Friday, April 9, 2010

Food, glorious food!

I can't imagine what it would be like to learn absolutely everything from scratch.

As far back as I can remember, I have not been required to learn a single thing from absolute zero. In learning to sew or play guitar, I already know how to use my fingers pretty damn well. In learning Spanish, I have already mastered my speaking voice and know how to read. A new yoga pose is done with a body I have lived in for 32 years and am incredibly well acquainted with. I have a head start with all of it.

But to learn how to function in a tiny human body with only a handful of instincts and reflexes provided by mother nature? I am continuously baffled by the trust, determination and bravery that is required for this kind of unfolding.

The task Opal has set out to master at present is eating. We have spent these last many months together becoming proficient in the art of breastfeeding and now we are graduating slowly to food that does not come directly from the nipple. Real, outside-of-mom's-body food. And though it is squished into a nearly pre-digested form before coming anywhere close to her lips, it looks, smells and tastes very different than the simple vanilla she has come to know and love.

Let's back up a bit.

Opal went from being an impressive nighttime sleeper to recently waking every few hours with the voracious and insatiable hunger of an athlete. My boobs struggled to barely keep up with her demand. She was also suddenly having difficulty falling asleep for her naps, taking an inordinate amount of time to wind down. Something was amiss and intuitively it felt pretty clear that the dumpling was needing more calories to help ground her.

So I did what I have done thus far when approaching a new developmental adventure--breastfeeding, sleep, language stimulation, encouraging mental and physical strength, vaccinations-- and that is to read.

I gather information like a squirrel. I underline, I take notes and I absorb from a number of different sources until finally I glean the common threads that feel right to me. Jesse and I talk it over during a dinner or two and then, voila!, life-with-baby turns to the next chapter and takes on another new detail that changes everything as we know it.

Someone said to me "there are so many decisions--how do you know what to do?"
And I confessed that I am only an expert on a baby Opal's current age, plus maybe a month or two.
Beyond that, no idea.

I also consult with other mamas, but on topics leaning more towards what to use as natural stain remover and what kind of sippy cup is preferred. I typically avoid asking advice on the large parental decisions that are accompanied by an emotional component. We generally try to figure these areas out on our own, discussing with other mamas more out of curiosity than needing guidance.

My current baby reference material is the following:
Your Baby's First Year, a book put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics is a decent straight-up and factually objective text.
The Baby Book, a massive light-blue opus written by Dr. Sears and his wife, is also bursting with factual information, but is paired with the Sears' opinions, personal experience and advice.
I have found these two publications to work well together for the basics.
Then, for more specific needs we turn to additional reading and to the Internet (bless it).
We used Dr. Jodi Mindell's Sleeping Through the Night as our sleep-bible--with great great success!-- and Dr. Sears' The Vaccine Book was helpful in concluding what to do regarding Opal's vaccinations.
A book called Super Baby Food by Ruth Yaron made the cut as an impressive manual on feeding your baby homemade, pure, un-processed foods.

Aside from subtle variations, most of the material on feeding a baby for the first time reinforced the same basic points:
A baby is old enough for "solids" (a misnomer, because the consistency of food for the beginning eater is to be runny enough to slide off the spoon) between 4 and 6 months old, for a number of reasons. A baby's digestion is simply not ready for anything but breastmilk (and no solid food has the nutritional quality of breast milk) before 4 months. A baby cannot physically swallow until 4 months, because of the tongue-thrust reflex, which is an inborn mechanism to protect the baby from choking. The baby needs to be old enough to prop herself up and turn her head away when he's had enough food (4 or 5 months).
But once your baby is old enough to eat, there is no foolproof way of knowing when to begin. Much of this is instinctual and communicated by the specific baby.
This is how it went with her sleeping. One morning I woke up, after Opal had been restless at night for about a month, suddenly absolutely clear that sleeping in our bed was what was keeping her up. It didn't even occur to me until then! She moved to her crib that very night and has slept brilliantly until this recent bout of mysterious fussiness. But this time it only took a few days for me to understand her message and know I'd better be getting some food in her belly within the week.

As far as what to feed her and how much, I am have mined the simplest and most straight-forward of guidelines to start with, and then have pages and pages to reference as time goes on for more specifics:
1. First meal: Iron-fortified rice cereal mixed with 2-3 tablespoons of (my) breastmilk to a mustard-like consistency. She'll be old enough to digest homemade rice cereal at 6 months, but until then she needs the store-bought kind. We chose Earth's Best, which is organic and local and completely additive/preservative free. We feed her this once or twice a day for 2-3 weeks.
How often, for how long and what time of day to feed her are all negotiable and depend on the source. One book says to sandwich her solid feedings between breastfeedings so that she is never starving, but I also read that feeding solids along with breastfeeding deceases the amount of iron absorbed. Some say to feed her early in the day while others prescribe evening feedings. Regardless, it is recommended to feed her only one kind of food at a time for about a week so that if she has an allergy, it is obvious where it's coming from.
2. Next comes veggies. Squished-up, pureed squash, sweet potatoes, carrots (though one book says no-no to homemade carrots for some reason) one-at-a-time for about a week each, building one on the next. The grandma's all say veggies come before fruit so your kid doesn't have a sweet tooth , but with the kind of over processed, over-sugared diets many kids have by the time their teeth come in, such a phrase seems like a moot point in this day and age.
3. At 9 months she will delve into the world of fine-dining as it pertains to finger foods. Bread, cereal, teething biscuits. Maybe some dairy. Strained meat (though I don't actually know or trust what this is.).
4. Before one year, no egg whites, cow's milk, peanut butter, citrus, chocolate or honey. Not sure why, but this no-no list made it into every book so I will just go with it.

But again let me reiterate that in my experience, information is lopsided if not blended with intuition and a knowing of your own baby.

I just spoke with another mama who has a daughter two days older than Opal and she wants to start feeding her solid foods but feels paralyzed by all the information. She said, just when she feels ready to go for it, another bit of information pops up to put the fear of God in her.
It seems to me that every parental decision we've encountered thus far has had the potential to be overwhelming. Definitely.
I do my best to protect the simplicity of a situation and ward off information overload. I read a few trusted books, talk to a few trusted folks, discuss it with my husband and then ultimately take a leap with as much confidence as I can muster, reminding myself (often in ink pen on paper) that I have no control of the outcome. Opal can certainly pick up on whether I'm relaxed or freaked out in any given moment, which I think is as impactful to her as the decision itself.
Now don't get me wrong, mommy-doubt is undeniably a visitor I am well acquainted with, but I try to keep it gated up like a destructive puppy until the baby goes to sleep.

Now, without further hesitation, the first supper.
Opal has been interested in the food we eat for a couple of months. She watches it transport from plate to mouth, taking copious notes with her eyes.
She reaches for the food we are eating as well as the glass we are drinking from--pulls it to her mouth with all her might, grunting with exertion, and smashes her little baby lips on the side of the glass, like a sucker-fish on an aquarium wall. Her level of mimicry is impressive and one-pointed.

She has had six official meals now, as I write this. The first of which occurred while on the floor in her Bumbo (for an image of the Bumbo, see the entry "Back to Work"), surrounded by the wild kingdom of cat and dog as well as dad-with-camera and mama-with-food. It was quite a sight to behold.
Organic, iron-fortified rice cereal mixed with warm boob-milk into a consistency of roux is currently the only selection on her menu. She was bibbed-up and I had a pile of paper towels to my side that I went through in no time.

That first night I served her using my finger. She didn't seem at all sure of what was going on, but seemed clear that it was a pleasant thing. Jesse and I guided her through the process with coos and squeals and she seemed to dig the attention that accompanied the sloppy goo. She swallowed well. She didn't turn her head away. Most of the meal wound up on her bib, pants and face, hardening into a paper-mache cast, but we considered the experience to be a consummate success!

In the evenings since then, the outcome of dinner has been across the board.
Sometimes she eats. Sometimes she plays. Sometimes she has no interest at all. Often she is hungry but would rather nurse. She prefers the tiny spoon to my finger as a serving utensil and loves to grab the food-end with her little hands to bring it to her mouth. It always makes an impressive mess and takes upwards of an hour from start to finish. And all this seems just about right since she has NO reference point for this kind eating-- Mom feels like a beginner too!
So we just give it our best shot and hope that some food lands in her mouth.
What's most important to me is that she feels positive, never rushed (ahem, slow down mommy), about the situation. Enjoys herself.

Even as I sit here writing, I have spotted a dozen different calcified rice-cereal tear-drops and pimples on the wooden chair and tablecloth.
Tomorrow the hardened bits will also be avocado-green.

I have said it before and I shall say it again and again:
and so it begins.

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