Wednesday, August 30, 2006

How to Ward off the Food Police

Decisions regarding infant feeding are all too often viewed as a matter open for discussion or debate. Many relatives, at family gatherings, might actually feel like a group consensus is suitable when it comes to decisions regarding infant feeding. If you have made the decision to delay solids for the current recommended time frame based on the American Academy of Pediatrics (which is currently no earlier than 6 months) you might find yourself in an awkward predicament when at holiday gatherings or family functions where there is a lot of food available. How exactly can you handle any questions or offers you receive for feeding your infant?

You can remain tactful and at the same time not compromise your baby's health. Studies have demonstrated that early introduction of solids prior to 6 months is associated with an increased risk of allergies later in life. Solids are generally intended to be introduced during the first year of life to allow your infant to experiment with taste and texture; they are not intended to be a primary form of nutrition prior to one year.

Despite your best intentions as a parent to follow current recommended medical advice, you might find yourself exasperated when you are attending a family function. It is not uncommon, even if you have a baby as young as four months, for adults to offer "soft" foods to your child including ice cream, despite the current recommendation that infants under one year of age be given no dairy.

I repeatedly had to deal with offers of ice cream beginning when my baby was about 5 months of age! It didn't matter that she hadn't begun solids yet. It didn't even matter that she was an exclusively breastfed infant. The conflict in opinions clearly resulted from the generational gap and the fact that many older individuals clearly still have outdated opinions on issues of infant feeding. It got to the point where it was not even enjoyable for my husband and me to visit homes where repeated requests would be made despite already indicating our preference and doctor's recommendation. It's not that I solely rely on doctor's advice (in fact, I rarely do). I had done a lot of research myself on the issue of early introduction of solids, but in some situations, mentioning your doctor as a reliable resource eases intrusive inquiries.

There are many contributing factors for why you might experience adults offering your infant food. Often, adults from prior generations only rely on what they have done when raising their children, and in recent decades introducing solids at two months of age was unfortunately common. In addition to that, many adults delight in seeing a baby's reaction to eating new foods. Obviously, such offers of food are based on self-interest. Viewing feeding an infant as a some form of novelty is a poor choice for entertainment. I really am unwavering in my opinions on this topic. I find it incomprehensible that there ever exists a benign motive for offering unsuitable foods to an infant other than the perverse entertainment of the person offering the inappropriate foods.

Other studies have indicated that an infant's parents, specifically the mother, or the primary caregiver should be the only person introducing and feeding a baby. There has been some evidence to suggest a correlation later in life with being fed from multiple people as an infant and being susceptible to peer influences pertaining to alcohol and drug use as a teen. And honestly, many parents (including myself) simply don't feel their baby should be viewed as community property. Regardless of your stance on this hot topic, if you've established your opinion on when is the most appropriate time to introduce solids, you are going to be overwhelmed with having to ward off the food police at every holiday celebration.

I realize that cultural variations strongly influence approaches to child rearing and issues concerning infant feeding. Some families have a very multi-generational approach to child rearing where every adult relative is given equal authority or responsibility for nurturing and raising the next generation. My own approach to child rearing involves both myself and my husband being the primary role models in our child's life and other adults being exactly what their labels imply: grandma, aunt, uncle, etc. Extended family are great for entertaining and playing with our child when visiting, but they are not consulted as an expert source for matters of childrearing. We also don't welcome unsolicited advice very well either. Our parents raised their children, and due to personality differences and the beauty of being human, we aren't necessarily raising our children in an identical way.

I also personally feel that babies in our country (despite the small fortune spent on nursery furniture and baby gear) are not viewed respectfully enough. If an adult finds it fascinating to gawk at the reaction a four-month-old has to ice cream or mashed potatoes, that adult needs to seek out other interesting hobbies. Babies are not a novelty or "for display purposes only." A baby's safety and comfort is the most important consideration because babies are not equipped physically to address their needs. They need attentive and nurturing mothers to read their cues, and other adults need to be respectful of that. Clearly, Aunt Bertha who sees the baby for the first time and won't be seeing him for many months is not equipped to address important issues such as infant feeding. Innocently claiming "a small taste won't hurt" is not justification for following one's own agenda and ignoring the parent's wishes. At the very least, it represents bad manners.

The delicate line of parental responsibility is being blurred as average family size is decreasing. Many adults are having fewer children than in previous generations. This can cause an imbalance in the perceived role of extended family members because the adult-to-child ratio is unhealthily distorted, at least in my family. Adult family members who have no children have to compete with other adults to be the fun aunt or uncle to the lone child of the family. If you have an enormous family with lots of kids laughing and playing at holiday gatherings and if you actually have enough family members living to host a family reunion, consider yourself lucky. The demands placed on parents in larger families are much more realistic than in smaller families.

If you've made the decision to introduce solids according to the American Academy of Pediatrics current recommended timetable, there are a variety of things you can do in order to make sure others don't senselessly disrupt that goal. If your 4-month-old is offered ice cream, you can easily inform the food police that your doctor strongly recommended no dairy for the first year. Dairy really is biologically intended for calves not human babies, but that topic is best discussed at length elsewhere. You might be tempted to cave into demands when surrounded by many adults of a different (sometimes alien) generation. Consider if this is wise, though. Do you really want your baby's first taste of solid foods to be highly-salted mashed potatoes or strawberry milk? There are more suitable choices such as mashed peas or mashed avocado. If your firm reminders when declining food offers don't work (because there are some individuals who will do what they want anyway), you have two choices: don't let your baby out of your arms or leave the event. Fortunately, in many cases people are reasonable enough to view mom's opinion as the golden rule and not intrude further. If your baby is happy and healthy, it is really not anyone else's concern how or what you feed your baby.

Your child is most vulnerable to being spoon fed when out of your reach. Consider having your husband hold your baby when there are many adults around. Many cooing adults will easily snatch a baby away from mom but think twice about intruding on dad's space.

It wasn't my intention to debate the merits of and scientific evidence for delaying solids, but rather to provide you with some helpful advice for interacting with the food police. They are on the prowl in every state and might be coming to your neighborhood next!

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