Baby Led Weaning is a relatively new approach to introducing solids… but one that’s rapidly gaining momentum! The principle behind baby led solids is that baby is allowed to feed himself age appropriate foods, through which he progresses at his own pace.
This means that he’s offered a variety of foods to eat with his fingers, from which he may eat only as much as he wants. Food is never placed in his mouth – instead, he is encouraged to determine for himself exactly what he wants to eat… and when he has had enough.
The whole concept of Baby Led Weaning centers around the research for a master’s degree conducted by Gill Rapley, the ex-Deputy Program Director of UNICEF’S UK Baby Friendly Initiative. The basis of Ms. Rapley’s thesis was that babies should only start solid foods once they have the ability to feed themselves (in other words, once they can get food into their mouths without parental assistance). This generally happens at around 6 months of age.
Her theory – and the very core of the Baby Led Weaning approach – is that babies should be free to explore and experiment with foods by themselves and without help from their parents (although not, of course, without supervision).
Parents who preactice Baby Led Weaning do not spoon feed their little ones and usually bypass pureed food and baby cereals altogether. Instead, they offer their babies a selection of manageable, nutritious foods from which they help themselves.
As the best reviews and advice always come from parent’s who have ‘got the T-shirt’ we asked Brittany and David from A Healthy Slice of Life (http://www.ahealthysliceoflife.com) to share their experience of Baby Led Weaning with their daughter Hailey:
Our Adventure with Baby Led Weaning …
…Or perhaps it should be called Hailey’s adventure into real foods, because it certainly has been a fun journey to watch her taste and explore foods for the first time, but let’s start with the basics.
I first heard about Baby Led Weaning (or Baby Led Solids) when I was pregnant. BLW is a method of introducing solids that is based on the idea that babies should explore food. Texture, smell, taste and color intrigue the baby and the baby is free to play with their food and taste and eat it at their own pace, as opposed to the traditional spoon-fed method.
It’s recommended to wait until 6 months to try solids in this fashion because by then the baby’s digestive system is mature enough to handle food and the baby is able to sit up properly. So, I waited until Hailey was 6 months old and showed clear signs of being ready (obvious grabbing for our food and imitating our biting and chewing), then I asked the pediatrician. She wasn’t familiar with the method, but after I explained it, she gave me the go-ahead and assured me there was no medical reason that we needed to use rice cereal or oatmeal, so with her blessing, I skipped those in favor of unprocessed whole foods. I was mostly concerned about iron, but was assured that the baby’s iron stores and the iron in breast milk is more than sufficient until we get into iron rich foods (note, if your baby was premature or low birth weight, make sure to consult with your pediatrician about what would be best for your baby because they might require more iron).
I did read the Baby Led Weaning book (mostly) and found it just OK. I felt like it was more so selling me on the idea than informing me on how to do it. I’ve heard the Baby Led Weaning cookbook is better and plan to check it out. Finally, I decided I’d read enough and it was just time to eat food already!
I decided sweet potato would be Hailey’s first food, so I washed, peeled and roasted long sticks of sweet potato. The pieces you give the baby are supposed to be at least 2 inches long because at this age they grab food with their whole hand, and the piece needs to be long enough to have part of it sticking out for them to taste.
I let the pieces cool completely while I brushed up on my first aid skills (I was a bit scared about choking) and David and I got her set up in the highchair. Then it was game time. I set 3 sweet potato pieces in front of her and gave one to David.
I wanted to make sure we demonstrated what to do (which I’ve found is very effective!) She examined the pieces and it didn’t take long until they made their way to her mouth.
She gummed it a little and then pulled it out, as if to say WhAAAt is this??
But then the pieces kept going back in.
I was so nervous about choking, but she was really careful and for the most part, couldn’t bite pieces off. She just sucked the soft inside out. It was so much fun to watch her explore that we decided to give her avocado, too. Though it was a bit tougher to hold (I’ve heard you can coat it in crushed cheerios to make it easier to hold, but I wasn’t up for that), she liked it! However, she did bite one big chunk off. I looked at David panicked and ready to swoop in and flip her upside down, but he told me to wait. We watched as Hailey made some funny faces, gagged (NOT choked) and spit the piece out. She then reached out for more.
One important thing I learned is that at 6 months, the baby’s gag reflex is located much further forward on the tongue, where as in an adult mouth, it’s in the back of the throat. This is nature’s way of protecting from choking, and because of that, the baby will gag sometimes as he/she learns to maneuver the correctly sized bites around in his/her mouth. BLW claims this is another plus to this method of introducing solids because the baby learns how to chew food from the get-go, rather than sucking down purees and having to learn how to chew later on when the gag reflex has moved further back in the mouth
Hailey only gagged once or twice before she seemed to understand how to spit out bites that were too big, and since then, she’s loved learning about food! She’s eaten sweet potatoes, avocado, carrots, a green bean and bananas, but her favorite so far? Broccoli! I steam it until tender, let it cool and she loves it!
One factor that I can’t deny about BLW, though, is that it is messy! I’m talking broccoli in the hair, smushed avocado in the seat, needs a full wipe down after kind of messy.
Another benefit I really liked about Baby Led Weaning is that it helps develop baby’s hand eye coordination. I thought it may be a stretch, but I’ve found it fascinating to watch Hailey scoot a piece of food around until she’s able to grasp it and bring it to her mouth.
Another benefit? She eats what we eat! I make sure it’s modified to fit her needs (soft, long pieces with no spices), and we can all eat together. And if we’re out? She can eat off our plate- no spooning her food! (I’d be lying if I said pure laziness wasn’t a motivation of mine to try BLW).
She now eats food 2 times a day. I make sure she sits down when she isn’t hungry, usually about 1 hour after nursing. It may sound counter-intuitive, but at this stage, babies don’t understand that food will fill them up, and if they are hungry or tired, they will be frustrated and not enjoy the experience.
But is she actually eating anything? At first I would have told you I’m not sure, but now I am 100% positive that she’s eating. The proof is in the diaper!
So far, I love baby led solids. I swore that if it didn’t work for us, I’d be the first one to grab the spoon and puree, but so far, it’s working out really well. As with everything, every baby is different and it’s important you consult with your pediatrician and find what works best for your baby.
Brittany’s Blog, A Healthy Slice of Life chronicles her love for delicious, nutritious recipes, her favorite healthy living tips, fun food facts, reviews of new health products and her life as she navigates becoming a first time mom while staying as healthy as possible.
ecoTip# If you’re considering Baby Led Weaning, then you might be concerned that your baby will not eat as much as he actually needs. So you may be reassured to discover that babies are actually very good at deciding just how much food their bodies require! In fact, many experts believe that overriding that innate ability (by encouraging children to ‘eat up’ at the point where they begin to show signs of being full) may contribute to problems with weight gain in later life.
Baby Led Weaning and Choking:
If you’re considering Baby Led Weaning and researching it for the first time, your biggest concern may be that bypassing purees and giving your baby pieces of food from the very beginning may lead to choking.
There are several reasons, however, why this fear is unfounded.
Whilst rare, choking is something that can happen at ANY time to ANYONE, including adults. It’s always a good idea to be prepared by learning HOW to deal with a choking incident should one ever occur. There are online instructions available which show you how to help a choking baby, but the best option is to attend an official course dealing with infant resuscitation.
Much of the literature published about Baby Led Solids suggests that the associated choking risk is actually LESS than with the traditional method of spoon feeding.
This is based on the premise that a baby is able to intentionally move food to the back of his throat only after he has developed the ability to chew it.
The theory is that a baby who is controlling what goes into his mouth is less likely to choke than a spoon fed baby, who may suck food to the back of his throat before he is properly able to deal with it.
This is why it is very important NOT to assist your baby when eating, should you choose to follow the Baby Led Weaning approach. If you help your little one to get pieces of food into his mouth that he could not have placed there by himself, then the risk of choking increases significantly.
Please do remember that gagging and choking are two different things:
Gagging is common when solids are introduced and is simply baby’s in-built defense against choking. Constant, excessive gagging, however, may be a sign of a hyperactive gag reflex.
When to start with Baby Led Weaning:
With this approach to introducing solids, the timing is really up to your baby!
The theory behind the practice of baby led weaning is that a baby who is unable to get food to his mouth unaided is unable to eat it.
This level of ability tends to occur at around 6 months of age – seldom much earlier, but sometimes later. In addition to being able to get food into his mouth, your baby should also be able to sit upright – this is important to reduce the risk of choking (as it is for babies fed from a spoon).
The Benefits of Baby Led Weaning
- Babies naturally enjoy exploring and experimenting with food. The baby led weaning approach makes the introduction to solid foods fun and enjoyable and eliminates the stress that some parents feel when trying to spoon feed an unwilling infant!
- Many parents find that baby led weaning allows baby to participate more readily at family mealtimes. Although spoon-fed babies can (and should!) enjoy meals with the rest of the family, some parents find those meals easier when baby is feeding himself (plus baby enjoys copying what mummy and daddy are doing!).
- It can seem like a natural transition for breastfed babies (although it’s suitable for bottle fed babies too!). Baby led weaning follows the ‘feeding on demand’ principle that is the foundation for successful nursing – additionally, it utilizes the ‘chewing’ motion that baby has already mastered during breastfeeding.
- Baby led weaning may prevent weight problems as it gives baby complete control over the amount of food he consumes. Recent research appears to confirm that infants weaned using the baby-led approach learn to regulate their food intake in a manner that leads to a preference for healthy foods.
- Baby led weaning appeals to the independent nature of many infants. We sometimes hear from parents whose little ones absolutely refuse food from a spoon, but are more than happy to feed themselves!
- Baby led feeding encourages experimentation with texture, which can avoid the issues that some parents experience as they try to transition their babies from smooth purees to little ‘lumps’!
- Preparation is quick! As foods need only to be cooked, or cut to appropriate sizes/shapes, the preparation of baby’s meals is a little quicker than when pureeing or mashing.
The Disadvantages of Baby Led Weaning
- It can be very messy! Baby’s natural desire to play with his food can mean that a lot of it ends up on the floor. Be prepared to cover your carpets – but do note that baby led weaning is no messier than the introduction of finger foods for spoon-fed babies, or when baby is given the spoon to feed himself!
- It can lead to a lot of wasted food. Our advice is to offer a range of foods, but only a little of each type. This approach will keep waste to a minimum. Also, if you cover the floor during meals then you can return to your baby any food he has thrown off his table!
- Meals may take longer than those given via a spoon. If you have commitments at certain times of day (the school run for older children, for example), then you may need to organize mealtimes in such a way as to allow your little one the time he needs to feed himself adequately.
- Other care givers (grandparents, babysitters etc) may be uncomfortable using the baby led weaning approach at mealtimes. It’s a good idea to have them ‘sit in’ on a few meals so they see it is not as scary as they might think!
- Some daycare facilities may not support (or even be familiar with) the baby led weaning approach. Ensure you discuss this method thoroughly with your daycare provider ahead of time – our advice is to keep in mind the fact that YOU are paying THEM and that your wishes in this are paramount! If your daycare provider seems unwilling to allow your child to feed himself without intervention, then you may wish to look for an alternative facility where the staff are more comfortable with the baby led weaning philosophy and methods.
- Baby led weaning may not be suitable for babies with specific dietary needs, particularly those requiring extra nutrition (babies with reflux, for example, or low birthweight/premature babies). In these cases, baby may require the extra calories that solid foods provide, but may not yet be developmentally ready to self feed.
- Some parents may be concerned that baby is not getting the nutrients he needs (although it’s important to remember – whether using baby led weaning or feeding from a spoon – that breast milk or formula should be seen as baby’s primary source of nutrition for the first 12 months of life). It’s also worth pointing out here that concerns that baby isn’t eating enough are not exclusive to parents who do baby led weaning. Parents who spoon feed often worry about this too!
- You may encounter opposition from pediatricians, health visitors etc, particularly those unfamiliar with the concept of baby led weaning. Although this shouldn’t stop you from proceeding (unless there is a specific medical reason why baby led weaning would be inappropriate for your little one), it’s something to be aware of, as you may be asked to defend your choice at some point!
Baby Foods To Avoid:
NEVER give honey to a baby under one year of age.
Honey can contain botulism spores. In babies, the spores can grow and produce life-threatening toxins.
Do not use honey to sweeten yogurt, or in any other form, before your baby’s first birthday
Liver does NOT have to be avoided altogether but should only be offered at one meal per week, with your doctor’s consent. This is because liver contains preformed vitamin A… too
Some Baby Led Weaning Tips
- Have a good trawl on the internet for blogs, info and in particular video clips of BLW babies. Seeing little tiny 6-month-old babies demolishing their food and hearing the gasps of admiration from the proud parent behind the camera (and by parent I mean Dad. It’s always the Dad), will do your confidence the power of good.
- Next, forget ‘baby food’. Food’s food, as long as you’re not adding salt. To start off with, think chip-sized because it’s an easy shape for little 6-month-olds to grip, but you’ll soon move on to smaller pieces as it’s more interesting for a child developing a pincer grip.
- As a first food most people steam carrots (to about the degree that they can be smushed ‘twixt your thumb and finger), cut up cucumbers, make toast fingers or crinkle cut bits of mango, that sort of thing, but remember if there’s no reason whatsoever why your baby can’t have a pile of Spaghetti Bolognese or mashed potato to dig into if that’s what the rest of the family is having.
- No bowls, they’re just asking to be flung heavenwards. Put the food on the highchair tray or table and remember, it’s all a learning experience for the baby at this point. They really don’t care whether the experience is ‘oooooh, mango is in my mouth’ or ‘ooooooh, a bowl is flying across the room’.
- As an experienced eater yourself, you already have all the ‘equipment’ you’ll need to feed your child, but there are some things to consider. An easy-to-clean highchair is a must!
- There will be mess, oh yes there will, so if you are weaning in summer don’t be afraid to eat outside or semi-naked (and the baby too, if you like, hem hem) cover-all and pelican bibs work well too.
- Putting a wipe-clean tablecloth under the highchair is a good idea if you have carpets and some people find that a crinkle cutter is handy to make food extra-grippable.
- (Slightly bitter) experience suggests that the more effort you put into making something special for the baby, the less likely they are to eat it. Give them what you’re having. If they hate it, fine, they’re getting their calories from milk anyway.
- Of course it would be perfect if we ate every meal as a family, just like the Waltons but this isn’t always possible. Try to keep your ‘social activity’ head on, though, even if it’s just you and your baby sharing a sandwich at lunch. Keep smiling, keep enjoying, keep paying attention. It’s just good manners at the end of the day, something it’s never too early for a child to learn.
- Don’t get too hung up on three meals a day, it may take a while to work up to that. Whatever’s convenient and enjoyable for you is best.
- And don’t put too much on the highchair tray at the one time, just a couple of pieces of food will stop them feeling overwhelmed.
- Actual hunger can be frustrating for the babies when they’re still getting to grips (quite literally) with things. Timing ‘meals’ to between milk feeds seems to be best, and because it’s just finger food you aren’t limited to staying in. There’s no reason why you can’t pack a wee Tupperware with some carrot or cucumber, buy a banana when you’re out or just pull some bits out of an undressed salad.
- Never put food into a child’s mouth, let them put it in by themselves so that they can control it as it moves backwards. If the baby gags, remember that it’s their way of moving food around in the mouth and don’t panic. Some parents have found that making exaggerated chewing faces and noises reminds the child to get back on track.
- Nappies and their contents will soon fascinate you in ways you never thought possible. Raisins rehydrate, little pieces of still-green broccoli sneak through the digestive system and bananas produce poo with strange black threads. Look and learn, ladies.
- Have a camera ready to capture those first gummy, carroty smiles because as daunting as it may seem, weaning is a very short time in your child’s life. So remember to enjoy it…