The Goal of Exclusive Breastfeeding for the First Six Months

Welcome to the January Carnival of Breastfeeding! This month’s carnival entries (see links at the end of this post) focus on breastfeeding goals. My little Nicole just turned six months old on January 17, so my discussion is on the goal of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months.

When my first daughter was born in 2002, the recommendation from the medical community had changed from four months to six months of exclusive breastfeeding, but the word had not reached me, or, apparently, my daughter’s pediatrician. So around my daughter’s four-month birthday, I sat ready with the video camera as I offered her spoonfuls of rice cereal mixed with breast milk. Now I cringe when I watch that video. Sure, she was meeting the signs of readiness for solid foods — sitting up independently, showing interest in other people’s food, not exhibiting the tongue thrust reflex — but that first experience was not what I think it should be today. Now I think first baby foods should be whole foods — mashed banana, avocado, sweet potato or unprocessed oatmeal for example. I also think the baby should lead the way by grabbing the spoon and bringing it to her mouth (rather than my trying to coax her to open her mouth to take the food in) or better yet, her grabbing the food with her fingers. Those first feedings are not about nutrition, since breast milk continues to provide all the nutrition baby needs, but about experimentation and learning!

When my second daughter was born in 2004, I had learned of the six-month recommendation and I was eager to be among the shamefully small percentage of mother/baby dyads who make it to six months without introducing other liquids or complementary solid foods. I was proud we met that goal, and of course I sat there and documented the first feeding on video.

This time around with Nicole, I simply assumed I would wait six months to introduce solid foods. Heck, I consider it easier to breastfeed exclusively. Once we got the hang of it, exclusive breastfeeding had become easy and it’s clean and portable and all that good stuff! Solids are fun when the baby is ready, but have you ever tried scrubbing oatmeal from every crevice on a chubby baby?! I guess even her soft skin could benefit from a gentle, all-natural oatmeal scrub, but it’s quite the clean-up job!

Imagine my surprise, though, when at around five months, my baby looked with such longing at my apple core that I couldn’t resist letting her have a little suck of the juice. Then my husband let her have a lick of pineapple. And finally Nicole grabbed a cracker off the cracker-and-cheese plate at a party and ate a third of it before anyone even noticed (she was in my arms, facing away from me as I talked to others at the gathering and I didn’t realize she could reach the plate). Now that’s some stellar parenting right there! What’s worse is that when I took the cracker away from her, she cried so piteously that being the good indulgent soft-hearted mother that I am I gave it right back, and two more after that. Yup, stellar. Thank goodness she didn’t choke or have any allergic reaction to the mix of ingredients in the crackers.

Nicole was so happy with that solid food experience that I have no regrets about it. Do I recommend it? No, but I don’t regret it either. She clearly showed us she was ready for solid foods, and I have come to believe we should listen to a child’s cues about feeding, whether it’s responding to baby’s cues about when to nurse, or recognizing a baby’s readiness for solid foods. Nicole’s next, more official, experiences with solids were just as happy events for her. Mashed banana was a huge hit, as was oatmeal (as you can see in the photos).

Now I generally strip her naked (it’s been 86 degrees in California, so don’t worry, she’s not cold), seat her in her high chair, and let her have at it. Feeding is a full-contact sport in which she is allowed to make a tremendous mess. Afterward, I hose her off with the spray attachment in the sink!

So, we didn’t make it to six months of exclusive breastfeeding. But I found a new goal: listening to my children’s cues when it comes to food. Does that mean I indulge my four-year-old when she asks for four cookies? Absolutely not. But it does mean I let my six-year-old have four clementines if she wants them. I swear she really said, “These are so good, I just cannot eat them in moderation!” Guess she’s been listening when I talk about eating all foods in moderation. :)

Other Carnival of Breastfeeding Entries

~ Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog: Breastfeeding education and activism goals
~ Zen Mommy: 2009 breastfeeding resolutions
~ Secrets of Orual: Relax and be brave
~ Hobo Mama: How to meet the personal goal of breastfeeding long-term
~ Beautiful Letdown: Goals as an extended tandem nursing mother
~ Milk Act: Balancing the needs of baby and mother
~ Blacktating: Child-led weaning
~ Mama Knows Breast: Helping women feel comfortable breastfeeding
~ BreastfeedingMums: Publishing my breastfeeding book

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    • Lauren @ HoboMama

      Ha ha — kids have a way of making us throw our resolutions out the window, huh? I love the cracker-stealing episode. You can see from her eyes that she’s quite the unrepentant little thief.

      I think you’re right on that following your individual baby’s cues is the best option — provide a variety of whole foods (to the family in general), and then don’t stress at what happens. I love that breastfeeding has taught me that my baby knows his own body and his own needs, because certainly I haven’t had a say in how much milk he gets or how frequently he wants to nurse — and he’s growing perfectly. As he’s meandered through solids (now 19 months old and still hit or miss on what he’ll actually eat from day to day), I’ve tried to remember that lesson, that he knows what he’s doing and that I can’t improve on his own innate cues.

      For what it’s worth, our son also chose for himself some illicit early bites despite my resolve to wait, wait, wait. At 4 months, he picked a big soft pretzel off my husband’s plate and gnawed on it like a chew toy! I don’t think he swallowed any, but I did feel a little guilty…though I still took pictures because, hey, it was funny looking.

    • Casey

      How cute! I had similar expectations. I would exclusively breastfeed until six months and then introduce solids. I, however, had the opposite experience! My little guy didn’t want *anything*! He wouldn’t eat anything from a spoon, and he wouldn’t put anything into his mouth. Finally, around 9 months (yes, 9 months of exclusive breastfeeding!) he discovered melon. I don’t like melon myself, but I loved it the day he finally put something in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed it!

    • misty

      what a great story, and awesome perspective, mama!! i love that thru breastfeeding you figure your little one out and know them well enough to know when to let go of rigidity or the “plans” when they’re a little older, whether it’s solids or potty learning or other forms of independance! and yes, i have cleaned oatmeal from icky crevices and chubby fat rolls from my big little guy! i laughed at the oatmeal scrub comment, tho!
      great post!

    • Amber

      I can totally relate to the early eating. My first baby (who was born at 34 week) was completely not interested in eating until 9 months or so. But my second child is just over 5 months and lunging for everything. Yesterday I gave in and let him gum at a banana. I’m not sure if he ate anything, but he really loved it. His eyes just got wide and he double-fisted that thing. Each child is different, and the best thing we can do is follow their cues within reason.

    • Sinead at Breastfeeding Mums Tickers

      This story brought me right back to when my first baby was born! She was dying to get at my food and as the recommendation for breastfeeding exclusively was 4 months at that stage, she didn’t have to wait so long.

      My other two had to wait until five and a half months… but, like Nicole, they had a few sneaky snacks when I wasn’t looking either!

      ps, Nicole is adorable and looks like she’s having great fun! :)

    • Jennifer

      What cute pictures of an obviously happy, healthy, interested-in-food baby! Having watched this little one in person, I was delighted to see her appreciation of several foods and the vigor with which she persisted in getting those foods to her mouth via her spoon or two fists. Her interest was evident as was her liking for the tastes she was experiencing; she ate for 15 or so each time demonstrating persistence that belies her age. How lucky she is to have such a perceptive, nurturing (in all senses of the word) mother and father who let her determine what her body needs and who can read the signs of interest and readiness. Each child is different as we all learn and rules are only guidelines. Common sense and intelligence drive our care for each precious little human entrusted to our care.

    • Kate

      I had a similar experience with my daughter, who is now 11 months old. She was around 5 months old when she started grabbing food off our plates at the dinner table and shoving it into her mouth- she didn’t want to wait! She has this high-pitched shriek she makes when she sees something that she wants and we’re not giving it to her, and she would do that whenever she saw food (and she still does it!). This was very different from my older one, who was completely content with exclusively nursing for the first 8 months or so.

      I agree with Lauren’s comment about breastfeeding teaching me to trust what my littles need for food- I’m trying to follow their lead about what they want and what they can handle.