Birdie’s 6th month on this earth is fast approaching, and I can’t help but feel the pressure to feed her mush. Mushy rice cereal. Mushy peas. How does runny peach mush sound to you?
Or maybe mystery meat mush with gravy? Have you actually smelled that stuff? It stinks like canned dog food.
And I’m expected to spoon it into her mouth with a goofy grin on my face while making plane noises to distract her enough to swallow. Perhaps there’s something to the fact that babies don’t want to eat their daily mush.
Anyone who has played the blindfolded baby food game at a baby shower knows that the flavor is definitely lacking and the texture is gag inducing.
If babies protest so much, why do modern parents continue to spoon mush into mouths clenched in disgust? Let’s look at the significance of baby purees throughout the years for some insight.
Throughout history and up until just a few generations ago, it was generally recommended that babies who were not breastfed and couldn’t tolerate cow’s milk should begin to receive cereal and pureed foods as early as the first month after birth. (Don’t believe me? Ask your grandmother.) Since the babies were so young, the food had to be pureed in order to be swallowed since their tongue thrust reflex was so strong.
- What’s the tongue thrust reflex? Have you ever seen a baby being fed a spoonful of something and his tongue pushes it right back out? That’s the tongue thrust reflex. From the time a baby is born until somewhere around 4 months of age, his tongue naturally pushes anything that enters the mouth outward, protecting the baby from choking. Between 4 and 6 months the tongue thrust reflex begins to diminish, allowing the natural progression from exclusive breastfeeding to solid foods to begin.
Thus, pureed vegetables and fruits became a staple baby food and have been ingrained in the minds of parents that they must be the way babies are fed. Why? Because that’s how babies have been fed from generation to generation. Food historians have found recipes for feeding infants like those found in Cookery for Children by Sophia Hale in 1852, tucked in sections for feeding invalids since they shared similar qualities; the foods required to feed babies and invalids needed to be high in nutrients and easy to digest, and they were generally made of strained/mashed vegetables and finely ground grains. Women who followed the practice of pureed foods spent hours each week cooking and straining foods to feed to their babies.
The industrial revolution and advances in sterilization brought the advent of manufactured baby food, which was touted to be superior to food that was prepared at home. In 1928 The Gerber Canning Company advertised its new line of baby foods in Child’s Life magazine at the special price of 6 cans for a dollar; a real deal at half of the price of other baby foods on the market. The affordable price of canned food in general led to the expansion of the Gerber company as well as the success of canned baby food. Over time, mothers switched from feeding babies homemade food to exclusively spooning manufactured meals stamped with that sweet baby face into hungry mouths.
- Interesting fact: The Gerber baby, often thought to be the image of someone famous like Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, is actually that of mystery novelist Ann Turner Cook. In 1928 Daniel Gerber was searching for the face to represent his baby food line and was so enchanted with the simple charcoal sketch of an infant Ann Turner Cook, that he used the unfinished image as the logo for his baby products. Even after 80 years, the cherubic image of the Gerber baby is one of the most easily recognized product logos on the market.
You may be wondering why I’m giving you the historical run-down of pureed baby foods, so I will explain with a somewhat extreme analogy. Modern medicine has dispelled through research, practices that were commonly regarded to be healthy such as smoking cigarettes. With the progression of science and the advances made in the medical field, we now know that cigarettes are highly unhealthy and cause a multitude of problems, some of which they were claimed to cure. Thus the public who once regarded smoking as a way to advance health, now know that smoking carries high risks of cancer and other health hazards. In short, advances in medicine have shown practices thought to be healthy and normal to be hazardous.
Although the discovery mentioned below is not as extreme as that mentioned above, we can thank modern medicine for showing us that feeding children under 6 months can be a very dangerous practice since babies are born with an open gut.
- When an infant is born, the cells lining his digestive tract have spaces between them allowing macromolecules such as pathogens and proteins to pass through the cell wall and enter the blood stream. This spacing is commonly referred to as an open gut. The baby, who was designed to be fed naturally with breast milk, receives beneficial antibodies that pass through the open gut and coat the lining of the digestive tract, acting as a natural barrier against illnesses and foreign antigens that could trigger allergies. The spacing between the cells does not discriminate between the macromolecules that pass through, so large proteins from a foreign substance can just as easily enter the baby’s bloodstream and trigger an allergic disposition or reaction. Generally speaking, anything fed to a baby whose gut has not “closed” (the cell walls have grown closely enough to block passage into the blood stream), can enter the baby’s blood stream and carry with it the building blocks for illnesses and allergic reactions.
Science has also shown that an infant’s digestive system does not have the proper levels of gastric acids and enzymes required to break down proteins, starches, carbohydrates and fats until 6 months of age. Introduction of solid foods like baby cereals and purees before 6 months of age can lead to constipation, gas and digestive upset, all of which lead to a very uncomfortable and often cranky baby.
The medical indications surrounding infant nutrition are so strong that the following organizations all recommend that babies be feed an exclusive diet of breast milk until 6 months of age:
- World Health Organization
- US Department of Health & Human Services
- American Academy of Pediatrics
- American Academy of Family Physicians
- American Dietetic Association
So, back to that mushy stuff that everyone seems to be pushing you to feed your baby. If your baby is younger than 6 months of age, her little body is not mature enough to handle solid foods. My sweet Birdie falls into this category, so she’s still a boob-only gal.
When babies hit the 6 month mark or begin to show the signs that they are ready for solids, pureed foods are unnecessary because the baby, regardless of the number of teeth, can actually consume food that hasn’t been mashed and beaten to a pulp. Remember that purees were created because they were used for very young babies and over the years became “the norm” for infant nutrition.
A baby who shows all of the signs that she is ready for solids, no longer needs the food to be runny. She also doesn’t need it to be spooned into her mouth as she has the ability to pick it up herself and place it into her mouth. This “revolutionary” way of feeding is often called baby led weaning, and has older generations in an apoplectic tizzy of unease despite the fact that it has been the normal way of weaning babies in countries where women do not have the time or resources to cook and puree baby foods. Babies simply breastfeed until they are able to handle food and feed themselves. At that time they join in on the family meals, enjoying the same foods that their mom, dad and siblings eat. Sounds pretty simple, right?
But we who live in industrialized societies seem to look down upon the ways of the third world. In fact, most don’t know anything about baby led weaning, so parents gladly follow tradition and frown on anything but that which is a runny mess for baby’s first meal.
As for us, we’ll pass on the mushed peas and carrots. We’ll say, “No thank you,” to the pureed potted mystery meats and slimy peach goop. Instead our Birdie will simply say, “I’ll have what you’re having, Mom,” with a big gummy grin full of wholesome table food.