"What's baby led weaning?" my daughter Sarah asked.
"It's what I did with you, except there wasn't a name for it then," I said. "I just popped some food on your high chair tray and you helped yourself.
"What? You mean, you didn't even FEED me?"
I laughed. "Look at your baby photos – I think somebody must have fed you." (She was a deliciously chubby bubba).
Sarah was our fourth baby. By then I'd wholeheartedly embraced a philosophy of 'lazy parenting' – or, as I liked to call it with her older siblings, 'benevolent neglect'.
With my first baby, I'd tried to follow 'the rules'. When he started solids, the advice was to start off with baby cereal. So I bought a box. I squirted breast milk onto the recommended teaspoon of cereal. That made it too runny, so I added more cereal. Then it was too thick, so I squirted more breast milk … then it was too runny. Eventually I had almost a bowl full of perfectly mixed cereal – which my baby promptly spat out.
Even though the cereal didn't work out, I still lovingly pureed fresh fruits and steamed vegetables especially for him. It simply hadn't occurred to me that he could eat the same foods we were eating. That is until we were staying with my grandparents and Poppa handed him a drumstick from the roast chicken. How that kid loved feeding himself! Aha – no more fiddling and fussing with 'baby' food. Ever. Again.
As my babies grew, my approach was that it was my responsibility to provide healthy food and it was their choice whether to eat it or not. I didn't cook special meals – hell, I'm not a short order cook. If you don't like it, leave it. If they didn't eat dinner, they could have something completely boring, like a Vegemite sandwich , if they felt hungry later. No food fights, no power struggles, and nobody seemed to go to bed hungry.
Food wasn't the only area in which I embraced the theory of lazy parenting; sleep was another one I learned to relax about. First time around, we had spent hours restoring an antique cot, even tracking down a craftsman who made us a new matching brass knob to replace the missing one. I had crocheted fine woolen blankets and the whole thing looked divine. Except my baby wasn't overly impressed by our design skills. And, after tucking him into his beautiful bed at least 10 times one night (and wanting to put a pillow over the sleeping face of my husband), I took him into bed with me. He slept – soundly!
Eventually he moved out into his own bed and subsequent babies moved in with us. By the third baby, I didn't even bother trying to put her in her cot at night. I didn't consider longer term benefits (sleep was the immediate priority) until one night when she was about three, when I heard her patter to the toilet in the dark, all by herself, then patter back to her own bed. I had a light bulb moment – none of our kids were scared of the dark. Of course they weren't, because they had never been left alone at night, so they hadn't developed an association with night time being scary. Lazy parenting payoff!
Play is another aspect we can chill out about too. We know that play is important – it's a child's work. We provide educational toys and we hover and teach our toddlers how to play nicely. We schedule classes. I once tried a toddler gym class with two toddlers and a baby strapped onto me. One toddler slipped away from the structured class and found a trampoline to jump on. It was honestly easier to just take them to the park and let them choose what to play on.
At home I provided old sheets and fabric along with a bucket of pegs and they pegged the fabric on low branches to make their own cubbies. Their favourite activity as tiny tots was 'painting the fence' with a house sized paint brush and a shallow bucket of water. Inside, I sat back and fed the baby in peace or had a cuppa while they built roads all around the lounge room with blocks, or made cubbies by draping sheets over chairs and the dining room table.
There is research to back up the lazy approach to play. Peter Gray, Professor of Psychology (emeritus) at Boston College, defines "free play" as play a child undertakes themselves, which is self-directed and an end in itself, rather than part of some organised activity. As children negotiate both their physical and social environments through play, they can gain a sense of mastery over their world, Gray contends.
"Children who do not have the opportunity to control their own actions, to make and follow through on their own decisions, to solve their own problems, and to learn how to follow rules in the course of play, grow up feeling that they are not in control of their own lives and fate. They grow up feeling that they are dependent on luck and on the goodwill and whims of others," he wrote.
Speaking of exerting self-control and following rules, as they grew, my kids did their fair share of 'negotiating'. However, unless somebody was being unkind or unfair, I took the 'lazy' approach there as well. Mostly they worked things out without interference from me.
One day I was reading how a parenting expert had 'solved' his children's sibling squabbles over a game of mini golf by taking away the rules so there were no winners or losers. I was a bit surprised (I had thought it was important to learn how to lose graciously), so I asked one of my older kids if they had ever felt upset about being beaten in a game with siblings. He grinned and said, "I would have cheated if they were beating me."
So much for lazy parenting!
Pinky McKay is an internationally certified lactation consultant and best selling baby care author of Sleeping Like a Baby and Toddler Tactics. Pinky is holding seminars in Perth (Toddler Tactics and Baby Sleep) in September - book here: bookings.pinkymckay.com.
See Pinky's books (also available as audio) on her website.