Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The What Nobody Tells You Files: Starting solid foods

It's that six-month milestone that first-time parents seem to universally look forward to. You know. Food.

I mean, whether you plan to go with the baby-led, self-feeding-from-the-start model or you want to catch that classic "open wide for the choo-choo!" moment on camera, you know there's going to be some mega-cuteness associated with introducing your baby to solids.

And you're mostly prepared for the thing that everyone does tell you about. You know the thing. The poop. You can't ever truly prepare for the thrills to come, but if you're cloth diapering, you probably have your diaper sprayer installed. You did that right after you bought new batteries for the camera. You're all set!

But there are certain Things That Nobody Tells You about heading down the flavorful and textured path of Babies Eating Food:

1) If you don't have a dog, keep your mop handy. This is the beginning of a years-long foray into food-on-the-floor frustration. 

At first, your baby will accidentally drop lots of food on the floor. Who could be mad about that? Her fumbly little fingers are so cute picking up that slippery, slobbered-up banana chunk. 

She'll get a little neater as time goes on, but then she'll learn... to throw. Throwing food is FUN. It gets a great reaction from grown-ups: laughter the first few times, that trademarked "I'm pretending to ignore you" face that moms can be so bad at, and, after several weeks, complete and total frustration, which is even better than laughter. After a 200-comment thread that begins with you asking your Facebook friends if it's all normal, you'll either get the throwing game under control or (more likely) she'll outgrow it.

But by then she's doing two new things: wanting to use a utensil (sort of) and rejecting the high chair. Standing in it. Leaping out of it. Refusing to eat and reverting back to food-throwing unless she's seated elsewhere. And 'elsewhere' usually means somewhere messy, especially when spoons are involved.

Some moms find that 'splat mats,' washable mats that protect the floor, work well to combat this problem. Not having to clean the floor aside, you still have to clean the mat. I think that I would be a lazy splat mat mom, and my splat mat would have to be replaced every couple weeks due to mold growth.

2) Starting solids probably won't cut down on the number of times your baby wants to nurse or drink a bottle per day (or night). Some well meaning family members might tell you that the secret to getting more sleep or more time away from your baby is starting solids. This isn't necessarily true, especially in the very early stages of food introduction. Your baby should be getting most of his calories from breastmilk or formula until his birthday, and getting too many calories from food before the developmentally appropriate time has been linked to eventual obesity and diabetes.

As they say, "Food before one is just for fun!" If your six-month old baby's solids intake corresponds to longer stretches of sleep at night, it could be coincidence, just an age thing. Or it could actually mean your baby is taking in too many calories from a source that isn't complete nutrition for him, and he's having some trouble digesting it. The latter is more likely if you're spoon-feeding (and watching the measurements on the jar rather than your baby) than if the baby is using his own hands to experiment with food (because rarely will a baby be able to instinctively overeat). Note: plenty of parents who prefer to spoon-feed are careful to read their baby's cues and always stop when the baby is ready to, so if that's your preferred method for introducing foods, don't fret. You're doing this parenting thing just fine.

3) Once they start eating, you can kiss your own plate goodbye. Practice saying this now and get used to it: Everything looks better on my plate. Everything tastes better from my plate. Everything that I put in my hand is a swiping target. What's mine is yours, darling. Even my fork. Which just fell on the floor. Oh! There's the dog.... These things just happen.

4) Food battles happen anyway. There are certainly ways to introduce your babies to flavors and textures to avail them of good chances to develop an adventuresome foodie spirit, but there's a certain level of confirmation bias involved when anyone tells you, "Well, I just did __________, and Little Jack eats everything." Sometimes your baby eats everything, but that same baby becomes a toddler and preschooler who does not. And some babies will simply reject anything green from the onset.

Bottom line: you are not a failure if your child is a picky eater or is resistant to trying (or continuing to eat) certain foods. Your friend's anecdotal advice based on her own Perfect Snowflake's preference for Cuban cuisine is not proof that you didn't introduce enough variety during infancy. As your baby grows up, you can try all kinds of methods to encourage your picky child to develop an adventuresome palate (or at least learn to choke down what's served at a friend's house even if it does have parsley on top), but some people just don't branch out until adulthood.

(Confession: I didn't eat tomatoes until I was 23.)

Special thanks to all the moms to gave us permission to use their cuties' likenesses in this post!