5 Reasons Why a Dentist Recommends Baby-led Weaning
As a dentist who has examined multiple mouths of babies and children, I saw trends that would make my heart melt day after day. I honestly wanted to scream sometimes and would think, “Why do our kids have these issues? Why don’t the parents see what’s happening? How did the pediatrician (or the other dentist) say this was normal?”
Think about your child’s regular visit to the dental office. What do you ask the dentist?
How early should I bring my child to the dentist? Does my child have cavities? Will they need braces when they get older? And yet, there’s so much more to oral health! I can learn about your child’s eating habits, sleeping habits and even behavioral habits by looking in their mouths. The tongue, jaws, lips and teeth are all a part of a bigger picture– how your child uses these structures.
Baby-led weaning is one of the best ways you can help your child develop healthy oral habits. If your dentist hasn’t talked to you about it, they likely aren’t aware of the positive effects it has.
Let me be clear, that is not your dentist’s fault. This is not a part of our standard of care. The problem? You, as a parent, don’t know what your dentist doesn’t know. From my standpoint, baby-led weaning helps build a strong foundation for your child’s teeth, muscles, jaws, airway and overall health.
What is baby-led weaning?
The baby-led weaning I’m referring to consists of multiple aspects.
First, baby-led weaning is independent. Typically, baby-led weaning would start at about 6 months of age when your baby is able to sit upright, pick up food, take it to their mouth and begin to chew it. All on their own.
Secondly, baby-led weaning consists of pure, whole foods—not pureed foods (even if it’s organic!). There’s more to be said about the benefits of chewing food rather than solely being focused on the nutrients in the food.
Imagine your baby seeing orange food in a bowl. You sweep some up with a spoon and maybe you make some fun sounds– singing that the airplane is coming in… “Open wide!” The orange food was squash. It’s ok, your baby likes squash.
But what if tomorrow, this orange mush are carrots. Now, your baby is mad! I wouldn’t blame her—yesterday that orange gooey stuff was good, and now it’s bad. It’s confusing!
Having pure, whole foods gives your baby the ability to recognize different foods, textures and tastes.
Note: Don’t forget that pureed foods include the pouch snacks where your child can literally drink their food. This may be mom’s best friend at the time, but long term, you may be dealing with other issues.
Lastly, baby-led weaning would be that it’s normalized & unpraised. To clarify, eating is a normal part of our day to day lives and should be practiced that way with your baby.
What does this mean exactly? Your baby would join in at family mealtimes and see how everyone eats in the family. They are a part of the experience rather than being spoon fed before and being set off to the side.
Rather than clapping in excitement because your baby ate carrots, offer up a cucumber. See if they’re ready to try something different! This removes the pressure of trying to get your baby to eat. Come on mom, you already have so much pressure on yourself—why create more? Baby-led weaning creates an environment where your baby is allowed to explore, and they’ll be open to much more foods.
Although, there are many more benefits of baby-led weaning, from a dental standpoint, I can share 5 reasons why it would be beneficial in our field.
#1 – Reduces the Desire for Sweet Foods
Surprise, surprise! How do you stop cavities? Brush, floss and stay away from sugar. Much easier said than done, right? Whether it’s pastries, candy, ice cream or sugars that don’t really look like sugars (ketchup, anyone?), most of us are guilty of having somewhat of a sweet tooth. Sugar is addicting!
In a study done by, Townsend & Pitchford, 2012, they showed that baby-led weaning reduces the risk that your toddler desires sweet foods. Imagine that your little one literally doesn’t crave or want the sweet foods that cause cavities.
Sometimes dentists will get a bad reputation for “digging for gold” but really, I’m proud to be a part of the cavity-free club, and I want to assist my patients with that in any way possible.
Fun fact: Cavities aren’t the norm. Even though we have fluoride in the water, fluoride varnishes to be applied, toothpastes & floss—there was a time where we had none of those items, but also no cavities (pre-industrialization).
The reality is, we have sugar everywhere in America and it’s here to stay. But what if your child didn’t want it in the same way as the average American? They’re one step closer to staying in the cavity free club!
#2 – Less Chance of Having a “Picky Eater”
I previously described that baby-led weaning reduces the desire for sweet foods, but on the flipside, it also encourages your baby to explore a much larger variety of foods. Morrison et al, 2018 found that baby-led weaning showed toddlers having “less chance of becoming a picky eater.”
Browse baby blogs for just 30 seconds and you’ll find posts about how to get your picky toddler to eat. The “helpful tricks” include things like holding your toddler’s hand, bribing them with a toy and our favorite…distracting them with screens! If we know there’s a way to help avoid having a picky eater, why not try it?
Another bonus, you and your baby can eat the same foods! I know too many supermoms that will cook their children different foods because they can’t get them to eat otherwise.
#3 – Gagging and Coughing Reflexes Help with Learning
We’re talking about gagging and coughing—not choking.
Gagging and coughing are protective reflexes of the airway which typically will become less sensitive with age. Do you know anyone who has a strong gag reflex? Pay attention to whether they snore or breathe loudly.
Gagging is triggered in a space right in front of the oro-pharynx (back of the mouth). The back part of the tongue will rise to push food or any other objects forward. With babies, gagging will encourage them to chew their food into smaller pieces and discourage them from overfilling their mouth. Larger objects of food items that make contact in that area will trigger the gagging reflex, making it beneficial for them to chew the food before transferring it to the back of the tongue to be swallowed.
If a baby or young toddler is not able to feel and use this reflex, it may make it challenging for them to know how much food is too much. They will also learn whether they have chewed the food adequately before they need to swallow. Also, gagging tends to be worse when you don’t have control over it.
The coughing reflex, the forced expulsion of air, can help remove or eject food or unwanted objects. This reflex is triggered further back in the mouth, typically if the gag reflex was not sufficient.
If both the gagging and coughing reflex are ineffective, that is what leads to choking.
This is definitely scary for every parent–here are ways you can help reduce choking in baby-led weaning.
#4 – Develops Healthy Chewing Habits
Developing healthy chewing habits is not only about having well-mannered children. Believe it or not, chewing is very good for our health. Chewing helps stimulate saliva in the mouth which aids in the breakdown of food particles. This prepares the nutrients of the food to be absorbed as it enters the intestines. Why is this important? Poor chewing habits can contribute to conditions such as indigestion, heartburn, and acid reflux, to name a few.
Saliva that is produced with chewing also helps clear the food in the oral cavity. Rather than tiny food particles hanging around the mouth, the saliva helps wash away food that may be lingering around.
Saliva production also helps reduce the risk of getting cavities or bad bacteria that piles up that may cause your gums to become puffy & inflamed (gingivitis).
#5 – Develops Jaws, Tongue & Muscles of the Mouth
If you don’t use it, you lose it. What I’m referring to here are the muscles of the tongue and surrounding muscles of mouth. Obviously, we all use our tongue, lips and chewing muscles in some fashion, but if they’re not used well, these poor patterns will continue and alter the way in which your child grows. Poor facial growth and development can lead to many complications—cavities, crooked teeth, clenching, grinding, headaches, sleep issues, behavior concerns, etc.
Fun fact: we have three different types of bone in our body. The bone of the upper jaw, the maxilla, is dermal bone. It’s a bone that can be shaped by light, persistent and consistent forces (habits!).
The bone of the lower jaw, the mandible, is a hybrid. It’s not a 50-50 mixture but rather, a sandwich of both parts of bone. One part is the more shapeable or more influenceable bone (like the upper jaw), the other part is more rigid—it relies more on what’s been given to you by your DNA.
Regardless, both the upper and lower jaws are influenced by what is happening to them. Once you find out how you can help your child, it’s quite easy and fun for the family—one of the ways is by encouraging baby-led weaning.
How do I start Baby-led Weaning?
After hearing some of the benefits of baby-led weaning, I hope you’ve felt the desire to consider it further! Now the question is, what do you do about it? When you’re trying to make a change or do something you may be unfamiliar with, it’s important to have support to be successful. We’ve created a simple guide to get you started—Tips for the Best Baby-led Weaning.
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