Cultural Aspects of Starting Solids
Boulder, CO USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 18 No. 2, March-April 2001, pp. 64-65
Sometimes it's hard to recognize the beliefs that are part of one's own culture. They are easier to observe when contrasted with the beliefs and practices of other cultures. Differences and similarities highlight each culture's values. Western cultures tend to place a high value on teaching children to be independent. Punctuality and higher education are stressed in cultures where much of the work is done in offices or manufacturing plants. Many of us value higher education and the associated social skills. When it comes to eating, one common goal in American culture is for children to sit alone on a chair at a table using customary eating utensils. Food is served on a plate and is chewed with the mouth closed. Napkins belong on laps; elbows do not belong on the table. The salt is passed politely. Meals are eaten three times a day. Snacks are acceptable—but not before meals!
These are familiar "rules" for American adults, but at what point should a child be expected to follow them? For some parents, a punctual schedule is important from the moment of birth. The baby is expected to eat at certain times and sleep at certain times. La Leche League encourages parents to watch for the baby's cues rather than watching the clock.
By the middle of the first year, many babies can sit up and begin eating solid foods. They lose their tongue thrust reflex, begin to have a pincer grasp, and show an active interest in what is on parents' plates. This is often when the high chair is brought out of storage. A young baby is usually permitted to smear food around on the tray and to drop things off the side. One-year-olds are encouraged to wreak havoc with their birthday cakes while cameras snap the pictures. But as babies grow older, these activities become less acceptable.
Around the world, including in the US, many people start food other than human milk at birth. In many cultures, colostrum is considered dangerous for babies. Babies may be given herbal teas, animal milk, and formula or may be wet-nursed for one to four days until the mother's milk comes in. Some cultures believe that these foods help cleanse the newborn's system. In the US, a baby's diet is frequently supplemented with sugar water and infant formula. It's not uncommon to hear of babies several weeks old being fed rice cereal. La Leche League recommends starting solids only when the baby shows signs of readiness, around the middle of the first year.
In some parts of the world, problems arise when there are few foods suitable for babies. One study documented that the later the introduction of any solid foods to a baby's diet, the lower the infant mortality rate (Goldsmith 1984). A friend who worked in the Peace Corps in Niger, Africa noticed that babies were chubby and healthy up until about age two. After that time, most of the children appeared malnourished. She discovered that the younger, healthier babies were breastfeeding. As soon as a mother determined she was pregnant, the child was immediately weaned. The staple food in Niger is a grain called millet. It is frequently the only food available and is not a complete protein. Even if there is meat available, women and children may be the last ones served.
Around the world, solid food is introduced in different ways. In many cultures, parents first chew adult food before offering it to the baby. This is called "premastication" or "prechewing." It may be that enzymes from the mother's saliva help make the food more digestible. Certainly, it's a simple way to make adult food soft enough for a baby to swallow. In the book, Babies Celebrated, there is a photograph of a mother passing food directly from her mouth into her baby's mouth. Water is sometimes given to a baby the same way.
In Oceania, the Yafars prechew fish, headless grubs, and liver for babies (Fontanel 1998). Most Westerners are certain that any insect would taste bad without having ever tried them. Low in fat and high in protein, insects are easy to find and are commonly eaten in many parts of the world. In Polynesia, a staple food is poipoi, a pudding-like mixture of breadfruit and coconut cream, a favorite for adults and easy for babies to eat. The Inuit, who reside in the Arctic, experience long winters with 40-mile-per-hour winds and temperatures 40 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). It's difficult to grow crops or to have fresh vegetables or fruit. First foods for Inuit babies include seaweed, "nuk-tuk" (seal blubber), and, later on, caribou. In Puerto Rico, first foods might be potatoes mixed with milk, mashed boiled plantains, rice, mangos, fresh juices including pineapple juice (sometimes juices are diluted), and many other tropical vegetables and fruits. Herbal teas are frequently given to babies as well.
Most Japanese health care providers recommend feeding solids at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. The first food is thin rice porridge. Eventually the rice is made thicker and topped with small dried fish, tuna, tofu, vegetables, or mashed pumpkin. The graduation to solids is when the baby can eat the same rice as adults. Babies are likely to begin using spoons and forks, but by age two, most children love to eat with chopsticks.
In many parts of the world, food is eaten without silverware. At a local Ethiopian restaurant, my family was astonished that there were no knives, forks, or spoons in sight. Instead, we tore off bits of injera, a pancake-like bread, which we used to scoop up the delectable meat and vegetable sauces.
Cultural expectations affect how children eat around the world. In many cultures, parents hope that their children will learn to eat a wide variety of foods, while in others, food choices may be limited by geography or strife. In some cultures, parents encourage their children to use spoons and plates, while in other cultures, food is eaten by hand from a communal bowl. Some families eat at a low table and sit on mats, while others sit adults on chairs and have highchairs for babies. Some babies learn to use silverware, others learn to use chopsticks.
All of these variations on infant feeding help to show us that there is never just one way to make the transition to solids. La Leche League recommends that you watch your baby and look for cues from him. Then you make a transition that works for your baby.
Dettwyler, K. Dancing Skeletons. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 1994.
Fontanel, B. Babies Celebrated. New York: Harry N. Adains, 1998.
Goldsmith, J. Childbirth Wisdom. New York: Congdon and Weed, Inc., 1984.
Minchin, M. Breastfeeding Matters. Maryborough, Victoria, Australia: Alma Publications, 1989.
Nagata, Yoshi. LLL Leader in Japan. Personal communication via email with permission.
Adapted from an article that appeared in the November-December 1999 issue of Visions, the Area Leaders' Letter for LLL of Virginia.