Formula, cereal, baby food — Oh, my!

Once your baby is born, you will have to actively feed him, instead of passively as you do now through the umbilical cord. Obviously, breastmilk is best — it has many health benefits, it’s convenient, portable, always the right temperature, etc.

When our parents were infants, breastfeeding was out of fashion, and even actively discouraged by doctors. Such arrogance! They assumed that they could formulate a product superior to breastmilk, although they were well aware that babies fed straight cow’s milk often suffered. But they persisted, and finally formulated a product from cow’s milk that infants could usually tolerate. It was thicker than breastmilk and fattier than breastmilk, so doctors assumed it was better than breastmilk. ‘Tis to laugh! While formula-fed babies did grow bigger and fatter than babies fed their mother’s milk, it wasn’t a healthy weight gain — and I wonder if this contributed to the current older generation’s health problems and our nation’s obesity epidemic. (Not saying that fast food doesn’t have its full share of the blame, but getting off on the wrong foot isn’t a great start, now is it?)

I’ve read more than one older woman’s account of being made to feel ashamed by nursing her babies. Some people recoiled at it being so “primitive” (this was also in the era when birth was moving to hospitals, and anesthesia, episiotomy, and forceps were the flavor of the month, so as birth became less “primitive” and more “modern”, I guess breastfeeding had to follow suit). One woman who breastfed by choice said that her mother was horrified when she found out that she wasn’t bottle-feeding her child. Because the young couple was just starting out, the grandmother thought it must be because they couldn’t afford formula and bottles, so she offered to buy them, so that her daughter could get some “proper formula” for her child. My mother-in-law was intimidated by her mother-in-law into bottle-feeding three of her four children. My husband’s mother finally felt strong enough to go against her strong-willed mother-in-law with her youngest son. This is the era when La Leche League was begun, which blessedly reversed the anti-breastfeeding trend.

When my brother (now 38) was a baby, the doctor told my mom to start feeding him baby cereal at 6 weeks old. Yep, you read it right — SIX WEEKS of age. Nowadays, I think they’d consider that a choking hazard, and parents are urged not to feed their children anything but liquid food until they exhibit certain signs of readiness including being able to hold their heads up, and losing the tongue reflex that pushes objects out of the mouth. So, dutiful mother that she was, mom followed her idiot doctor’s instruction, and fed my brother baby cereal at six weeks of age. Of course, he spit out most of it, and severely spit up the rest. That was the first and only time she gave any of her babies food that young. Incidentally, but probably not coincidentally, my brother is the only one of us with allergies, which he’s had all of his life.

The typical advice nowadays is to start giving your baby something other than breastmilk or formula when he gets to be about 4-6 months old, depending on his signs of readiness. I’m not sure what the recommendations are, because I never intended to follow them, but I think it’s to start on baby cereal (mixing formula or breastmilk in with it) first, and follow that by endless little jars of commercially prepared baby food. I’m assuming all baby food companies do this, but I’ve seen Gerber commercials, so I’ll pick on them. They now conveniently offer expensive tiny jars of pureed foods, and slowly “graduate” the kids up to more table-like food, and up and up. I’m not sure how far up they go, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see in another few years “Gerber Kindergarten” food, if it’s not out already.

Gimme a break!

I’m not telling you how to do it (other than feeding your baby breastmilk instead of formula, unless you absolutely cannot — I will give you a guilt trip about that 🙂 — but it’s your choice to get on that trip), I’ll just tell you how I did it, and you can take it or leave it like everything else. I’m offering an alternative that I’ve not seen, pretty much from anybody, even the seriously “crunchy” people.

One of the core rhetorical questions I often ask myself is, “What did Eve do?” Y’know, the first woman — she didn’t have obstetricians, hospitals, epidurals, C-sections, Gerber, formula, Dr. Brown’s bottles, diapers, baby cribs, etc., etc., etc. So while the “average” American woman can’t imagine not having all of these things, I strive to remember that for most of recorded history, these things simply didn’t exist. But women have been having babies for millenia. So what did they do, before the onset of all of these modern inventions that are presumed to be necessities?

Obviously, without formula, there was just breastmilk; if the mother couldn’t do it (perhaps had died) or wouldn’t do it, then there were wet-nurses; milk from other animals (such as goats) sometimes filled in. Without Dr. Sears or Dr. Spock to tell these mothers when to transition their children from breast to solid food, what did they do? Without machines to reduce carrots and beans to pureed mush, when did infants start eating table food? Without Gerber to provide them with mashed and pureed food, what did they feed their children? (If any anthropologists who actually know the answer to this question are reading, feel free to provide more solid information.) I’ve read in a few places that these mothers would chew bits of food and give them to their children — rather like mama birds with their hatchlings. Obviously, some of these things may have been practice in one culture, without being practiced in other cultures, so all of this may be true. Some people may not have given their children solid food until they had teeth, or were a year old, or at some other stage.

Here’s what I did: I exclusively breastfed both of my babies until they were six months old. My older son was not as interested in table food as my younger son — with Seth, I was holding on by my fingertips to get to the six-month mark, which I find rather humorous now — why on earth was I so adamant about that? I don’t know — maybe pride? Anyway, they both teethed around the same time — 7 &1/2 months old — which I consider to be at least one of the signs of readiness — without teeth, they can’t really chew, now can they? With both of my kids, I started giving them small bits of table food if there was something prepared that they could eat — not too spicy, not too hard, etc. Mostly, it was to keep them interested and amused while at the table; I gave them little cubes of carrots, and let him put them in their mouths. Some stuff I smashed and spoon-fed; before long, I was letting them feed themselves. It was messy! But they fed themselves and had a splendid time, and learned hand-eye-mouth coordination at the same time. Since I let them go at their own paces, I avoided a lot of the trials that many parents have (which also make some pretty funny home videos), such as baby refusing to open his mouth, spitting/splattering out his food, or transitioning an older child into feeding himself. And if they slept through the meal, or we had something they couldn’t eat (like tacos, or something), then it was no big deal — I just nursed them as much as they wanted.

No formula — not a drop, even in baby cereal. Because I didn’t feed them baby cereal, either. Somebody gave me some jars of organic baby food, which I tried to feed my older son a couple of times. He refused to eat more than one bite. Even if I hadn’t been opposed to baby food on the Eve principle, or on the money principle, I would have been loathe to buy those expensive tiny jars of mashed food after that.

So, it can be done! Without a food masher, too. And, no, I didn’t chew food and give it to my babies, either. Some people exclusively breastfeed their babies until they are nearly a year old. My older son was nearly exclusively breastfed until he was about nine months old, but my younger son liked table food a lot more, so he breastfed less exclusively (although he nursed much longer) than Keith.


2 Responses

  1. I did the same with my second. Around 6 months I started with cereal. I didn’t want to use formula so I expressed breastmilk to mix with it. After only a couple of days I started asking myself, how is it possible that feeding a child can suddently transform from something so simple and intuitive as breastfeeding to something so complicated?!? So I started doing some research and happened upon a movement called “baby-led weaning”. It made so much sense to me! And from then on I basically just offered Micah chunks of suitable (careful of choking hazards and potential allergens) foods from our family meals. He was completely in charge of what he ate and how much he ate. He was never spoon-fed, we had no choking incidents, and he has no known allergies. Today he is a solid, healthy (still breastfeeding) two year old.

  2. Years ago I read this great article in Lancet ( I think) that discussed that babies are not ready for any grains until they have their first tooth because until then there is an absent enzeme in their lil bellies thay help them digest the grain.
    With my 4 youngest children I waited till they showed they were interested in food….reaching for it at the table. It happened for most by the time they were 8 months old..since they like to nurse while we had dinner it was an easy transition.
    I too never fed my spoon fed the younger ones…it was in the highchair and they were give lil bits of vegies and fruit and they ate what they wanted.
    With my older 2, I gave cereal at 3 months and I think it was the key reason my now 17 year old had so many stomach proplems now.

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