When Diet Culture Comes For Babies
If you were tasked with feeding an infant in the last few years, it’s likely you noticed the shift.
If you’ve been tasked with feeding an infant in the last few years, it’s likely you’ve noticed a shift in the prevailing philosophy: The pristine, spoonfed Gerber baby is out and the Solid Starts baby, cheeks dappled in avocado, fist clutching a lambchop, is in. Baby-led weaning — the practice of allowing infants to feed themselves modified adult foods, rather than spoon-feeding them purees — has become the most visible approach to starting solids.
Thanks to Instagram accounts like Kids Eat in Color, and Solid Starts, which calls itself “a baby food revolution” and whose brand has become essentially synonymous with the term, you can’t wade far into the waters of parenting social media without encountering a baby mouthing a mango pit for “chewing practice.” Beyond the mechanics, these accounts have a grand vision of raising kids free of pickiness, and parents and children alike liberated from the baggage of the more authoritarian “clean-your-plate” generations.
The rise of BLW has coincided with a broader shift away from “diet culture,” toward seemingly preferable if ambiguous notions of “wellness.” But just as the route to wellness often aligns suspiciously closely with the route to thinness — moving your body and eating well (or “clean”), processes enabled by a variety of genetic and financial privileges — the path to raising a child who is a healthy, expansive eater can look a lot like raising a kid to be thin: avoid artificial sugar, be cautious about carbs, don’t opt for processed foods for the sake of convenience, and, by the looks of some of the meals they make, eat more for nutrition than pleasure.
These accounts are careful not to connect these dots too closely; instead of demonizing fatness, they warn of selectiveness. And parents are responding: A recent post on the bustling BLW Reddit asks, of an 8-month-old, “Is my baby a picky eater?”
Given its promise of fewer mealtime battles and lower pressure around food, BLW has ironically made many of its practitioners more neurotic than ever. Scratch the surface of the culture of BLW, which connects the earliest months of a child’s eating to lifetime outcomes, and you’ll find it rife with a kind of deferred orthorexia. It’s almost like it’s the same old diet culture, only in a new form.
Many parents, seeking to undo the damage of their own upbringing, would balk at scaremongering over fatness, but the specter of “pickiness” doesn’t raise the same alarms. Publicizing your own monastic diet is now Goop-ish and gauche, but taking pride in your child’s love of vegetables? That’s just good parenting. Instead of counting your own calories, you can track, in a variety of apps, the number of foods your child has tried. Yet if we can accept that thinness is not a moral virtue, why do we take for granted that an expansive palate is?
A parent’s job, then, is to create a pressure-free feeding environment for their children, despite the tremendous pressure they experience themselves.
Parents have “a heightened sense of anxiety and fear that there’s something wrong, that there’s a problem, that there’s something that needs to be fixed,” says Laura Thomas, Ph.D., a nutritionist in the UK who writes the newsletter Can I Have Another Snack?. “I’ve been doing this for over a decade and I’ve seen families from a lot of different backgrounds. And anecdotally it feels like there is a lot more stress around the introduction of solids, how to do it the quote unquote ‘right’ way,” Dr. Anjuli Gans, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, tells me.
If parents think there is a right way, it’s because they are being told that there is. The simple adages of “feed them what you eat” and “food before 1 is just for fun” have given way to a proliferation of rules. These accounts suggest that feeding your little ones is an ongoing tactical endeavor, requiring not just the right foods but the right language. It’s coercive to ask your child to try a bite of salad, but it’s important to speak enticingly about the crunchiness of bell pepper. You must not instruct your kid to eat their chicken because it’s “healthy,” but you can drop into conversation that it “makes our muscles strong.” A parent’s job, then, is to create a pressure-free feeding environment for their children, despite the tremendous pressure they experience themselves.
If the recommended facade of neutrality is difficult for you, you aren’t alone. There is a wide gap between what these accounts advise and what they show on Instagram, including the types of restrictiveness they purport to be avoiding. Kids Eat in Color, which also focuses on older kids, regularly features videos of “babies eating broccoli” — adorable, but if food were truly neutral, analogous reels might exist for babies eating ice cream (instead, their content about ice cream suggests serving it alongside meals to neutralize its impact, not celebratory clips of tiny ice cream-smeared faces).
Thomas is particularly concerned about the “keto slant” of Solid Starts, which warns that carbohydrates, including once healthy-seeming foods like couscous and fruit, can prove overly tempting. “While not technically addictive in the neurological sense, bread often steals the show from other foods,” went one Instagram story. And Solid Starts’ First Foods database, which includes nutritional ratings, is full of diet-y idiosyncrasies: It gives blueberries only three stars and suggests rinsing cottage cheese to reduce sodium.
In this paradigm, the dinner table is not a place to unwind, or to experience pleasure, but to constantly strive for improvement.
The mealtimes shown appear more often as lessons in exposure than pleasure, opportunities to optimize your child into a healthful, non-fussy eater. Pancakes should be served with fruit in them, meat placed on top of potatoes, parsley sprinkled on pasta, all to accustom kids to adult-style meals early on. Children are encouraged to learn to “problem solve” around food, which requires parents to create problems, like combining foods kids might prefer served separately, or offering a food you know they won’t like but with a choice of toppings they might. In this paradigm, the dinner table is not a place to unwind, or to experience pleasure, but to constantly strive for improvement.
It’s fair to wish for a non-picky eater, just like most of us want a good sleeper: It makes things easier. But to begin a child’s eating life with the idea that pickiness is something to be prevented — indeed, that it can be prevented — creates expectations around food that are likely to fail. Experts agree that a phase of picky eating is to be expected. “It’s part of normal development as toddlers start to express more autonomy,” Gans says. “If you look back at toddlers over 50 years, almost all of them have gone through phases where they have been selective.”
Though feeding babies regular food isn’t the brand-new “revolution” Solid Starts would have you believe it is — my own parents did it in the 1980s, as do many cultures around the world — the term “baby-led weaning” is newish, coined by nutritionist Gill Rapley in the early aughts. Like many current parenting ideologies, BLW emerged as a corrective to previous generations’ practices. Guidance on when and how infants should begin solids has varied dramatically; boomers, for instance, born amid a massive marketing push by baby food companies, as documented by scholar Amy Bentley, were sometimes started on juice at 3 weeks old.
The simplicity of BLW poses a marketing problem for its social media advocates: In order to maintain and grow an audience past the first couple months of solids, they needed to complicate and prolong the process.
But the current iteration of BLW took off around 2003 when the World Health Organization changed its recommendations for starting solids (in addition to breast milk or formula) from 4 months to 6, an age at which many babies have the motor skills to bring food to the mouth themselves, and Rapley’s successful 2008 book on the topic, Baby-Led Weaning: Helping Your Baby to Love Good Food, proved there was an audience for the idea. Still, it might have once been difficult to imagine further monetizing the concept of feeding babies what you eat; Rapley suggested letting your baby sit on your lap and eat off your plate, no accessories or special equipment required.
The simplicity of BLW poses a marketing problem for its social media advocates: In order to maintain and grow an audience past the first couple months of solids, they needed to complicate and prolong the process. As a result, BLW has expanded into a practice with much more complexity and longevity than Rapley could have imagined. Solid Starts offers more than 40 guides and courses, including, “How to Stop Throwing & Unwanted Behaviors, ($9.99)” and “How to Get Rid of Screens During Meals ($9.99).” If your child does become picky, guides, courses, and meal plans (“Reverse Picky Eating Bundle, $99.99”) are available for that.
To lend credence in the age of evidence-based parenting, these accounts employ feeding specialists, allergists, GI experts, and registered dietitians. Kids Eat in Color’s team includes a pediatric gastroenterologist, a dietician and weaning specialist, and a clinical psychologist, among others. These are specialists that the parent of a typically developing baby would be unlikely to otherwise encounter, and often the techniques they suggest were developed for the kids they see in practice, those with bona fide feeding disorders, like Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), which some estimates suggest affects about 5% of children. But Thomas tells me these techniques “are not appropriate” for kids without those diagnosed problems.
“Some of the advice that we’re seeing that might actually be helpful for someone who has extreme selective eating doesn’t really apply to kids who are just going through a more typical new food neophobic stage,” she says. Yet she’s encountered parents “who think that if they don’t do everything by the Solid Starts playbook that their kid is going to develop ARFID.”
Some families facing genuine feeding issues find the opposite of what they need in these accounts’ approaches. One parent, Katie, tells me the story of her now-toddler, Arthur, who was born premature at 28 weeks; getting him fed and gaining weight was of the utmost importance from his earliest days, when he was fed by nasogastric tube in the NICU. Later, Arthur struggled with digestive issues and bottle refusal. “I was a little nervous about introducing solids,” Katie says, “but mostly excited because it meant a path away from all of that.” Arthur was very interested in food, but physiologically struggled to manipulate and swallow it, so he often ended up spitting it out. Katie’s family actually had expert help: a pediatrician, speech-language pathologist (SLP), occupational therapist, and eventually a feeding therapist. Their SLP recommended purees and teething biscuits to help Arthur learn the basic mechanics of eating.
“Baby-led weaning really steers you away from these things,” Katie says. “Looking back, I would have just done purees until he got the hang of things, then advanced through different textures as he was ready. The baby-led weaning information I read made it seem like doing this might ‘delay’ his feeding skills, which is the last thing I wanted to do.”
When Katie did feed Arthur purees, she faced the judgment of other parents; she says one mom treated her like she was giving her kid rat poison. “I found very little nuance in discussion about baby-led weaning,” she says. “It almost felt like another formula vs. breast milk debate in the sense that people framed BLW as the ‘right’ thing to do and spoke about parents who used traditional baby food/purees as being uninformed or doing it ‘wrong.’”
Thomas says it’s important for oral motor skill development for babies to get exposed to more textures as they grow, but that practice with tongue and jaw movement can be achieved by offering chunkier purees or mashing up a banana or avocado. She and Gans agree that how you feed a child is less important than that the experience is a good one. Thomas says a child whose parents are “doing baby-led weaning by the book” but struggles with it is not preferable to a kid who eats purees confidently. Her recommendation, no matter how you feed your child, is to be responsive: “Looking at your child, seeing where they’re at and responding to that, rather than responding to what Instagram says that your child should be.”
“I always try to tell parents to do what feels comfortable for you, whether it’s purees or baby-led weaning,” Gans says. “That broader perspective is really hard when you’re inundated with information from a lot of different sources and from a lot of feeding accounts.”
That’s the kind of advice that Megan, a mother of two toddlers, might have benefited from hearing. When her first child was almost a year old, Megan became pregnant again; though she’d planned to breastfeed much longer, she suffered from hyperemesis and her milk supply dropped. Her son, who had been eating purees but didn’t show much interest in food, refused formula and lost weight. On the advice of a friend, Megan bought several of Solid Starts’ guides and read up on the story of the founder’s oldest son, who was spoon-fed for a protracted period, subsequently refused table foods, and also lost weight. Megan panicked at the similarities.
“I just lost it,” she says. “I was like, ‘I have ruined my son; my son will never eat a thing.’” She even reached out to Solid Starts with questions, but rather than being reassured by their reply (that her best bet was to follow their guidance), she was “left feeling hopeless.” To Megan, it felt like an expert was telling her that up until now, she’d done everything wrong, “like I’d lost a precious window of time I’d never get back.” She summarized the message of these accounts: “If you feed your child purees only, they need purees forever and never eat solid foods and will not learn how to chew and will die from choking because they didn’t learn how to develop a gag reflex.” She says, “I’m not kidding when I say, after reading information and even the backstory from Solid Starts, I thought I had effed up my kid.”
Though many pediatricians are supportive of or simply indifferent to BLW — they tend to care that your baby eats more than how — pediatrics as a body seems reluctant to endorse the practice. One reason is that while the research on BLW doesn’t suggest harm, it’s also not as persuasive as its evangelists claim. One 2018 review of the literature referenced “the low quality of the evidence” to date and said “there is still insufficient evidence to draw conclusions about the BLW approach.” Many doctors still advise starting purees at 4 months old before transitioning to table foods, which can be confusing to parents who read online about the dangers of spoon-feeding bland textures.
BLW tends to proceed from the premise that if we simply follow the rules, we can raise children free of our own baggage, an idea that has something in common with dieting itself.
Most of us, the creators and consumers of all this information, come by our food anxiety honestly. Thomas points to the harm caused to millennials by parents who carted their kids to Weight Watchers, and the “almond mom” phenomenon. Every parent I interviewed for this story reflected on the ways in which feeding a child caused them to examine their own relationship with food and body size. The “us” here tends to be women, the people both most likely to be charged with feeding kids and most likely to have issues of their own. Whereas other current parenting phenomena, like gentle parenting, encourage inward reflection, BLW tends to proceed from the premise that if we simply follow the rules, we can raise children free of our own baggage, an idea that has something in common with dieting itself. “For all the advice about feeding our kids,” Thomas says, “we probably actually need to turn that lens inward and look at our own unresolved stuff around our relationship with food.”
From the moment a child is born, a parent’s life revolves around feeding them. “Fundamentally, our role as parents is to nourish our children,” Thomas says, but this doesn’t happen in a vacuum and many obstacles exist to make it harder. In addition to rampant disordered eating, our food system is plagued with problems, the cost of groceries is rising, and 5 million children in the United States live in food insecure households. These are issues that exist independent of whether your child’s first food is a pear puree or a whole passionfruit, and to focus so much on the details is only to affirm the belief that food is something to be closely controlled, managed, and done right.
“A lot of these feeding accounts capitalize on the fear and anxiety of parents that can be counterproductive to the feeding relationship,” Thomas says. “But they keep parents locked into this state of fear and anxiety and trying to be perfect. And trying to be the parent that has all the knowledge, has all the information, is doing everything right.”
In the face of these realities, I wonder if an expectation to perform indifference, about a topic people care deeply about, is actually all wrong. Sure, yelling at your kid to eat isn’t good, but the opposite of a punishing relationship to food isn’t a neutral one; it’s a pleasurable one. And that’s the element that’s conspicuously missing here. One of Rapley’s original arguments for baby-led weaning is that it’s unpleasant — at any age — to have food shoved in your face. But the same could be said of BLW in its current application: Who wants to chow down with someone consulting a list of “do’s and don’ts” about how to feed you? What if you want to eat lunch without hearing, or talking, about how carrots help you see in the dark?
Sure, yelling at your kid to eat isn’t good, but the opposite of a punishing relationship to food isn’t a neutral one; it’s a pleasurable one.
Megan, the parent whose anxiety about feeding her first kid was intensified by baby-led weaning, has had a very distinct experience with her second. From the beginning, he was eager, adventurous, and didn’t mind getting messy. It proved to her that a baby’s temperament, personality, and preference have a lot to do with their eating habits — just as much, if not more so, than parental strategy. But her approach has also changed; Megan mostly feeds her youngest what the rest of the family is eating — classic BLW — but has stopped seeking out feeding info and rejects the notion that dinner needs to be a pedagogical exercise: “I’m not going to start serving my child certain types of fish that are really expensive that I don’t eat anyway.” And if a food stresses her out, she doesn’t offer it.
“I don’t care if they say it’s safe, I’m not going to give a chicken bone to gnaw on,” she says. “I’m better now about saying, ‘I don’t care if you say that this is something I should do or can do.’ I’m going to do it how I want to do it.”
While much of the BLW info on social media gives the impression that you need an advanced degree, or at least an expensive course, to feed your baby, the AAP’s current recommendations for starting solids are comparatively straightforward: “Introduce solid foods around 6 months of age; expose baby to a wide variety of healthy foods; also offer a variety of textures.” In a context where ensuring an appreciation of sardines by age 1 is seen as essential but requesting your child try one bite of the dinner you cooked constitutes lasting harm, there’s something to appreciate in the simplicity of the AAP’s messaging here. It emphasizes the possibilities of food and omits the many pressures around it. If you’re in search of a revolutionary approach to feeding your child, maybe that’s the one to try.
Lucy Morris is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cut, Slate, BuzzFeed, and more.
After publication, the team at Solid Starts responded to the article and raised concerns about several points made. We removed a reference to Solid Start’s founder Jenny Best’s Instagram account and revised a reference to examples of textured foods that babies can eat.