Imagine you work in an office. You have been working there for about six months now, all is going well, you like the people around you, you know where everything is and who to ask for help. One morning you come in, and the key you used to open the door doesn’t work. Someone walks past and hands you a card, without a word, smiles and walks away. Ok, this card is different to any you have used before, how do you get it to work? You try and try, someone finally walks behind you, quickly does the trick for you and lets you in. You notice the office looks different, things are all in the wrong places. And someone was definitely playing with your chair! How can you work like this?! You look around, but nobody seems fussed, everyone is smiling at you, even though you have no idea what is going on.
What does this have to do with weaning?
Weaning is a change from something familiar, something your baby is used to, comfortable with, and ‘knows how it works’. Weaning is a big transition, it is a big step and a moment when everything changes – from the comfortable, familiar feeding sessions, it’s all new and different. How?
Whether until now you have been bottle- or breastfeeding your baby, introducing a spoon is a very different thing. Your baby has no idea what it is, why it should go anywhere near his mouth, and what you want to do with it. Imagine you are blindfolded and someone is feeding you something with a weird stick. Spoons are a normal thing in our household, we don’t think about them anymore – and why should we? But it’s something our babies have never used, seen, and it is to go in their mouth – it’s pretty intimate.
And that thing that is on the spoon? What is that?? Where is my warm, yummy milk?
It’s different consistency. Different taste. Different texture. Different color. Probably also different temperature. It is as big a change, as it can be. Again, try and remember when you are invited somewhere and you end up being offered something that looks like nothing you’d ever eaten. If you have travelled a lot, it probably happens all too often – how do you react? What is your first thought?
When we were travelling I often got offered food that looked like nothing I had ever seen. My first thought often was – I hope it’s not made of insects. I can assure you, I had to work really hard on keeping a straight face more than once when I saw what landed on my plate, or banana leaf. It takes time and a lot of courage – at least for me – to let something so unfamiliar end up in my mouth. It came back to me when we were feeding Antek in the first months – once I remembered that feeling, it was easier to give him all the time he needed to open his mouth and let us feed him. (Anna)
Until now, your baby was comfortably cradled in your arms while nursing, with the possibility of close body and eye contact. How can we keep this from changing too much, when we move on to the next stage?
Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber advocated for no high chairs. One of the reasons for not using high chairs is that often we start weaning before babies can sit up by themselves – we need to then put them in a position into which their bodies cannot yet get naturally. Another one being that babies will not be able to get in and out of high chairs by themselves, even as they grow older. It might be exactly the tempting thought of that, that makes parents go for it. But do you really want to tie your child to their seat with food in front of them? (We had a high chair in the beginning, and moving Antek to our lap after a while made us aware of how much more intimate and enjoyable the feeding was. He was close to one of us, even when the food was somewhat strange the body contact helped him relax and feel a bit more at ease with the whole situation. Anna)
Of course it’s impossible to keep your baby in the same position that you did while breast- or bottle-feeding, but there are a few differences between the cuddled arm position and the high chair.
Everything really is different when we start the weaning process. Change is something we need to get used to, something we need to tame so that we can work with the new conditions and new expectations. New passages have to form in our brain (that takes time), and we need to develop new habits – this, as we all know too well, takes a lot of time. How can you help?
Here is Emmi Pikler’s way to baby-led weaning
Emmi Pikler intensely focused on all the different changes that come along when weaning your baby, and she suggested that there should always be just ONE change at a time. So when moving from breast/bottle milk to spoon-fed solids there were many little steps in between.
- Offering milk or tea in a glass instead of bottle or breast;
- Once the child is used to the glass she would also offer first mashed vegetables from a glass (a little more on the liquid side obviously);
- Only when the child is used to glass AND the new taste and consistency of food would she introduce the spoon;
- And once the spoon is a well-known companion, the food would get more solid, the position of feeding would slowly change to be a little more upright;
- Once the child is used to the new food, the spoon and the position he would be placed on a little chair and by a small table (by then his motor development would allow this)
In terms of positioning the baby when offering solid foods Emmi Pikler suggested a slow transition process too. From the arms of the caregiver the children would move to a half-seating position on the lap. And then, once they were (i) able to sit up by themselves, and (ii) used to something other than breast or bottle, would she allow placing them at a little table. The chair was matched for size, so the child could get on and off by himself.
When I first saw this little table – apart from finding it lovely and cute – I thought – I don‘t want my child to sit in there while I have dinner with my husband at our table. It felt like leaving him all one. Little did I know that at an age where a child is sitting at a table that small there is no common family meal. There is no „having dinner together“.
We didn‘t buy this table but got a high chair that he could climb up himself (obviously much, much later). Only after a few months and „disturbed“ meals where I had to take care of him and go back to feeding him on my lap instead of us all just enjoying a meal together I realised that children not only take food at meal times. They take our attention. It‘s nourishment for the body as well as for the soul. (Nadine)
Pikler‘s thought was the same as with the diaper changes – when a child has had our undivided attention and full presence during those feeding times, he would be able to engage in play on his own while we – the parents – enjoy our meal together.
This sounds like a lot of work. Much to think through before starting with solids. And a long walk from breast- or bottle feeding to the meal at the family table. But in the end – this is what it is. A long journey. A big transition. From being closely cuddled up with just mom or dad while enjoying some warm milk – to sitting at a table with plates and cutlery, a variety of foods and the constant inner question of being full or not.
„Family meals are very, very rarely pleasurable when babies are included. Not only do babies not have any table manners, they need constant attention, create a mess, and I cannot see why such a tense atmosphere is desirable.
I prefer that the parent feed the baby ahead of time (and maybe even for the baby to be in bed) by the time the parents enjoy a well-deserved, peaceful meal. When children can participate in table conversations, they are ready to join the family at the table.“ (Magda Gerber „Dear parent: Caring for infants with respect“)
This may seem very „old fashioned“ to many of you as it did to us too. Now that our boys are 2,5 years old, can mainly eat by themselves and talk (sometimes A LOT), those family meals are finally becoming pleasurable and fun.
But I have to admit that until a few weeks ago it was rather stressful – to have the meal ready on time otherwise Leander would be impatient,
- to constantly have to check if he is eating or throwing the food
- to have him change places (his chair, my lap, my husband‘s lap)
- to not have a conversation or simply being able to EAT. (Nadine)
During those many parent evenings Nadine attended in the past two years, and the number of talks Anna has had with other parents, feeding and mealtimes were a constant topic for many parents. Most of it has to do with our expectations, our own experiences as a child and our impatience.
We are not denying that there may be problems and not all babies are happy to accept this whole transition at the moment we think is right. And not all babies accept the food we offer straight away. Or the spoon. Or the change in position. But what we are trying to offer here is a little food for thought. So we can understand our babies and lead and accompany them through the whole process mindfully and respectfully. To set a strong foundation for all those future mealtimes that are still to come when our children grow older.
“‘When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,’ said Piglet at last, ‘what’s the first thing you say to yourself?’ ‘What’s for breakfast?’ said Pooh. ‘What do you say, Piglet?’ ‘I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ said Piglet. Pooh nodded thoughtfully. ‘It’s the same thing,’ he said.”