Having a fussy eater in the house can be a hair tearing experience, but according to British-nutritionist Vanessa Clarkson and author of Real Food for Babies and Toddlers, the foods we like and dislike are not predetermined before birth but actually the dislike of foods nearly always comes down to bad experiences when we are young, so in order to raise a non fussy eater the key is to being familiarised with real, whole foods as early on as possible. Join me in this Q&A with her to find out exactly she thinks you can raise non fussy eaters through baby led weaning:
UK toddlers are allegedly some of the fussiest in Europe….why do you think that is?
It’s difficult to say how much truth there is to this fact without direct experience of the different approaches people take to deal with fussiness. And I assume it’s a real mix in all countries, with parents responding in very different ways.
Firstly I want to say that being fussy with food is a completely normal part of a child’s development. It usually starts from around the age of one, peaks somewhere between 18-24 months and then drops off, although all children are different. That said, I can speak from personal experience when I say that you may still find random foods that your child turns their nose up to for a long time thereafter!
The key point here is how the fussiness is dealt with. Be mindful that all children learn their food likes and dislikes and so it is completely possible to encourage children to enjoy their ‘fussy food/s’ if you persist, and I mean really persist in offering it to them. Start with a very little amount alongside foods they do accept and praise them even if all they taste is a whisper of it. And you must keep going with the culprit foods on a regular basis. Some studies show upwards of 10 tries until you see a hint of a liking for something.
What part does baby led weaning have to play in the fight against fussiness?
Research tells us that babies and children learn to like foods through exposure, in other words, the more times they try a food, the more they will l like it. We also know that there is a window of about six-months from when they start their first foods when babies are more open to exploring the food you’re offering them. Because of these two points I think baby-led weaning has a number of advantages: firstly, you are very quickly teaching babies what broccoli (for example) looks, tastes and feels like in the mouth, as opposed to offering it in an unrecognisable puree form.
In puree form you’re essentially teaching them to like broccoli puree, not broccoli florets. And although all babies eventually move onto finger foods, even if they start with purees, with baby-led weaning you are starting that process much much sooner, and really taking advantage of that short six-month window of openness. Secondly, by sharing the same meal with your baby you’re also role-modelling to them what is expected at meal times. If you start with different foods to your baby, then you are teaching them that it’s completely normal for us to eat different foods to each other.
Could you give us a quick run down on how baby led weaning would work in practice for a family?
Look for cues that your baby is ready to start self-feeding – they should be able to sit comfortably with little or no support and be able to reach out for and grasp food and move it smoothly and confidently to their mouth. These skills usually come into play at around six-months.
Include your baby in your normal mealtimes and start by offering ‘finger-shaped’ pieces of whatever it is the family is eating. Finger foods are easier for beginners to handle for example, a strip of omelette or a toast ‘soldier’ with nut butter.
Be prepared to be patient, as it can take them some time to finish their food and also protect your carpet if your dining table is on one!
What about a combination approach of purees and baby led weaning?
Offering both purees and fingers foods is essentially the ‘traditional’ weaning approach that has been used for many years now. I hesitate to recommend this combination approach because the real advantage to allowing complete self-feeding is that you are giving your baby more opportunity to practise the skills they need. And the more practise they get, the quicker they’ll become adept. In other words, by using purees you are removing an opportunity where they could have otherwise been learning for themselves.
How much does creating an adventurous eater also come down to the parent’s attitude towards food?
I think a parent’s attitude to food is key. We are the number one role model for our children and if we aren’t filling our plates full of vegetables for example, then we can’t expect that our child will want to as well. A lovely quote I once came across sums this up nicely:
“[Kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”
― Jim Henson, It’s Not Easy Being Green: And Other Things to Consider
It is my firm belief that they won’t learn to like broccoli because we tell them it’s brilliant and will make them grow and be strong and so on (although that won’t hurt) but because broccoli is there. It’s a regular feature on our plates and we all eat it as if it were second nature, until it becomes second nature.
And how can social mealtimes help to alleviate fussy eating?
Again, I think that the social act of sharing a single meal is a really important to reinforce to little ones what is ‘normal’ for a family and what is expected. A few more people around the table can also soften the atmosphere, allowing for more relaxed conversation and less intense focus and attention on the food itself (which is what can build when parents become anxious that children aren’t eating the food put in front of them). You don’t want mealtimes to become a stalemate where it’s you, your child and the broccoli at dawn.
What do you have to say to those who think baby led weaning is just a fad?
These early weeks and months of feeding really do affect the long-term health and taste preferences of our children. For instance, there is emerging evidence that baby-led weaning supports babies with controlling their own appetite, reducing the risk of overweight or obesity later on.
I think it’s too easy to become complacent with infant feeding and think that it doesn’t matter. But it does, all of it and as best we can, given all the other pulls on us as parents, we should be mindful of what messages we’re sending to our little ones about how and what we eat.
What are your 5 top tips for nailing baby led weaning?
- Be creative – don’t shy away from a range of flavours, chances are they’ll be keen to try
- Be patient – meal times can take time
- Embrace the mess – it comes to us all, even puree-fed babies eventually need to self-feed
- Don’t overload their plate – a small number of options is better
- Go at their pace – watch them closely to see how their skills develop and introduce new shapes and textures accordingly
After weaning, what advice can you give parents who want to continue raising an adventurous eater?
My biggest tip is just to be consistent at being persistent. Chances are they will go through periods where they don’t like a particular food anymore – ride it out and continue to offer it. Keep encouraging them to try new foods along with foods they know and like. And as they get older, involve them as much as you can with food shopping and preparation.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Parents are sometimes concerned that baby-led weaning increases the risk of choking over and above spoon-feeding purees, but recent research shows that isn’t the case.
Lastly, enjoy the whole experience because it whizzes by. Be sure to have your camera at the ready to capture those wonderful facial expressions when they try something new for the first time.
Did you try baby led weaning and did you find that it made your child less fussy later on in life? Or perhaps you are thinking about trying baby led weaning? Do share in a comment below.
Nutritionist Vanessa Clarkson is the author of Real Food for Babies and Toddlers, out now available to buy at Waterstones and Amazon.