Most parents we know start their baby’s journey into solid food by spoon-feeding rice cereal or purées because that’s the way it’s always been done. But in fact, it turns out that there is no evidence-based research or developmental need to start solids with textureless food on a spoon. It’s simply just how it was always done before.
But was textureless food always what babies were fed? And what was done before all the jars, pouches, and fancy blenders? Baby food as we know it—thin, watery purées of carrots and sweet potatoes—didn’t exist until the late 1920’s. In fact, records show that in 1880, babies were not even commonly fed solid food at all until they were 11 months old.
Before the invention of baby food, there was just food. Sometimes strained, sometimes pre-chewed or mashed, but whole foods in a variety of textures and forms. Even the first baby foods to hit the market included products like beef-vegetable soup, liver, and veal—nutritious foods rich in iron and varying textures.
Preparing solid food just for babies can be exhausting. It’s not hard to imagine how spoon-feeding sweet purées became more popular as commercial baby food became more available and affordable. Like many cultural shifts, we got to where we are today—a land of perfectly pretty pouches of baby food—because it was easier.
Aside from setting babies on a path to prefer perfectly smooth food, spoon-feeding thin, watery food does little for the development of oral motor skills. In a lot of ways, this traditional way of feeding requires baby to hold back: instead of reaching for things and putting them in their mouth as they instinctively are wired to do, they wait for the food to arrive and open their mouth.
As more parents seek to feed their babies minimally processed foods—and as picky eating, concerns about toxic metals in baby food, and allergies are on the rise—baby food as we know it is coming into question.
So, what if that first food wasn’t a jar of watery green bean purée, but rather a whole banana to munch on? Or a piece of steamed broccoli? It turns out that babies have a number of built-in reflexes to manage finger food as early as 6 months of age—reflexes that help them bite, chew, swallow and if need be, push the food forward and out of the mouth. Starting solids with finger food not only works these reflexes more than textureless food delivered by a spoon, but it rapidly advances oral motor skills.
In fact, research shows that 6-9 months of age is a critical window for introducing textured foods and waiting to introduce textured foods outside this window increases the likelihood of texture aversion, chewing issues, and picky eating. Babies in this age window conveniently have strong protective reflexes against choking, which begin fading after 9 months of age. Additionally, spoon-fed purées perpetuate a suck-to-swallow oral-motor pattern that doesn’t trigger the chewing reflex. Research shows that allowing 6-12-month-old babies to practice chewing developmentally appropriate foods is safe and necessary for advancing oral-motor skills. Lastly but quite importantly, research shows that everyone—babies, kids, and adults—is safest eating when self-feeding, and the choking risk increases when food is placed in the mouth by someone else.
More often than not, babies don’t wait for us to control their developmental milestones. They roll, crawl, stand, sit, and walk mostly without our help. So why, when we see developmental advances toward eating—reaching for food and bringing objects to their mouths—would we interrupt this process?
The approach to introducing solid foods to babies that we advocate for here—Finger Food First—is based on a method that sprouted up in the U.K. called “baby-led weaning.” In short, baby-led weaning is a way of introducing solid food that skips spoon-feeding entirely and relies on a baby’s natural instinct to bring food to their mouth. With baby-led weaning, babies are trusted to take the lead on when they are ready to wean from the breast or the bottle and feed themselves independently, with purées, a spoon, or finger foods.
Finger Food First is exactly what it sounds like: making it a priority to offer your baby those foods that can be eaten with their fingers before other types of food. While you can offer a pre-loaded spoon for your baby to grab ahold of and suck on, the priority is to let your baby handle food the way nature intended it: with their fingers.
With Finger Food First, your baby can eat a bit of what you eat and join you at the table from Day One of solids. You can explore hundreds of foods, spices, and cuisines as long as foods are cooked well done, sodium levels are kept low, and choking hazards are modified to be safe.
As any parent will tell you, the only thing 6-month-old babies want to do is bring things to their mouths to taste, bite, and munch on. Finger Food First offers your baby the opportunity to explore a wide variety of tastes and textures, to set their own pace, and to discover the joy of eating.
The best part? It’s easier.
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