Before my son, Asa, was born last July, other mothers warned me that breastfeeding might be difficult. The cautionary tales were well intentioned, I think — meant to prepare me for the worst. Accordingly, I approached the goal of nursing my firstborn with a sort of battle-hardened determination.
Within a few weeks, though, Asa and I had settled into an easy rhythm. As the months passed, and my newborn grew into a hearty, babbling baby, I took great pleasure in the knowledge that my body was sustaining him. "Chow train's here," my husband and I would joke when I returned home after a day at work. "The milk bar is open."
For the next step, though, I was ill prepared: Feeding my baby solid food — a variation of the kind I'd been feeding myself more or less successfully for nearly three decades — proved to be much more confusing and problematic than I expected. Where were the war stories, the kindly advice and helpful hints?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding until around 6 months old. When Asa reached that age, almost to the day, I whipped out the applesauce I'd lovingly prepared, puréed and frozen in one-ounce servings. As I nudged a silicone-tipped spoon into his mouth, he made a face that suggested utter revulsion.
Several days later, I tried rice cereal. He spit it back. So too with "gauca-de-mama," a concoction of avocado and breast milk that a friend recommended. Puréed sweet potatoes? Bananas? Nope. We gave up for a little while, and I reasoned, as any rational person might, that my baby would have to be breastfed until he left for college.
Bethany Yon, a research associate in Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont, reassured me. Particularly among some breast-fed babies, she said, the first reaction to solid food is often: "You want me to eat what?" For a lot of breast-feeding mother-baby pairs, she said, "there is something much more going on here than just food filling tummy." The introduction of solid foods can be a jarring transition for babies.
It was comforting to learn that Asa's initial reaction might have been reflexive; many babies hold on to a "tongue thrust" reflex, which protects them from swallowing what they shouldn't, until several weeks after that six-month mark. "Look for developmental signs as opposed to looking at the date on the calendar," Yon advised.
Ultimately, what worked for our family was handing the reins to Asa. We waited a few weeks, then began dabbling in "baby-led weaning." Proponents of this approach advocate letting babies feed themselves from the get-go; "the mush stops here," proclaims the website of midwife Gill Rapley, who coined that term.
It turns out that Asa is much happier eating when he's the one shoveling food into his mouth. In a high chair pulled up to the table, he selects from the options we put in front of him. Instead of sweet-potato purées, we started steaming wedges roughly the size of a large index finger: big enough for Asa to grab, steer awkwardly to his mouth and gum with a curious look. Bananas, green beans, broccoli — he's taken to them all. I enjoy preparing wholesome, homemade foods for him, but what he likes best, to my chagrin, are Baby Mum-Mums, the prepackaged rice rusks I picked up at our local co-op.
Asa seems as pleased by the accomplishment of getting food to his mouth as he is by the satisfaction of eating something tasty. His gag reflex occasionally kicks in, which can be a little terrifying to watch, but we've learned to trust that this is his way of spitting up anything too big to chew or safely swallow.
Of course, as much of it lands on the floor as it does in his mouth, to our dog's great delight, but Asa's getting surprisingly good at palming mashed carrots or slippery steamed apple slices into his mouth. He'll let us spoon-feed him oatmeal or purées, especially if he gets to hold his own spoon in the process.
Regardless of whether a family chooses purées, baby-led weaning or something in between, Yon suggests taking things slow, and not introducing more than one new food each week. When I expressed some concern about variety — was I mixing things up enough? — she laughed.
"The concept of variety — this is all new!" she said. "All of these foods are new to your baby. Everything is variety."
Plus, she told me, breast-fed babies have already experienced a variety of flavors in their early lives; the flavor and aroma of breast milk change according to a nursing mother's diet.
Yon had plenty of other practical advice, which I wished I'd heard before Asa's first bite. She recommended introducing babies to solid foods while holding them, rather than strapping them into a high chair; their experience of nourishment up to that point has been tied closely with proximity to their caregivers. Steer clear of honey in the first year of life, she reminded me, because it may contain the Clostridium bacteria that puts babies at risk of infant botulism. No salt and added sugars, either, she advised. Allow for some mess, and let food be a playful experience for babies. Most of the calories in a baby's first year of life still come from breast milk or formula.
I suspect that much of my early bewilderment and anxiety about feeding Asa stems from the importance that popular science attaches to early-childhood nutrition. One recent study found that a child's "weight fate" is largely set by age 5; nearly half of children who became obese by the eighth grade were already overweight when they entered kindergarten.
As a new mother, I want to nourish my baby today, but also to instill healthy eating habits and an enjoyment of good food that will follow him through his adult life. But even I'll admit that's a lot to load onto one tiny spoon.
Asa is now almost 9 months old. Just as breast-feeding, with time, felt natural and intuitive, so too will this new phase of feeding. I've let go of a lot of my anxiety about solid foods, and, as Yon recommended, am following my baby's lead. I'm cherishing these months when his favorite food is still mama's 24-hour milk bar, but already, having a new little person at the dinner table is a joy. Sure, it's messy — but then again, what isn't?