Thursday, February 23, 2012

Food, Glorious Food

"Food is for eating, and good food is to be enjoyed... I think food is, actually, very beautiful in itself." Delia Smith

By the time I went back to work after the birth of my daughter, when she was 5 1/2 months old, she was ready to wean. I duly set about buying a few items of fruit and veg to puree for her. Her first taste of food was a baby spoon of banana  puree, mixed with a dash of breast milk. She loved it, even though most of it ended up dribbling down her chin, with very little of it actually finding its way into her stomach. 
At the time, there was frustratingly little information given to me by the health visitors: only that I should wait until she was six months old before starting the weaning process. I was confused by the information around about what to give her when, and worried about giving her something that she might be allergic to. 
I was given a book on weaning by my friend, which became my bible. It made a lot of sense to me because it was written by someone with a lot of knowledge about biochemistry and nutrition, so the weaning process was based on providing the exact nutrients needed for the baby, using a wide range of foods. It was written by a vegetarian, and she pretty much (not in so many words) condemned meat in the first chapter, but I ignored that bit, although I am now a trainee vegetarian!
I am not joking when I explain that when my daughter was ready to eat breakfast, I would drop her off at the nursery with a pot of porridge which consisted of: uncooked, ground-up oats, brown rice, quinoa, bran, and pearl barley. You should have seen what it did to my mixer! The idea was that these ingredients contained a huge amount of vitamins, proteins and fibre, and were perfect to help develop her immunity, organs and generally make her into Superbaby. But that wasn't the whole sum of the breakfast; oh no no no! On top of that, to complete her perfectly-balanced breakfast, was a defrosted cube of pureed, cooked courgette, and a sprinkling of brewer's yeast, all mixed up with 50mls of mama's finest, creamy milk. 
Understandably, the nursery staff looked at the green splodgy bowl of porridge with disgust, and at me with hidden contempt: how could I feed my daughter such muck?! But I only cared about making sure she was able to eat the best I could give her. My feeling at the time was that I had breastfed her to make sure she got the best; and for the next six months I was determined to give her the best start to her eating career. On reflection, perhaps I tried a bit too hard with her as far as feeding her went - but she ate EVERYTHING I put down in front of her. 
This could be because at breakfast time she was so hungry that she ate the sloppy porridge I fed her just to satisfy her need for food; which, as disgusting as it was, made everything else I offered her taste like the food of the Gods. She ate liver (bleugh) when she was seven months old, one of my proudest moments - if only because I managed to hide my disgust whilst helping her put it into her mouth. I even apologised to her as I sat down at the table with her to feed it to her - but she loved it! (she wouldn't touch it now, though).
And so it went on. Lots of finely-tuned food, biochemically matched to within an inch of a bottom quark (feel free to tell me what one of those is, because I have no idea, although it sends me into schoolgirl sniggers every time I hear or read the words), enough to provide my daughter's gastro-intestinal tract with an abundance of superfood in her first year of life. Each week, my partner and I would spend an hour chopping, boiling, stirring and whizzing up a concoction of brightly-coloured ice-cube trays, which was laborious but always seemed better after a glass or two of wine, banter and food-tasting.
We have asthma in our family, so I was very careful about introducing some foods. She was a year old before she had anything dairy-based or containing wheat. She had refined sugars after her first birthday, and once she had discovered the miracle of cheese, nothing could stop her enjoying a wider variety of foods.
However, my careful diet and desire to give her a great start in life did not prevent her asthma. Although difficult to diagnose in babies, she was frequently wheezing, and required several hospital visits for nebulised Ventolin, and was under the care of a consultant to treat her symptoms. She was so wheezy that she was unable to crawl without coughing or getting out of breath, so she bypassed the whole crawling stage until she could cruise around the room. I couldn't imagine how much worse things would have been if I hadn't breastfed her, or if I had given her dairy at an earlier age.
Then, at the age of three, she developed an intolerance to cow's milk protein. I felt terrible that I had somehow caused it (which I obviously hadn't, but mother's guilt had taken over), but it's apparently quite possible that she developed an intolerance to cow's milk protein following a viral illness.
Happily, things are fairly well-controlled now, and she can tolerate some dairy, but she prefers goat, soya or oat milk. She is nearly 7, and a very good eater - although she likes to take her time at the table, which is a mixed blessing!
By the time my son was born, I had read  Jill Rapley's paper on baby-led weaning, which seemed to make so much sense. I decided to opt for this method of weaning, which is a natural progression for breastfed babies. 
The reason it clicked with me is that it primarily allows the baby to make its own choices about what they eat: putting a selection of foods in front of them, and allowing them to pick up what appeals to them. Hard foods like carrot will need to be cut into matchstick-sized pieces and par-boiled (not presented raw and whole, as in my picture, above!), and constant supervision is required, but the baby can feed themselves as soon as they are able to. It's also fantastic for generating a social atmosphere for the baby to be involved in: sitting at the table with the rest of the family, eating the same food as everyone else.
Developmentally, a baby will only pick up what it is able to. For example, a big piece of carrot is easier for a 6 month-old baby to pick up than a raisin. A piece of cooked carrot is unlikely to cause choking. If an adult places a raisin into the 6 month-old baby's mouth, it is possible that it will cause them to choke. Babies will regulate what they put into their mouths and what they will swallow, spit out or play with or throw onto the floor. The mature pincer grip doesn't develop until the baby is able to swallow a piece of food as small as a raisin. It's a feature of safety in nature, and to me this makes perfect sense. Why spend ages mashing food up and then spoon-feeding a baby, when it can explore, learn about, and play with its food? Breast-milk should still be a main composition of a baby's diet until around the age of a year, with the weaning process taking a gradually greater role from the age of six months. 
My son's first food was a slice of grilled lamb which he stole from my plate, whilst I had him in my lap. He didn't "eat" it - he picked it up, shook it a bit, then put it into his mouth. He sucked on it, pulled a face, put it back on my plate and picked up a piece of tomato. He tried to put it into his mouth, but he dropped it. This was the beginning of his exploration of food, and one he is still engaging in. He will try anything I give to him, but won't necessarily enjoy it! At the age of 3 he will use a knife and fork; he grazes throughout the day and eats whatever it is that he needs. I don't try to get him to clear his plate - to me it is about providing a feast for the eyes, from which he decides what he puts into his mouth, and how much of it. He's healthy, in proportion, and following his centiles.
So why wait until six months before beginning weaning? There are a variety of factors relating to an increased risk of allergies, gastrointestinal infection, and taking less breast-milk than they need, resulting in a reduction of the nutrients they require. There was a study, published in 2011, in which the authors concluded that weaning breastfed babies before six months would be beneficial. The study was flawed, and three of the four authors had previously worked in the formula or baby-food manufacture within the past three years. Please read this analysis of the paper, disputing their "evidence". 

I understand how tempting it is to begin weaning early, but the process should be about looking at the baby. Look for the signs they are ready to wean, take things slowly, have fun, and enjoy watching your baby's next developmental milestones.

My children have a healthy attitude towards food. They tend to graze on healthy food during the day, eat their main meals (as much as they want to eat, with some gentle coaxing if they're tired or distracted), and they know why it is important to eat healthily. 

Having said this, as I type there is fish and chips in the oven (slutty food, as I call it) because I have been too busy to make anything fresh today - but with this sort of food it means they get the rough with the smooth, once in a while, so that they know what's right and what's not! 

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About Me

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I am a mum to two children, a registered nurse, a trainee breastfeeding counsellor, reiki practitioner, photographer, and generally into keeping things natural. Going back to the basics in life, respecting nature, the planet, and each other. Teaching this to my children and others who are interested. This blog comes from a good place, and is intended to give the reader an opportunity to look at things from a different perspective, and make an informed choice. I welcome constructive comments and would like it if you could share (acknowledging me as the source) and follow the blog. Many thanks!