When her daughter Hana (pictured) was ready for solid food at six months, Ms Sharifah Azizah did not feed her pureed food like many other parents do for their children.
Instead, she placed avocado wedges on Hana’s high chair tray and let her try to feed herself.
The 28-year-old recalls with a laugh: “Nothing went into her mouth. She just played with her food, squeezing it and making a huge mess out of it. Some went on her shirt, most of it landed on the floor.”
But Ms Azizah, a primary school teacher who is on no-pay leave to take care of her firstborn, persisted.
At mealtimes, she offered Hana avocado and fruit such as pear wedges, vegetables such as steamed broccoli florets and finger-sized sweet potato, and strips of steamed chicken and minced beef ball.
Now one year old, Hana joins mummy and daddy at the dining table for meals and uses her fingers to feed herself food such as pasta, fried beehoon and rice balls, food the family eats, albeit without any salt and sugar added.
She finishes her food most of the time and only about 10 to 20 per cent ends up on the floor these days.
Says Ms Azizah: “Since she never really felt forced to eat, she looks forward to mealtimes.”
What she did with Hana is called baby-led weaning, a term coined by British health visitor and midwife Gill Rapley, who co-wrote the best-selling weaning book Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby To Love Good Food.
Should you try baby-led weaning?
The practice skips the conventional way of spoonfeeding a baby when he is ready for solids and goes straight to letting him feed himself on finger foods, which traditionally are introduced later in the weaning process.
It seems to be getting more popular here in Singapore.
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Among its touted benefits are that it encourages confidence and independence from an earlier age by allowing the child to experiment with food at his own pace.
Ms Pauline Xie, a senior dietitian at National Healthcare Group Polyclinics, says that unlike traditional weaning, where a child may overeat as his carer decides how much to spoonfeed, in baby-led weaning, the baby eats at his own pace and regulates his own intake.
She adds that the practice also gives the child more opportunities to develop his motor and chewing skills. Chewing helps jaw movement development, which has an impact on speech.
There are benefits for caregivers too. Other than making sure that there is variety and that the food is of the right size, they do not need to cook separate meals for the child. In traditional weaning, they have to spend time to separately steam and blend or puree food for the child.
One mummy who attests to its benefits is Mrs Serene Mahaffy, 35.
Her first child, Ryder, who turns four next month, was weaned the traditional way. He had to be coaxed and distracted with a tablet and toys during mealtimes and started eating independently only at 3½ years.
With her second child, Rory (pictured with Mrs Mahaffy), she used baby-led weaning.
Now 16 months, he has been feeding himself from the very first time he was given solid food – a whole banana – at six months and the toothless infant gummed up a quarter of it.
Says Mrs Mahaffy, who works in the banking industry: “These days, he eats more than some adults and really enjoys his food and mealtimes. He is also very skilled at using cutlery – we started him on it at about 14 months old. There are no toys or iPads required at mealtimes.
“Although his older brother has shaped up his eating habits as he was being outdone by his baby brother, Rory still eats more and eats everything, while Ryder will not touch any veggies.”
While she cannot be certain that the weaning method is solely responsible for the outcome in her children, she said that for her, at least, it debunks the thinking that baby-led weaning causes babies to be more picky with their food.
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However, one initial concern she had about the practice was choking. To learn to tell the difference between gagging (which is usually harmless) and choking (which can be fatal), she and her husband read up on it extensively and also watched YouTube videos.
They also got their helper, who became Rory’s main caregiver from eight months after Mrs Mahaffy went back to work, to go for first aid training.
Says Mrs Mahaffy: “Thankfully, Rory had only a few gagging incidents at the start and no choking incidents.”
While there are claims that babies may choke on their food as a result of baby-led weaning, experts say the risk is also present in conventional feeding.
Don’t neglect your baby’s nutritional needs
But those practising baby-led weaning have to be careful that their children get enough nutrition.
Ms Ada Tok, a senior speech therapist from the Paediatric Feeding and Nutrition Clinic at National University Hospital, says that as the child is still developing the oromotor skills needed to manage table food that the family eats, he will be able to take these foods only in small amounts.
This may lead to inadequate nutrition and an increased reliance on milk feeds to feel full at a time when he needs more calories from solids.
Unlike solids, milk may not be able to provide enough calories for children as they become physically more active.
Ms Tok says that easier mouth movements and tongue coordination are needed to consume pureed food and hence enables the child to receive more nutrition.
But parents whose babies are breastfed say they are not overly concerned about the lack of nutrients from solids in the first year.
Mrs Stephanie Lim, 29, a stay-at-home mum to a 19-month-old daughter, says: “I believe that breast milk should still be the best form of nutrition for my daughter in the first year.
“But at the same time, I practised baby-led weaning because I wanted to let her practise eating-related motor skills, so that by the first year, she would have all the skills she needs to self-feed sufficient solids.”
Ms Celine Chan, 36, played it safe and resorted to both traditional and baby-led weaning for her son, Caelon, now 18 months.
Hence, when she started him on solids at six months, she would prepare half an avocado or sweet potato for instance, and let him “play” with it first, before feeding him the remaining half of the food, which was blended.
Says Ms Chan, who shares recipes of her son’s meals at grubngrow.blogspot.sg: “I wanted him to develop his motor skills, but at the same time, I didn’t want him to miss out on any nutrients because he didn’t eat enough.”
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Be prepared for the mess
Whether they went the whole hog or not, parents who tried baby-led weaning agreed that it could be very messy.
Mrs Mahaffy and Ms Azizah let their babies wear only diapers during mealtimes. They bathe the tots and hose down their high chair after every meal.
Mrs Mahaffy does not mind the extra work. “For me, the 10 minutes of cleaning is worth the 20 minutes or more of trying to get a child to eat,” she says.
When eating out or at other people’s homes, Ms Azizah had a strategy, especially in the early stages when most of the food ended up on the floor.
“It wasn’t very nice to dirty other people’s place, so we tried to prepare food such as banana muffin that we were sure our daughter would eat and make less of a mess,” she says.
Despite the benefits of baby-led weaning, Ms Cindy Gan, 31, a freelance writer, practises it with her daughter Vera only on weekends.
Her mother, Mrs Agnes Gan, who is Vera’s main caregiver on weekdays, was not comfortable with baby-led weaning, largely because she feared her granddaughter would choke.
Mrs Gan, who is in her early 60s, has since come around to the benefits of the method.
Having seen how Vera’s motor skills have improved with baby-led weaning, the granny would even prepare bread pieces and fruit slices for Vera to feed herself. But she still prefers to spoonfeed the child her lunch and dinner.
She says: “I want her to finish her food quickly while it’s still warm. Letting her feed herself usually takes longer.”
(Also read: Toddler takes too long to eat: what to do)
As beneficial as baby-led weaning seems, perhaps the key is to focus on the child and not the method.
Ms Tok recommends parents identify what works best for their children and what helps the little ones enjoy the weaning meal most.
She says: “This is because every child has a different personality and learning style.”
A version of this article appeared in The Straits Times.
(Photos: The Straits Times and 123RF.com)