Illustration of a baby salivating while looking at a steak
Illustration: Lorenzo Matteucci

The Fierce Debate Over How to Feed Your Baby

From rigid paediatric guidance to baby-led weaning, there's never been so much fuss about how parents should get their baby to start eating solids.
Giorgia Cannarella
Bologna, IT
LM
illustrated by Lorenzo Matteucci

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

Before giving birth, I had many convictions about the kind of mother I would be – convictions that later fell apart, one by one. My motherhood journey has been more about unlearning; getting rid of the cumbersome baggage of who I dreamed of being and coming to terms with what I could actually do.

Advertisement

Before this process, I was overly confident, even about things that were still far-off in my baby’s life, like getting them to eat actual food. Of course, I needed a reality check: Everything was going to be far more complicated than I’d imagined.

Weaning is the process of a baby’s transition from a liquid diet to solid foods. It usually occurs around six months in, when breast milk or formula is no longer enough for the their nutritional needs and they have the motor skills to stand upright, grab food, chew and spit. It’s an inevitable and fundamental part of growing, but experts disagree on when and how exactly it should be implemented.

If any millennial or gen Z today were to ask their parents about how they were weaned, they would all more or less get the same answers. Paediatricians would provide parents with a detailed plan that went something like this: some fruit and veggies in purée form at four and a half months; broth and cereals from five and a half months; and then, bit by bit, a sprinkling of parmesan, a drizzle of oil here and there, and more food groups gradually. This was the first approach to food for almost all of us.

Then, in the early 2000s, the concept of baby-led weaning started emerging, popularised by the book Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby to Love Good Food by British author Gill Rapley, who worked in public health for 20 years and had also been a midwife and breastfeeding counsellor.

Advertisement

This marked the beginning of a different approach to first meals: Babies, the author said, can eat what we eat. They can continue to drink breast milk or formula as much as they like, as long as they literally get their hands dirty with regular food, making a mess while exploring meals. 

Baby-led weaning preaches the importance of infants feeding themselves instead of relying on parents to spoon-feed them. Playing games like aeroplane spoon isn’t advisable, as it distracts them from the experience of eating. Babies should also eat at the same time as the entire family, basically picking whatever they want from the adult’s table.

I spoke about this approach with nutritionist Francesca Ghelfi, member of the the Need For Nutrition Education/Innovation Programme (NNEdPro), an international network affiliated with the University of Cambridge that promotes nutritional education. She’s also just published a book about weaning, Svezzamento Senza Pensieri (“Carefree Weaning”, only available in Italian), which has proved to be the most sensible and useful reading I have done on the subject.

Advertisement

“Science can give us some answers, but they need to be adjusted to our reality,” Ghelfi said. “There is no one right way to wean babies.” 

The premise of baby-led weaning is letting babies eat whatever family food they find interesting, so Ghelfi believes that the most important thing that parents who want to try this approach can do is to make sure their diet is nutritionally balanced. Otherwise, the baby would “risk eating food that’s either too salty, too sweet, too greasy, or with too much protein for them,” she explained.

Baby-led weaning is so new we don’t have much science-based information about the benefits it could provide. Researchers hypothesise that it might lead children to develop better food regulation skills later in life and to become less picky around the age of two, when children start to express food preferences. On the other hand, baby-led weaning could also bring about deficiencies in the infant’s diet and present a choking hazard if the food isn’t cut safely. Currently, we just don’t have enough research on this yet.

Advertisement

Milan-based paediatrician Dr Marco Nuara thinks it doesn’t make much sense to distinguish so strictly between different approaches of weaning. “I like to talk about intelligent weaning,” he said. “Scientific literature tells us what nutrients a child needs: carbohydrates, fats, iron. As a basic guideline, they can get these from cereals, legumes, eggs, fish, meat, nuts. It's up to us to do the rest.”

So, freedom for all, we just give our babies what they like? Sounds good, except there’s also another dynamic at play. In recent years, it has become a trend, a challenge even, to post pictures of your baby eating adult foods all by themselves on social media. It’s all part of this cultural model that makes being a mother today so exhausting: We’re continually bombarded with information on what is best for our children and, above all, how much we should do and how much time we should devote to them (read: as much as possible).

Of course, fathers aren’t even part of the picture – it is obviously the mother who has to feed, nay, nurture her own child. In one of these cursed Facebook groups, I read the post of a mother who started off by saying “I would like some support.” Then, talking about her daughter, she wrote, "We are still afraid to give her pasta, and by pasta of course I mean fusilli, farfalle, spaghetti,” continuing to explain that she felt guilty about “somehow 'limiting' my little girl”. A shower of commenters below the post shamed her – “Really, you don't give her pasta?” or, “What are you afraid of?” Her daughter is eight months old.

Advertisement

If, in the past, parents would strictly and anxiously follow paediatric guidance, we’ve now come to a point where people are following advice from strangers on the internet. They’re elbowing each other to feed their kids as though they were adults. But does that really make a difference when, in a few months’ time, they will all be eating the same things? Or is this all just an elaborate ego boost for the parents? 

“Some children just won’t eat the finger food right away,” Nuara said. “Food for them represents a lot of novelties all at once and it is important not to make them develop an aversion to it.” In short, if you don’t feel that adult food is right for your kid, it’s better to just go ahead with the classic purées rather than to stress out about feeding times.

“Parents come to me with an Instagram caption and think that they have it all figured out,” Nuara continued. “My suggestion? Prepare your baby their own food, based on their developmental stage and preferences, but always let them taste what you eat too.”

Unfortunately, baby food has also somehow become a victim at the altar of perfect motherhood, especially if it comes in a jar on a supermarket shelf. To me, however, this snobbery is the ultimate reminder of how weaning is actually a matter of social and cultural privilege. Having time to cook balanced and nutritious food for your baby at all times is only accessible to very few parents. 

“Is there anything wrong with baby food itself?” I asked Ghelfi. "No. It is incredibly convenient,” she said. The only “problem” with baby food is that it is not varied in terms of taste, but it’s perfectly fine from a nutrition perspective, she continued.

Watching my own son discover food is beautiful, but this will be a long process. In the meantime, I try to cook for him as much as possible, but when we are out and about or on holiday, I just buy the pre-made stuff – and guess what, he likes that a lot. I’m also too anxious to give him fruit in big pieces, so I prefer to crush it instead.

As someone who is very passionate about food, I dreamt that he would eat everything right away, diving into buckets of pasta and sampling all the finer things in life. Instead, I had to come to terms with the fact that for now, at seven and a half months, he just prefers the creamy texture of plain old baby food. And that’s fine.