Food Is For Fun Until Age One
Ok, so for starters, the same way that we wait for 12-ish months for our babies to build their motor coordination in order to take their first solo steps, it’s important to give our kiddos several months of exploration and practice before we expect them to eat. They have spent the first 4-6 months of their life using very specific oral motor patterns to take the breast or bottle and now we are asking them to manage something completely different. Compared to those 12-ish months it takes to learn to walk, 6-ish months (from 6 months to one year) to get ready to take larger quantities of solid foods is really not that long actually! In the mean time, our babies are getting everything they need by way of nutrition and calories, from breastmilk or formula (ok, the only caveat here is iron- some babies may need iron if they are formula fed). They don’t need anything else until around one year, though many babies will eat plenty more before one year old. Many won’t though and that’s ok. One more time: they don’t need anything but your milk or formula until one year, and many babies really won’t eat much besides your milk or formula until one year. This is so important because when we start to prioritize solid foods for nutrition, it can make us eager and even anxious to get more quantity in them than they can physically handle. We worry that they won’t gain weight or they won’t grow well or be healthy if they don’t eat a bit more of the foods we are giving. But pushing more food than our babies want or can handle undermines their ability to listen to their bodies and causes a power struggle. It can scare them. It can make them feel like eating is hard and not enjoyable. When they are scared, stressed, and not having fun, they do not want to eat. So at the same time that we are stressing about how much they are eating, they are refusing more, and this makes us all the more anxious, setting up a vicious cycle. Our anxiety makes mealtime more stressful and less enjoyable for us and our babies and babies do not generally perform their best under this type of pressure. They refuse, we push; when it comes to feeding, baby will always win the power struggle.
So what does motivate babies to eat and what do we do with our babies between now and a year to encourage strong eating habits? For starters, we model. We let our babies watch us eat and we eat as large a variety of foods as we can to show them that food is safe and delicious and wonderful. Babies want whatever we have. They want to do whatever we are doing, so modeling the behavior and skills you want them to have is key to setting up life-long positive eating habits. At the same time, we safely and slowly help them work on improving their oral motor skills and adjust to new oral sensory experiences by giving them real food- bites of the same foods we eat (see Baby Led Weaning for more in depth info on what this looks like). Yes, there are some foods that we eat that our baby can’t/shouldn’t have (ie- honey, raw nuts, super salty foods). But on the whole from 6 months on, our babies can usually have al least a part of almost everything we eat. (Having chicken and roasted veggies? Your baby can munch on small pieces of chicken or hold and gnaw on most roasted veggies). Yes, you will need to provide very close supervision- but who let’s their 6 month old eat without supervison? And, yes, giving them some of your food can be really tough to watch because most babies can’t really chew and swallow very much (if any at all) of the foods we normally eat. It can feel like it’s not working because they didn’t really swallow anything! But then we remember that they are getting everything they need from our milk and formula and we recall that “food is for fun until age one!” and it helps us relax. When we relax, it’s easier to see that, in fact our baby learned way more about food and eating when given regular food. They are doing exactly what they should be doing- mouthing, tasting, exploring, moving their muscles, and learning from each mouthful…but not necessarily swallowing. And when we relax, they do too. Then they can enjoy the exploration and that’s the best way for them to learn.