to put all of their food into their mouth at once and swallow quickly. While it is helpful for each child to discover their own gag reflex and work through the feeling of swallowing food, some infants still need small pieces cut up for them so that they simply do not try to swallow a quarter of an apple at a time.
* Skins and All
Another thing that I discovered through my many feedings with the boys, is that when given the opportunity they would at least try to make their way through the skins of anything. The skin is often where the highest concentration of nutrients are stored, so I always steam any veggie with the skin on, even if I would later peel it off. Now I give the children anything from carrots, beets, apples and potatoes with the skins intact. Often they would spit out the skins in the process of eating the food, but I felt that by giving them that experience they draw more nutrition from the food and they are also able to learn more about what this food is all about.
*The Double Spoon Method
While using the baby led weaning method, my goal was to support the children experiencing foods in a whole, nutritious and self-led way, so when I got to foods that are impossible to pick up by hand I have developed a method for an infant to learn to feed themselves with a spoon. This works especially well with sticky foods (oatmeal, hummus, mashed potatoes), but also can work for things like cottage cheese and yogurt. This is also highly effective for children who are interested in participating with their feeding or are used to feeding themselves. See the next section for my favorite yogurt method. Place your serving of oatmeal, or something like that, in a small bowl and bring it to your eating area along with two spoons. Dip one spoon into the bowl and gather a bite. Bring it towards your child and allow them to grab the spoon. Almost 80% of the time they will immediately grab the spoon and put it in their mouth. It can be helpful to turn the spoon over so that the bowl is upside down on their tongue so that when they are sucking on the food laden spoon they are able to easily eat. While they are enjoying their first bit of oatmeal, prepare the second spoon. Let them watch you and don't forget to talk to them about what they're eating, what textures or flavors they might be experiencing. Once they are finished with the first spoon, it often is quickly dropped in a rush to grab at the second spoon that you are getting ready, and this gives you the opportunity to take the first one as they feed themselves again and prepare it for bite number 3.
* Drinking from a Cup
Try this out with water at every meal to start as soon as your child begins eating solids. My favorite cups are small espresso cups with handles which are often built fairly sturdily and have a nice handle for grabbing. Shot glasses, jam jars and juice cups also work well. There is something special, even at this age, that an infant feels about drinking from something that imitates what we use. Their powers of observation are keenly aware of everything we do, so they know about your coffee, tea or water cup that is near by as you share a meal. Drinking from a cup might begin with you holding it up to their mouth for sips, but will slowly evolve into them using it deftly themselves. I also like to end meals with water, because it is often spilled or spit out and makes clean up that much easier.
Another way cups are useful are for foods that can be drinkable. Yogurt, whether in smoothie or plain form, is a great food for babies. It's packed full of probiotics, can be mixed with fruit or veggie purees, or thinned with juice or water and then easily drank from a cup. I use yogurt with my son when he begins to get curious rashes, especially in the diaper area, and find it helps them clear up quickly.
The real thing I have learned through my experiences of using baby led weaning as a guide for introducing foods and eating with infants is the true joy of the world of food. The toddlers I now have in my class are amazing eaters and will try everything at least once, even if they spit it right out again. Meal times have been a magical moment of learning from each other, practicing kindness as we sit together as a group, and now talking about where food comes from, what we notice and even our favorites! I look forward to our next steps in food, which will involve them choosing and helping to prepare the meals for themselves and others.