Friday, 8 July 2011

Baby-Led Oppression

An important element in current doctrine on child-rearing is what is called "baby-led weaning," whereby, as the name suggests, a baby is encouraged to determine what, when and how she will make the transition from a milk to a solid-food diet. This means that at "mealtimes" - and it is important now to distance ourselves from that term, for such times are not baby led - the only person in the room yet to have reached the age of reason is the one who determines the amount and kind of calories to be consumed and, in the process, distributes those calories in a manner that constitutes them as things to play with as well as to eat, things to ingest in jest.

The most recent large-scale survey on the topic in the UK revealed that one quarter of all boys, and one third of all girls, between the ages of 2 and 19, are overweight or obese, and the problem, we are told, is getting worse, another recent survey predicting that the numbers are set to rise to 63% of all children in the not too distant future.

How, we might ask ourselves, when we are making such strides in knowledge of how best to initiate our babies into the world of eating and drinking, are those babies getting fatter and fatter as they grow up?

But this is the wrong question. We should rather ask: why do we continue to give up responsibility for the rational determination of our children's relationship to food when we can, at the very least, observe that the baby-led approach does not improve that relationship?

If we ask the question in this way, then an answer does quickly present itself. And it is: the commitment to baby-led weaning continues, not in spite of the fact that it hands over the determination of meal-times to someone whose IQ, we are told, is less than 20, not in spite of the fact that it results in food wastage and mess, not in spite of the fact that it makes it almost impossible to monitor the amount of food one's baby consumes in any day and therefore more concerned about her nutrition, not in spite of the fact that it is time-consuming and frustrating, not in spite of the fact that meal-time loses its defining characteristics and flows out into the whole of the waking day, and not in spite of the fact that it is at least not reductive of the kind of problematic behaviour around food that leads to overweight and obese children, but actually because of these effects. Baby-led weaning, like many of the practices recommended to child-rearers these days, is a very good way of keeping people occupied by minutiae, generally anxious, guilty, and, yes, too overweight to fight what seems like a naturally-given apathy. Not much will change, politically, socially, culturally, economically, when those already grown are preoccupied with the anxious relinquishment of their responsibilities, and growing generations are too sluggish to do anything much at all.

Baby-led weaning: it's surely too innocuous an ideal to produce such sinister effects, one might object. But, it is precisely by these apparently innocuous commitments that a liberal democratic population, with its antennae raised for large-scale and explicit restrictions on its freedom, must be kept down. Indeed, the extent to which baby-led weaning is actually liberating - of children, from culturally determined restrictions on eating and drinking; and of parents, from the requirement that they assume authority - makes it that kind of control that is the most effective of all: by removing the boundaries around that time of day when food is prepared and consumed, and around the various stages of maturity (which are put into a melting pot out of which babies emerge as leaders and parents as helpless), it constitutes a grazing populace unused to the deferral of gratification that is part of what separates us from the animal and that allows time and space for the pursuit of those higher pleasures that make us more than mere cows out to pasture. Add to this effect, the immeasurable increase in anxious guilt that is generated by the proliferation of norms - how many calories your baby ought to consume, what range of food and textures your baby ought to encounter, how lumpy your baby's dinner ought to be, when your baby ought to hold her bottle, when she ought to hold her spoon, when she ought to hold her cup, and so on and so on - norms, whose increase is not objected to as the unacceptable restriction on your baby's particular make up and circumstances that a regimen of mealtimes and menus is regarded as: and you have the parallel loosening of traditional structures and undermining of reason and experience that is the perfect recipe for a population of under-confident and acquiescent child-rearers, and confused and resistant children.

Did Elizabeth David wean herself? Did Delia? Did Jamie? Did Hugh? I think not. What nonsense, then, to admit for a moment that the rage for "baby-led weaning" is anything other than that combination of freedom-where-there-should-be-constraint and normalization-where-there-should-be-responsible-judgment, that are the ties that bind us in our liberty.

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