Self-feeding is natural for babies, whether they are breast-fed or bottle-fed. All babies are curious about their surroundings and, from around five months of age, they’re beginning to pick things up and take them to their mouths. However, breast-feeding plays a specific role in preparing babies for solid foods.
How Breast-feeding works?
Breast-feeding babies feed themselves at the breast. The mother has to hold her baby in a suitable position but the baby does the feeding, by scooping the breast into his mouth, then letting it go when he’s had enough. In fact, it’s impossible to force a baby to breast-feed—as you’ll know if you’ve tried it. So breast-fed babies are used to feeding themselves long before they start solids. A baby who is bottle-fed relies more on his mother to take the lead. He waits for her to put the nipple into his mouth and expects her to keep it there for as long as he needs.
How Much to Feed?
Breast-fed babies are always in control. They can vary how fast they feed and how much milk they take according to how hungry or thirsty they are. In contrast, the pace of a bottle-fed baby’s feeding is mainly determined by the size of the hole in the nipple. And it’s possible to persuade him to take more milk than he really wants, simply by wiggling the nipple in his mouth to make him suck (the sucking reflex is an unavoidable response—like a knee-jerk reflex).
Breast-feeding uses the muscles of the mouth in a different way from bottle-feeding. The action of the baby’s mouth during breast-feeding is similar to chewing, whereas bottle-feeding is closer to sucking through a straw. So the muscles of a bottle-fed baby’s mouth aren’t being prepared for chewing in the same way. This may mean that he takes slightly longer to learn to move food around his mouth effectively.
The flavor of breast milk varies from feeding to feeding, according to what the mother has eaten. So the breast-fed baby is used to a variety of tastes from the very beginning, whereas the baby who is formula-fed experiences only one taste. This means that the breast-fed baby will be less surprised by foods with different flavors, so will probably be more eager to experiment. By contrast, parents of formula-fed babies sometimes find that their baby is reluctant to try too many new flavors at once.
However, just because BLW is such a natural transition for breast-fed babies doesn’t mean it will be difficult for the formula-fed baby—it may simply take him a little longer to get going and be as adventurous as a breast-fed baby. Some other aspects of BLW will be slightly different for the formula-fed baby, too.
The Motivation to Feed.
The motivation for a six-month-old baby to take food to his mouth has nothing to do with hunger. Babies want to copy what others do, partly because they are curious and partly because their instinct tells them that this is the way to be sure that what they do is safe. So we shouldn’t be surprised that they want to handle the food they see their parents picking up.
Most of our development as babies—maybe even all of it—is connected to survival. A baby needs to know which foods are safe and which are poisonous, so he watches his parents closely to see what they put in their mouths. This starts to happen at around the same time as he begins to work out how to use his arms and hands to grab things.
A baby’s curiosity is so intense that if he wants to grab an object he will keep practicing the movements needed to get it, over and over again. And when he does manage to pick up something new, he almost always takes it to his mouth for exploring and testing. So when a baby first puts food in his mouth he is treating it just as he would a toy or any other object. Until he gets it there he has no idea that it has a taste, or that it is edible. If he manages to bite a piece off, he will munch it with his gums, discovering what it feels and tastes like. He is very unlikely to swallow it, partly because he doesn’t want to, but mostly because he can’t. He is not yet able to move a piece of food to the back of his mouth on purpose and, provided he is sitting upright and is not distracted, it is not likely to get there by accident. It will probably fall out of his mouth instead.
A baby who is allowed to take food to his mouth as soon as he can learns about the different textures and tastes of food long before he is able to swallow any. And he only very gradually discovers that food can make him feel full. His motivation for handling food only changes once he has made the connection with hunger. This is usually any time from eight months to a year or so. This timing is perfect, since it’s not until then that he really begins to need the food to provide him with nutrients.
Needing Extra Nutrients during Breast-feeding.
There is a myth that breast milk changes at around six months and is no longer “enough” for a baby. In fact, the breast milk produced by the mother of a six-month-old baby—or even a two-year-old—has almost exactly the same nutritional value as it has always had; what changes is the baby’s need for certain nutrients. Breast milk continues to be the single most nutritiously balanced food for babies and children almost indefinitely.
Babies are born with stores of nutrients accumulated during their time in the womb. These stores start to be used from the moment the baby is born but the amounts in his milk feedings are enough to ensure that he still has plenty. From six months onward, the balance shifts, so that the baby begins very gradually to need more from his diet than breast milk or formula alone can supply.
A baby’s slowly increasing need for more nutrients seems to coincide with the gradual development of his self-feeding skills. So at six months, when they still have a good store of nutrients, almost all babies are beginning to be able to pick food up and take it to their mouths. By around nine months, when the need for more nutrients is growing, most BLW babies have developed the skills they need to eat a wide range of family foods, which will provide them with the extra nourishment they need. It’s at about this age (though it varies quite a bit from baby to baby) that many BLW parents report their baby seems to be eating more purposefully—as though he instinctively knows that he actually needs this food in addition to his milk or formula.
Moving Away from Breast-feeding.
Many parents feel under pressure to reduce their child’s milk feedings so that he relies more on solid foods, but this shouldn’t be rushed. Between six and nine months, the amount of breast milk or formula should stay more or less the same while solid foods gradually increase. It’s only from about nine months that milk feedings begin to be reduced and solids start to take over. If a baby is allowed to determine the start of solid feeding and the pace of its progress he will follow his own natural path toward more solids and less milk.
Babies vary enormously in the pace at which they come to grips with solid feeding and then begin to move away from breast milk or formula. Some babies start swallowing food almost straight away (at six months), and by nine months they are competent self-feeders who are already beginning to cut down their milk feedings.
Other babies start very gradually, showing no real interest in doing more than exploring solid foods until they are well over eight months, and still eating only small amounts at 10 or even 12 months.
And of course, there are many variations in between. There are babies who start off very enthusiastically but who seem to slow down after a few weeks. And there are those who seem to take ages to take any interest in solids—but, once they do, develop with amazing speed.
Many babies do things in bursts, alternating weeks when nothing much seems to happen with weeks when they’re doing something new every day. All of this is completely normal—and is very different from the sort of steady, stage-by-stage progress that parents are led to expect when their baby is on puréed foods.