There’s a moment, sometime around the five to six month mark, when you (perhaps foolishly) feel like you’ve got a handle on this whole looking after a baby thing. Just for now, right now, you think “I can do this!” We’re into a routine, we go to groups, she sleeps through the night, she smiles at people, I feel like we’re getting on fine. I don’t want to be smug, I’m just saying that for a moment, even a day, you’re doing much better than you ever imagined you would.
And then along comes weaning. And suddenly you’re floundering again.
There’s a lot of advice about weaning. A lot of it comes straight from the baby food companies. I signed up to all their websites (you get a lot of free stuff and money off vouchers plus it’s useful for research) so I get regular updates. These start arriving at about four months onwards.
The old advice was that you weaned the baby at four months. That’s now changed to six months and baby food companies have to comply. That doesn’t stop them from sending advice that starts with “the world health organisation says weaning at six months is best but if you feel like doing it early then try our baby rice…” or something like that. I held out to six months but people have been talking to me about it for much longer. We’ve been weaning for about a month now.
So the advice you get from the companies goes like this:
- start with baby rice or cereal
- then you can introduce pureed fruit and veg
- by seven months you can add a few lumps into the puree (they get very excited by this in the emails. God help us.)
- they can eat solids and finger food from ten months
Each step comes with recommendations for the right sort of packet food and a couple of money off coupons. Each company sends out packs to mothers that contain recipes and advice and plans for meals and so on. Very colourful, very friendly, very helpful. Or at least it is if your child wants to eat pureed mush and you have loads of spare time to spoon feed them. Everything is clearly labelled for you. And it doesn’t stop with food. The packets of formula milk for growing up babies all have little labels on the front saying “this is nutritionally better than cows’ milk” and, by the way, it’s £7 a box.
E is not and never has been interested in pureed foods. She’s independent and curious – exactly what I would want for her. Had I listened to only the usual advice I’m still not sure how much she’d be eating right now. Luckily for me, a friend had given me a book on baby led weaning and swore by it.
Only one of the baby food companies covers baby led weaning in their care packs. It reads “we, along with health professionals, do not recommend baby led weaning as you cannot tell how much your child has eaten.” And so the mother without a helpful friend ignores a solution, carries on trying to feed her baby puree and ends up stressing herself and the baby and mealtimes are a nightmare. (And by the way, unless you’re in another room or you’re a moron, you can tell how much they’ve eaten.)
Now, as someone who’s boycotted Nestle since 1994 I’m no stranger to insidious marketing techniques by baby food companies. What did come as a surprise to me was how much difference these techniques made to my thinking.
We went straight into baby led weaning so E is eating finger foods and feeding herself things that the companies say she shouldn’t be until at least next March. She’s happy, she’s alert and developing as she should. But still, the techniques play in my mind as I stare at all the lovely bright packets, should I just try her with some of this mushed up stuff instead? Perhaps I shouldn’t give her bits of veg that I’m also eating, perhaps I should try this packet instead? Or should I get the blender out, despite her picking up food and shoving it in her mouth? Perhaps her tummy can’t deal with it. Pretty soon these few questions graduate to become a constant voice in your head that questions whether you’re doing the right thing for your baby. Perhaps you’re not a good mother? says the voice.
Now I don’t want to dictate. Plenty of babies have been weaned by following the puree path and it’s been great for them and their parents. My problem is that not all babies are the same. I only found out about other kinds of weaning by a lucky break (thanks Rachel) but if I hadn’t I’d be in a right pickle.
Advice from my health visitor is minimal. She gave us a leaflet about safe foods and mentioned that if we were baby led weaning then we needed to make sure E has enough iron. She did not, as the food company suggested, warn us against that method. My mum and sister both did the puree route and both doubted baby led weaning. The baby food companies have the monopoly on advising mums about baby food. Very few of them answered the questions I had about weaning, especially about how to reduce milk feeds and introduce other drinks and how much food to give her at each meal (the exception being Hipp Organic which offered some guidance on this – thanks.)
It’s very cleverly and very skillfully done. You can’t help but admire it. It does exactly what they want which is for you to fork out a hell of a lot of cash. In this day and age cynical marketing techniques are everywhere but to prey on the minds of exhausted and stressed parents in financially straitened times seems pretty low to me. And it’s not just that. A quick Google search reveals that there are studies linking the introduction of baby food to childhood obesity. Spoon feeding prescribed amounts of rice into the mouth of a child that doesn’t want it seems an easy route to getting a chubby child that doesn’t pay attention to what its body is telling it.
The companies are doing just what they should – looking out for their best interests. But they seem to be the only side doing the talking in this debate.