There is something quite magical about introducing a baby to solid food, but there is no denying it can be hard work too.
For both my boys it has come at a time when breastfeeding has gone from being an all-consuming challenge to (finally) a breeze – a transition that emerged from the newborn fog without me really noticing, when suddenly I realised my milk had grown that tiny baby into a robust, giggling six-month old who fed wherever and whenever without me needing to give it a second thought.
Like so many things in parenting that calm preceded a new storm – an exciting one, but one bringing with it untold mess and a whole new raft of logistical challenges. And for Orson this was compounded by a niggling suspicion of allergies as well as the fact that we began his weaning journey whilst heading off for two months on the road!
Having discovered baby led weaning with Arthur we were fairly certain we knew the route we wanted to take, and started finding opportunities to offer easy to manipulate finger foods whenever we sat down to eat. Before we’d left I’d found a great foldaway highchair with its own little tray, and had visions of us all enjoying meals together outside the tent, Orson’s first tastes of food enhanced by the fresh air and family togetherness.
It didn’t quite work out like that initially…
Although Orson liked to sit up with support, he wasn’t really ready to sit independently. I hadn’t factored in his prematurity to my comparisons with Arthur at the same age, and his physical development wasn’t quite keeping pace with his curiosity about the world and all the delicious treats it had to offer. Then there was the weather – we had torrential rain almost constantly for the first couple of weeks of our trip, meaning that more often than not we decamped to restaurants for meals rather than cooking for ourselves. And in restaurants it was of course harder to accommodate Orson’s potential allergies.
I have just about found my peace with eating out in unfamiliar environments with my nut allergy – I know what to ask, and when to worry, and in Europe at least I know that nuts are not hugely common as an ingredient in most main meals. Orson, though, had shown signs of being allergic to dairy and soya – I started the trip having excluded them from my diet as they appeared to trigger his eczema through my breastmilk. In addition to this he’d developed a rash after first tastes of a range of fruit and vegetables – cucumber, melon, apple, pear, banana – lots of things that should have been easy first foods now had question marks over them in my mind.
We had a particularly scary incident one night in Portugal. After being rained out of our campsite we’d moved into a quirky little AirBnB for a couple of days to get dry and enjoy some homemade food. Orson had eaten some steamed vegetables earlier, and then sat on my lap whilst Leigh and I had our dinner. I’d made a sort of Carbonara, substituting Oatly for cream and forgoing the parmesan, but adding in an egg at the last minute – it had been one of the foods I’d tried excluding a couple of months before but it hadn’t seemed to influence his eczema so I’d recently reintroduced it, keen to follow the latest advice that holding back on introducing potential allergens might cause more harm than good. Orson reached out and grabbed a sauce-covered mushroom from my plate, and we laughed about how baby Arthur had used to do the same. But then Orson began to cry, and I noticed his face was reddening. I put him to the breast to try to settle him, but then saw the hives that were covering his chest. When I lifted him up into the light I could see the tell-tale blisters beginning to swell on his lips – the warning sign of a serious allergic reaction. We spoke no Portuguese, and only barely knew where we were, so whilst Leigh went into Doctor mode and stripped Orson off to examine him properly I contacted the only person I could think of – the manager of the campsite who’d been so helpful in finding us somewhere to stay earlier that day. She gave us details of the nearest hospitals, saying that we would be much better off heading there under our own steam than relying on an ambulance. I bundled a sleeping Arthur out of bed and Leigh treated Orson with adult Piriton – the only vaguely appropriate allergy meds we had. Fortunately, this seemed to work. The swelling went down almost instantly and Orson started babbling again, and we decided we would be ok to monitor him ourselves. He slept soundly all night, whilst I watched the rise and fall of his chest and tried not to think about what might have happened.
So against all my initial instincts we started exploring the world of pureed baby food. We couldn’t easily make this ourselves, so begin to look out for organic and natural food shops wherever we travelled and stocked up on jars and pouches of the healthiest options we could find. And Orson loved it! He happily sat and let us feed him, enthusiastically devouring the new flavours. Fruit and vegetables he had reacted to raw seemed to not cause a problem cooked and we seemed to have found a solution which although did not quite mesh with my initial plans was keeping Orson happy and fed.
We also found an English-speaking GP as soon as we could to get Orson some more appropriate medication, and left with a Junior Epipen as well as a variety of other allergy treatments.
The jars worked well for a while, and as the trip went on we started to get braver again. Fruits he had reacted mildly to initially seemed to no longer cause an issue, and we steamed vegetables for him whenever we could or cooked them up in coconut milk on the van’s stove. He loved avocado and coconut yoghurt, and like all of us ended up eating rather a lot of delicious fresh-baked bread. His absolute favourite though was meat – strips of lamb or beef or chicken. He still had no teeth at this point, but he’d suck on the juices for ages with a huge grin on his face. Fortunately he was completely oblivious to our anxieties around what he ate: it was clear he really, really enjoyed his food, despite the odds being stacked against him!
Since we’ve been home we’ve been able to embrace baby led weaning more fully. I can’t remember the last time he had puree, and whilst there are still some things I offer to him on a spoon (he still adores coconut yoghurt) he now insists on feeding himself, expertly guiding the spoon into his mouth. He still loves his meat too, and fish – sardines on toast is one of his faves. Last night he tucked into chicken and prawn Thai Green curry (homemade without salt or chilli), and cleared his plate of everything from sauce-soaked rice to green beans to prawns (with only about half of it ending up on the floor).
I’m still not loving the messiness of it all – spoon-feeding him puree was definitely tidier – but it is wonderful to watch him discovering a whole world of textures and flavours, and doing so on his own terms and at his own pace. He knows what he wants and needs to eat, he know’s when he’s hungry – and when he’s full. We’re still breastfeeding too – that hasn’t really decreased to be honest over the past four months – but mealtimes have definitely got a whole lot more exciting.
We’re still not over the allergy hurdles – we saw a specialist when we got back who confirmed allergies to egg and milk. Soya came back clear, but his skin still reacts if I eat it so that’s off the menu for now too – as well as nuts of course, but that’s mainly for my benefit. Orson’s tests came back clear on nuts fortunately but as he’s never been exposed to them I’m still a bit wary. I’m hoping he might grow out of these restrictions, but in the meantime we are grateful for the huge variety of free from products on the market and loving introducing our little gastronome to the joys of home cooked meals.
Now if we could only encourage Arthur to rediscover the variety of tastes he used to relish as a baby… But that’s a story for another post!