The concept of Baby Led Weaning (often referred to as BLW) is not new, nor is it a fad, but you may be hearing more about it these days.
BLW is a method of gradually weaning a baby from a milk diet onto solid food. It allows a baby to control their solid food intake by self-feeding from the very beginning of the weaning process.
BLW means forgetting baby food purées and simply letting your baby learn how to feed themselves. Please note that in the UK, where the BLW 'movement' began, the term weaning refers to adding complementary foods, whereas in the US/Canada it tends to mean giving up breastfeeding. The main difference between BLW and traditional weaning, is the order in which children learn to eat. With purées they learn to swallow first and then chew, while gradually changing the consistency of their food. With BLW, the babies learn to chew first and swallowing might come some time later. Baby led weaning places an emphasis on exploring taste, texture, colour and smell as the baby sets their own pace for the meal, choosing which foods to concentrate on. Instead of the traditional method of spooning puréed food into the baby's mouth, the baby is presented with a plate of a variety of finger foods from which to choose.
Key points of the BLW approach
- Babies feed themselves - there is no spoon feeding involved.
- Offer your baby a variety of foods - instead of a single food or puréed version of that food.
- Trust your baby to eat what they need and how much – they have great instincts.
- Allow your baby to experience a wide range of food textures – mushy, chewy, crunchy, etc.
- Let your baby get messy - don’t scold them as they may develop phobias down the road.
- Include your baby in family mealtime from an early age.
Benefits of BLW
Some experts believe that babies who are allowed to feed themselves by being offered a selection of nutritious finger foods are less likely to refuse foods or become picky eaters as they get older. BLW makes eating a true sensory experience by allowing babies to explore how their foods food in their hands before they may be ready to put them into the mouth. BLW also allows babies to learn appetite control naturally and research shows that this may help reduce the risk of obesity later in life. Here are some pros and cons:
- No puréeing, blending, freezing or defrosting involved.
- Promotes good table interaction, as you need to keep a close eye on your baby.
- Your baby can explore textures naturally, at their own pace.
- Your baby can feed themselves, leaving your hands free to eat your own meal at the same time (my personal favourite!).
- Concerns about choking (certain foods need to be avoided or prepared in such a way to avoid this).
- Gagging on food is a fairly common occurrence in BLW, and this can worry some parents (although this is simply a baby's natural reflex to stop themselves from choking on food which they cannot swallow).
- If your own diet is unhealthy, you may find it more difficult to offer nutritious foods to your baby (particularly if you allow the baby to grab food off of your plate).
- It is messy! (yes, messier than spoon feeding).
When to start/Foods to try
Before beginning BLW, your baby should be able to sit upright, either on your lap, in a highchair or unsupported. Their hand-eye coordination should have developed to the extent that they can grip food it in their palms and bring it to their mouth successfully. It is important to look for signs of readiness as opposed to simply looking at age alone.
Initially, soft fruits and vegetables are given. Harder foods are lightly cooked to make them soft enough to chew on even with bare gums. Foods which pose a clear danger are not offered. Non-finger-foods, such as oatmeal and yogurt, may also be offered so your baby can learn to feed themselves with a spoon. Foods that are cut into strips, or have a handle, such as cooked broccoli spears are great for beginners. This is because at six months old, babies have not yet developed a pincer grip and can only hold food in their fists. Try cooked sticks/chunks of carrot, sweet potato, potato, butternut squash. Raw slices/chunks of banana, avocado, peaches, pears or melon. As your baby progresses, you can offer other foods such as cooked grains/pasta, cubes/fingers of bread/toast, pieces of fish/meat/poultry, cooked beans/lentils and pieces of cooked egg. Note that milk is treated as a food, not as a drink. Don't be alarmed if your baby spits out their food. Being allowed to spit out foods they do not like is important and helps babies build trust in their relationship with food.
Is BLW for you?
Many parents unconsciously choose Baby Led Weaning, particularly with second or third children. Babies love to copy their older siblings and it is certainly easier not having to worry about purées when you have multiple children to feed. One point to consider is early solid introduction. There are varying opinions concerning when to begin introducing solids, however, if you plan to introduce earlier than six month, developmentally, BLW would likely not be appropriate for you baby at that stage.
While I agree that babies should learn to know when they are hungry and when they are full, you can still achieve this with spoon feeding. You just need to pay attention to your baby's cues. Babies can be quite clear when they want more food and when they have had enough. It is important to STOP when they are finished and not try to overfeed, even if YOU think they have not eaten enough. Do not get too caught up in suggested quantities. If your baby does not feel like eating, don't force it. If your baby wants to eat more, let them have more!
New parents often become worried when their child does not follow a particular solid food schedule. Baby Led Weaning is a great reminder that first solid foods are about exploration and discovery and babies can better achieve this when given control of their feeding. What I like most about BLW is how the progression of introducing solids coincides well with your baby's development and it lets their appetite and ability guide you. If you are not completely comfortable with the idea of BLW, however, then I would not recommend it. Mealtime should never be filled with stress or worry, for you or your baby. Even if you decide to start with purées, your baby does not need to be in that stage for very long. Within a couple of months you will be able to give your baby opportunities to self-feed.
Aviva Allen, is a Toronto-based kids' nutritionist who teaches new moms about introducing solids to their babies, through small group workshops around the GTA, as well as private sessions for individuals. Click here for more information about Introducing Solids workshops.