As co-founder of the organic baby food company Happy Family, host Jessica Rolph has invested a lot of energy trying to get the right nutrients into her kids. One of her children’s favorite first foods was sardines, and fast forward a few years, Jessica was surprised to see a post on the hugely popular Solid Starts recommending sardines as a first food.
Solid Starts promotes baby-led weaning, or finger-foods first. CEO Jenny Best joins Jessica on today’s episode to share her perspective on when to start your baby on solid foods and how best to do it.
[1:40] What is baby-led weaning?
[2:24] Jenny talks about the advantages of the baby-led weaning approach.
[7:35] Giving children a front seat in their feeding experience.
[9:16] Challenges that come with baby-led weaning.
[13:47] How did Jenny first expose her twins to solids?
[14:51] Jenny examines fears around allergens.
[18:08] How should we think about the ingestion of food in those first few months of feeding?
[22:23] Jenny shares the recommended ages for starting baby-led weaning and starting solid foods in general.
[25:29] Jessica revisits some of the highlights of her conversation with Jenny Best.
Mentioned in this episode:
What is baby-led weaning?
Jessica: Hello, Jenny. It’s so great to have you with us.
Jenny: Thank you so much for having me.
Jessica: So for listeners who aren’t familiar with this method, what is baby-led weaning in a nutshell?
Jenny: Yeah, so the name kind of makes it confusing and more confusing than it needs to be, but baby-led weaning is just starting solids with finger food. So we have a hashtag at Solid Starts called Finger Food First, and that’s my attempt to just make this easier to wrap our minds around, but it’s just starting solids with a priority on self-feeding and finger foods. So instead of the traditional pouch or pureé and spoon-feeding, offering baby a variety of finger foods for them to pick up themselves, put it in their mouth, and munch on.
Benefits of baby-led weaning
Jessica: I’ve heard your personal story before, and I’d love for everyone else to hear it, and also hear the advantages, what you discovered the advantages of baby-led weaning as an approach.
Jenny: Sure. Yeah, I mean, I didn’t know what baby-led weaning was five years ago. Five years ago, I was a first time mom, I had no idea what I was doing, really far away from my family, didn’t really have any kind of immediate support. And when the time came around to start solids, I did what most people do. I went to the store and bought a jar or a pouch of some pureé, went home and cracked it open, and started the feeding process. But about a minute into that experience, I could tell my son, Charlie, didn’t like it. And granted, it was probably like watery carrots, so it probably wasn’t super tasty, but he didn’t like the experience of me coming at him with a spoon. And he was turning his head, and arching his back, and really just was not… It was an awful… I had hoped it would be this really fun milestone that we were meeting, and to the contrary, it was this awful experience, and I felt like I had to almost force feed it to him.
So long story short, after many, many weeks of me trying to get him to eat, and doing the airplane move, “Open wide, coming in,” and that turned into my phone, and videos, and stories, and dancing, and whatever we could do to, “Just open your mouth please,” really devolved for our family into this very stressful experience, and one that was leading to a lot of tears and stress in my marriage as well frankly. We had different opinions on how we should handle the situation. But by the time Charlie turned one, so six months into this experience, he had stopped eating all together. He was like, “Nope, I am not doing this. No one’s going to feed me and I’m not going to feed myself,” and he just started withering away.
At his one year check up with our doctor, she was like, “It’s time to put him on a feeding pack. He’s lost so much weight. You can’t keep going down this path.” I think he had gotten to below the first percentile at that point, and I felt like such a failure. It was like, my one job as a mom seemed to me to be to feed my child and I couldn’t do it well. And it was just this awful, awful time. But I remember sitting in the doctor’s office being like, “Just give me one more week. I can reverse this. I can do this, just please give me one more week.” I had seen kids with those feeding packs on their bodies, it’s basically tube feeding, and I really didn’t want Charlie to have to deal with that. So in that week, I sought out the help of some feeding therapists, and I talked to a lot of pediatric nutritionists, and really, we kind of diagnosed the problem as this… My way of controlling his eating experience through really prolonged spoon-feeding, and never really giving him the opportunity to reach out and grab the spoon, and have a little bit of control of the experience himself.
So fast forward four years… Two years, sorry, just two years later, I was pregnant with the twins, and that was the first thing in my mind. I was like, “I am not doing this again. I can’t go through picky eating again. This is too hard, it’s too hard.” So I really fell into researching alternatives to spoon-feeding, and came across baby-led weaning, and fell really hard into researching that. Spoke to a lot of different experts about it, and about the safety of it, and about the benefits of it, and decided, “Okay, this is what we’re doing for the twins,” I’m like, “We’re going to go whole hog baby-led weaning, and we’re just going to do the opposite of what I did before because what I did before didn’t work. So let’s try this.”
Two days into feeding the twins, their first couple of days of starting solids, it was like night and day. The babies were so happy. They were smashing the food, and picking it up, and gnawing on it, and sucking on it. It was just like this… I remember looking at my husband like, “Wait, it can be this easy?” I’m like, “Really?” It was so easy and fun. So yeah, my story is sort of our story. The story of Solid Starts was born out of a feeding experience gone bad with my first born, and I’m just trying to help other parents avoid a path of picky eating, and help them see the benefits of baby-led weaning, and in particular, how to prevent picky eating.
Jessica: And it’s just, it’s so kind of sometimes against some of our instincts. We want to wipe them up, we see this big mess, we see them having this big sensory experience with the food. And it is really hard to give them control, and sometimes you just want to have a tidy experience where, “I’m feeding you.” But I loved how you described that, and I think it’s so real I think for a lot of people. We have to really shift our mindset when we think about that kind of shift of control from parent to child. They are really in charge of their eating experience.
Focus on skills and the pleasure of eating
Jenny: Totally! When I was feeding Charlie, as a first-time mom, my goal was just like, “I’m going to get this kale pouch into his body,” that was my goal. It was 100% focused on nutrition and literally getting him to eat. And when you really step back and listen to that phrase, “Getting him to eat,” you can kind of see where that’s going to end up, like in the extreme. So we love as a team at Solid Starts trying to kind of shift the mindset of parents when they start solids to really away from consumption. Really try not to worry about how much your baby is eating right now because you’ve got the fallback of breast milk or formula for another six months, still their primary source of nutrition. Let’s have some fun at the table again. It’s really… You’ve heard that phrase probably, “Food before one is just for fun.” To a certain extent, we embrace that, and it’s not the perfect phrase. You do want to focus on some nutrients and get some iron and all of that good stuff in.
But to the extent we can kind of pull back away from consumption and that hyper-hyper focus on nutrition that many of us in the United States tend to have, and focus again on the pleasure of learning how to eat, the skills required for chewing and swallowing, and my gosh, hopefully just some fun around the table again, I think they actually end up eating more in the long term. [chuckle]
Challenges of baby-led weaning
Jessica: I love this perspective and all of this sounds so good, and I want to get into a little bit of some of the challenges and the perception of the challenges. So with Bea, I did a mix of spoon-feeding, and pouches, and snacks, and then also baby-led weaning food, like finger foods, foods that were from the baby-led weaning approach. And I just remember giving her I think it was some broccoli to suck on when she was a baby. And when they’re having those first bites, it can be pretty vulnerable as a parent. And I just remember…
Baby-led weaning gagging
Jessica: Seeing her gag and feeling this absolute wave of panic. I think she later actually threw up, and it was so stressful. Can you talk to this? I think this is kind of the thing that’s the barrier for a lot of parents on really kind of going full finger food approach.
Jenny: So first of all, all babies gag, 100%, even on pureé. So a baby’s gag reflex, and this is that like the tongue is sticking out, it’s kind of a retching forward motion there. It looks like they may be about to choke. They’re not choking, it’s just like, it’s a gag, it’s pushing it forward. That reflex is really sensitive in a young baby. So around six months of age, that reflex is very far forward on the tongue. So it’s not all the way back near your tonsils. For us to gag on a piece of food, it has to kind of get pretty far back in our mouths to elicit that retching response. But for a baby, if it just even touches the first third of the tongue, almost anything, a piece of rice is going to do that, a pureé, liquid will do that. Babies actually gag often on their own fingers or even breastfeeding sometimes. So gagging is a completely normal protective reflex, and our feeding therapist would tell you it’s required in learning to eat.
One of the things that we see the most is that when babies gag, they then learn, “Oh I took too big of a bite. I now need to take a smaller bite,” and that learning happens over repeat practice. It doesn’t happen right away. So all babies are going to gag. So buckle up parents ‘cause your baby’s going to gag, they’re going to gag a lot regardless of how you start solids. And in fact, I have to share that… The clinical experience of our feeding therapist is that the babies who start with finger foods gag a little bit more at the beginning, but less overall over time. And babies who start with pureés and spoon-feeding will gag a little bit less at the beginning, but for a longer duration once they start finger foods. So the really important takeaway here is that baby’s going to gag for sure, but it’s not a dangerous situation. Gagging is a protective reflex, it’s very powerful, and it’s really productive. So you don’t even need to intervene, you can let it kind of do its work.
The really kind of underbelly of this is that the gag reflex slowly desensitizes over time and moves further back in the throat. So if you are terrified of introducing finger foods and you wait until 12 months of age to do that, you have missed the window of that gag reflex having your back as much as it would have say at six months of age, which is a really important thing when you think about it. Because we want babies practicing with finger foods when that gag reflex is in play, super sensitive, super powerful, ready to have your back and help push any food forward that needs to be. If you wait too long, you’re just missing that critical window. The gag reflex will always be there, it just moves further back in the mouth and becomes a little less sensitive. So our feeding therapist actually worry far more about the child who didn’t have any opportunity or exposure to finger foods before like 10 months of age, for example, than a six-month-old with a spare rib. [laughter]
Jessica: Fascinating. So tell me more about…
Jenny: Sorry to geek out on gagging. [laughter]
Best first foods for babies
Jessica: No, I love it, I love it. I so appreciate you sharing. And I know you have this really extensive database of foods that are great for starting, and different preparations, and recommendations. It’s been so of service. So thank you for that. What do you… What kinds of foods did your twins have when they first had those very first exposure to solids?
Jenny: The secret is that it really can be almost anything, and I say that because the whole goal of this is to have baby eat what you’re eating. Okay, obviously you’re not dousing it with soy sauce or doing sushi before a certain age. So we started out with… I think we had some salmon for dinner that night, and some pasta, and then earlier in the day, they had eggs. So they actually did three allergens in one day, which is like, “Oh my gosh, you did three allergens in one day. That seems like hearsay.” But the reality is is that if your child is not at a high risk of allergies. And so the risk factors tend to be things like asthma and eczema, or hay fever, or a strong family history, would be a good indicator. If your child’s not at risk, 92% of your babies are not going to have an allergic reaction or any kind of allergy in their lifetime, okay? So that fear again, has kind of taken over the process of what foods we introduce and the allergist on our team… We have an amazing allergist and immunologist MD. Sakina takes a very proactive approach with starting solids and allergens. She’s like, “Go right into it. Go for it. If there’s no risk factors. There’s the benefit of your baby experiencing a wide variety of foods, and getting the allergens early and often is greater than the risk,” basically.
So we started out with salmon. Salmon is an amazing food for babies. It is super high in omega fatty acids. Nutritionally, you can’t beat it. It gets five stars in our first foods database. And it’s soft, fish naturally falls apart, so I liked that as a new… A mom new to baby-led weaning, that put my heart at ease. But also, steamed broccoli can be really fun, especially if you leave it as a huge floret and serve it upside down so the stem is sticking up, and they can then grab, their finger is clenched around the stem, and then put the florets in their mouth. Plus, the little buds on broccoli really fascinate babies, and they’re like, “Whoa! This is so cool,” and that’s just really fun to watch. But some of my favorite first foods for babies, you’ve got the avocado. It’s so nutritional, but also just super soft and easy. You can mash it and put it on a spoon or offer a sphere, either way is fine. I love doing both at the same time, putting some on a spoon, and some hand-held and just letting the baby toggle back and forth. And eggs, eggs are fantastic for babies. They’re a complete nutrition. They offer almost every nutrient your child is going to need. And you can cook it in an omelette, and cut that into a strip the size of about two fingers held together, sort of like a rectangular strip, and then they can grab that with their fist, and munch on it.
So there are perfect foods when it comes to nutrition, but there is no totally perfect food when it comes to baby-led weaning. I will say a second maybe all-star food is a mango pit because we love the input that it gives to the mouth. The fact that a baby can’t bite through it, I think, often sets parents, puts their mind more at ease. And it’s just phenomenal for jaw strength, so you can take most of the flesh off of a mango and just hand your child, your baby, the pit itself and let them suck and munch on the fruit off of that. So that’s fantastic for facilitating oral development because they’re going to tear and chomp and put a lot of pressure on that pit, but they won’t be able to bite through it, so it’s safe.
Iron-rich foods for babies
Jessica: And so I find it so interesting because we’re talking about nutrition, and I totally remember my baby having salmon in those early, early bites. It is… They are not ingesting food. They are not, that is not… Maybe some micro components are going down.
With iron, I really wanted to make sure that my baby was getting enough iron, we were doing all breastfed. And after six months, the stores, reserves can be depleted. And so I did do some spoon-feeding of iron-based foods, and then some finger foods. How should we think about actually the ingesting of food in those first few months of feeding?
Jenny: So look, it’s kind of a both-and situation. We do want to offer foods that are high in iron, in particular, for the reasons you stated. Around six months of age, the stores of iron that your baby has stores of iron from being in-utero from the mother, and those start to get depleted around six months, so we want to start replacing that. Iron is a critical nutrient, critical, critical, and that’s why you hear doctors always talking about fortified rice cereal and this and that because they want the iron going in. So focusing on nutritious foods that offer a lot of iron.
Iron is in some sneaky places that you might not necessarily think about. So one of my favorite sources of iron is pumpkin seed butter. And it’s great for plant-based families, too, because obviously, iron is harder to get through plants than it is through meat products, but… And also, your body doesn’t absorb plant-based iron as well, but I love pumpkin seed butter. You can thin it out with apple sauce or breast milk or even water or yogurt, and that’s a fantastic way of getting some iron in. So we have a list of high-iron foods on our website, but there’s the classic beans and lentils and things like that you can do early on. So yes, you want to focus on high-iron foods, and babies don’t need as much as we think, truthfully. I think we’re expecting them to take 10 bites and swallow this and that, but in reality, the needs of a six-month-old baby, they don’t actually need as much as we might think they need. So that’s one of the first manage-your-expectation steps towards that.
Let them enjoy eating
Jenny: But more broadly, our job as parents is to hopefully set our kids up on a path where they enjoy eating. They stop when they’re full, without really thinking about it. And they’re not obsessive about it in any way. So when we talk to parents, when we ask them: What do you want to accomplish here? Well, we want to raise happy eaters. Happy eaters, by the way, tend to eat more than unhappy eaters. [chuckle] So if you want your child to eat more, pressure them less. If you want your child to eat less, pressure them more. It’s a direct equation when it comes to picky eating and things like that. So when it comes to consumption and balancing that with learning to eat, we, as a team love just trying to shift the mindset of focusing parents on the skills of learning to eat, and really putting a stake in the sand at 12 months. At 12 months of age, your child should be eating mostly what you are eating when you’re eating it. So ideally, three meals a day with you, hopefully, or with their caregiver, wherever they are, school. But eating three meals a day of solids and a couple of snacks you might start working in there.
But if you think about it, six months of age, you’re looking at a child like, “How am I going to get there? This baby… The food barely makes it to the mouth, you know, where it falls off the spoon before they get it to the mouth.” So it’s a very gradual process, but we find that when parents shift their mindset and really focus on the skills of learning to eat, rather than consumption, that not only does that child end up eating more because they’re in control, they’re having fun, it’s less stressful of an experience than feeling like they need to be fed and have to consume a certain food for nutrition, it’s more fun. Not only do they eat more, they’re just set up on this path to enjoy it for the rest of their life, which is a really beautiful thing. So I’m really trying to toot this horn of focus on the skills, focus on the pleasure, let it be fun again. We don’t need to be doing airplanes into our kids’ mouths.
When can babies eat solid food?
Jessica: I love that. I was wondering, tell me more about the recommended ages for starting this approach and starting foods, solid foods in general.
Jenny: Yeah, so around six months of age, most babies are able to feed themselves finger foods. So you can start with spoon-feeding, purées, or finger food or a combination of that. And either is fine. One of the mistakes, really, that we see parents make is that when starting solids is they get so anxious for this fun time like, “The first food,” and all of this. And baby’s just not ready, and then they get into the high chair, and then the bib is on, the whole production. And then baby’s just staring at the spoon or turning their head away from the spoon coming at their mouth, or just not reaching for the finger food on the tray at all, and that sort of like this just deflating process for everyone and deflating experience.
So from a safety perspective, we want to be able to see them sit and have head control and be able to reach for the spoon or reach for the finger food and bring it to their mouth. But from a more emotional side of things, we really want the child to be ready and expressing some interest. So are they watching you eat and tracking the food going to your mouth? Are they smacking their lips a little bit when you’re eating and expressing that maybe they want to taste that, too? Having a baby be truly ready for solids is really important when it comes to preventing picky eating at an early… So the early stages when we talk about this. Because if your child doesn’t feel ready, they’re going to perceive this as a high-pressure experience. They’re sitting away from you in a high chair, they probably want to be sitting on your lap instead. And you can see how that can spiral down.
So even just waiting one more week can make the biggest difference. And it sounds crazy, but these babies are dramatically different people, sometimes, just 10 days later. There’s so much growth and development happening in that age. So six months is sort of the marker when most kids are ready, but a couple weeks before, a couple weeks after is completely normal, too.
So look, if I can leave you with one takeaway, if you’re just going to remember one thing from any of this, it’s truly to step back and get out of the way. Our babies were born to eat. They’re born knowing how to eat from the first minute, and they’re born also able to tell us, not with verbal communication, but with other communications, that they’re full. So try to find the joy in all of it. Try to step out of the way when you can. If you are doing spoon-feeding and purées exclusively, try to offer the spoon to your baby, stop before putting that spoon in their mouth, give baby a minute to reach for that and grab and bring it to their mouth. They’re going to be so proud that they did, and that’s just another little way of giving them some control and stepping out of the way.
So the more you can let the child drive the experience of choosing the foods that they want to put in their mouth or reaching for the spoon, whatever that is, the more you can give them a little independence at the table, the happier they’re going to be.
Jessica: Jenny, it’s been so fun talking to you, thank you.
Jenny: Thank you so much for having us. We are just so excited about the work you’re doing, and anxious to get all these kids on a good path.
Three Episode Takeaways
Here are a few of Jenny’s pointers, if you’re interested in trying finger foods first.
Signs your baby is ready for solids
The World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend waiting until 6 months to start your baby on solids. At this age, most babies are able to self feed. Signs of readiness include: Are they able to sit up without toppling over? Do they have sufficient head control? And, are they interested in the food? If your baby isn’t ready, even a week can make a difference. So try again a little later.
How to handle picky eaters
If your child is showing signs of picky eating, consider shifting some of the control to your child. Handing them the spoon, or offering finger foods, can give them a sense of autonomy. Even if most of the food doesn’t make it into your child’s mouth, you have formula or breastmilk as a fallback. Try to focus less on how much your baby is eating and more on the skills and habits they are acquiring. The less pressure your child feels, the more enjoyable mealtime can be.
Gagging is normal
All babies gag. The gag reflex is really sensitive in young babies, and rests considerably more forward on the tongue than in adults. It’s a reflex that is stronger at 6 months than at 1 year — this is a good thing! If you wait too long to introduce solids, your baby’s first line of defense diminishes. Some common foods with which to introduce finger foods include omelets, salmon, pasta, and oatmeal. A mango pit is phenomenal for jaw strength!
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