Baby led weaning (BLW) is an approach to introducing solid foods that allows the baby to feed themselves from the introduction of food at 6 months age. Coined after the release of Dr. Gill Rapely and Tracey Murkett’s book of the same name in 2008, the method has hit a chord with many parents who were tired of making multiple meals for the family.
What is baby led weaning?
BLW is an approach to introducing ‘real’ foods to babies rather than purees. Parents give babies chunks of food and they feed themselves, usually with their hands to start and then progressing to using cutlery. The BLW approach suggests parents include their baby in family mealtimes to encourage the social aspects of eating. BLW also encourages parents to take cues from babies as to when they are full rather than trying to have them finish what’s on their plate. As with the traditional puree method, BLW babies will still have formula or breastmilk for the majority of their nutritional needs at first and slowly transition to more food and less milk as they get the hang of eating.
While some parents will take a strict BLW approach, many parents will choose to offer their child a mixture of purees and solid food.
When is baby ready for baby-led weaning?
The recommendations suggest starting infants on solid food between 4 and 6 months. In order to successfully use the baby-led weaning approach, it’s important your baby shows the following signs of readiness:
- They’re able to sit up well by themselves.
- They’ve developed fine motor skills allowing them to self-feed. Babies should be able to use a ‘pincer’ grasp between their thumb and forefinger in order to pick up food. This happens between 6-12 months.
- They have lost the ‘tongue-thrust’ reflex where they push solid foods out of the front of the mouth.
- They show interest in food – trying to grab it from your plate and put it in their mouth.
What are the benefits of baby-led weaning?
For starters, the idea of feeding your baby the same thing you’re eating is a whole lot easier than making multiple meals every day. Of course, you’ll need to modify the meal for baby (no salt/sugar, big chunks, etc.) but at least you avoid feeling like a pureeing factory.
A big part of baby-led weaning is exploration. In the process of learning to eat, babies are learning to control the food in their mouth, practice hand-eye and hand-mouth coordination, and understand the social side of eating. Both BLW and puree-feeding are about a slow transition to eating solid foods – the majority of their nutritional needs in the first few months will still come from breastmilk or formula so don’t worry if there’s more food on the floor than in their tummies!
Because BLW is a fairly recent concept (in name only – in practice, parents have been introducing chunks of food since the beginning of time), the evidence base for it is limited. Some key findings in studies of BLW that have emerged over the last several years:
- Healthy weight – Babies practicing BLW were more likely to have a healthy weight between age 18-24 months (86.5% vs. 78.3%)[i] and a preference for healthier food groups.[ii]
- Less fussiness – Infants in the baby-led weaning group had a greater enjoyment of food and less food fussiness.[iii]
Baby-led weaning safety
Understandably, one of the main worries parents express when considering baby-led weaning is safety, in particular, choking. Anecdotal evidence suggests that because infants are controlling where their food is in their mouth (rather than having a spoon shoved in there), they’re more likely to gain good tongue and mouth control over their food and choke less. In the beginning, this often means they will gag their food up as they learn how to control it. According to a 2017 review[iv] of the evidence on baby-led weaning, choking had occurred in 35% of infants in their first year – with no difference between babies fed a traditional pureed diet vs. babies introduced to solids using BLW.
- Counter-intuitively, it’s important to serve BIG rather than small chunks of food. They should be able to pick up the food and gnaw on it (or more likely, gum it). Tiny pieces of food are a choking hazard.
- Do not leave your baby alone when they’re eating. In order to foster a social approach to eating, try to eat or sit with them while they eat.
Foods to avoid when baby-led weaning
It’s important to introduce foods one-at-a-time at first to see if they have a reaction. Try a food for a few mealtimes in a row to assess a possible reaction before moving on to the next food. The following foods need to be avoided:
- Any foods with added salt or sugar. Take a look at the labels of any pre=packaged food or sauces – there is often a lot of added salt and/or sugar included.
- Honey may cause botulism, an often-fatal disease, in infants under one year.
- Under-cooked eggs.
- Whole milk should not be used as a replacement for infant formula or breastmilk.
- Especially with babies with a family history of allergy, be cautious with common allergens such as egg, strawberries, and peanut butter.
Introducing your child to the wide and wonderful world of food sets them up for a lifetime of relationships with food. Despite the mess, try to enjoy watching them explore and understand food!
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