Have you heard of Baby-Led Weaning (BLW)? Whether this is your first introduction, or you have a general idea, this article will explain the basics of introducing solid foods with baby-led weaning.
"Baby-Led Weaning" is a term of art, coined by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett in their book Baby-Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods-and Helping Your Baby to Grow Up a Happy and Confident Eater.
Baby-led weaning is the introduction of solid foods when your baby is ready, through self-feeding of real food. This method requires trusting your baby to develop their eating skills through exploring the tastes and textures of various foods. You take a back-seat role of maintaining a safe and supportive eating environment, while your baby takes center stage. And oh how cute it is to watch your little one happily munch on a stalk of broccoli! (Like my Cutie Pie pictured above.)
Benefits of Baby Led-Weaning
Before explaining in more detail what Baby Led Weaning is, let's look at some of the benefits of BLW.
We are three weeks into our BLW adventure, and all of us (myself, my husband, and our son) have been enjoying it tremendously! It is so much fun to watch the eagerness with which our baby pounces on food and the clever ways he manages to get different foods into his mouth.
He already shows clear preferences for organic hamburger meat and sweet potato fries. Before learning about BLW, if you had told me that my son would be snagging sushi off the serving plate two weeks into eating solids, I would not have believed you! Our little foodie seems to be the perfect candidate for this approach to introducing solids, since even at six-months-old he already has the "I do it myself!" attitude.
Some of the best things about baby-led weaning are:
- It's fun! Baby gets to enjoy exploring food, while you have a chance to enjoy your meal.
- Baby builds self confidence, through developing new abilities.
- Baby refines his fine motor skills by figuring out how to pick up and manipulate different textures and sizes and shapes of food.
- Baby learns to stop eating when he is full.
- Babies tend to avoid foods to which they are allergic. Also, if Baby touches and then disregards the food, an allergic reaction is likely to be less severe than if the food was spooned into Baby's mouth and swallowed.
- Babies who are given a variety of foods from the family meal are more likely to be open to various types of foods and flavors. You may be surprised when your six-month-old appreciates curry!
- Babies know what they need at certain times. Sometimes they may need more fat and protein, while during other stages they may require more carbohydrates. Instead of guessing what or how much your baby needs, you leave it up to him.
Now let's delve deeper into BLW by first clarifying the meaning of "weaning" and then looking at how this approach is baby-led.
A Closer Look at Baby-Led Weaning
Let's take a closer look at how to practice baby-led weaning.
Weaning = Introducing Solids
First of all, let's make sure we are on the same page as to what we mean by "weaning". The term "weaning" has varying meanings in different cultures.
"* re ‘wean’. This is meant in the Brit sense, not the American. In the UK, ‘weaning’ means ‘adding complementary foods’, whereas in the States it means ‘giving up breastfeeding’."
Even in the US the term "weaning" is used in multiple ways. It not only refers to ending breastfeeding, but also to the gradual process of replacing milk-feedings with solid foods. Here is how The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding explains weaning:
"Weaning means different things in different cultures. In some cultures, the first swallow of something other than mother's milk is weaning, so using formula or starting solids is weaning. In others, weaning means ending breastfeeding completely. We think weaning involves both. From the first time your baby eats or drinks something other than your milk----maybe even from the first time your baby sucks on something other than your breast----the weaning process has begun. It ends the last time your child nurses. And that means weaning can take several days, weeks, months, or years."
In the context of BLW, "weaning" indicates the introduction of solid foods, to compliment breast milk or formula. If you formula feed, do not be scared off by all this talk of breastfeeding. You can still transition from formula to solids with the BLW approach. BLW is perhaps just more intuitive for breastfeeding mothers, since they are already accustomed to following the baby's lead.
Baby-Led = Trusting Baby to Self-Feed from the Start
Now that we have clarified that "weaning" means introducing complimentary solid foods while continuing milk feedings, let's move on to what makes it "baby-led".
Introducing Solids When Baby is Ready
The first aspect that makes this method baby-led is that it begins when the baby shows signs that he is ready for solids. (Throughout this article I use "he", since it is easier than continually saying "he or she". Please pardon this if your baby is female.)
Signs of readiness for solids include:
- Sitting up unassisted;
- Grabbing items and putting them in his mouth;
- Making chewing motions; and
- Showing interest in food.
Once the baby demonstrates all of these signs of readiness and is at least 6-months-old, it is time to begin! It is recommended to wait until the baby is at least 6-months-old in order to reduce the chance of developing food allergies; allow for a more mature gut; and wait for the presence of enzymes necessary for digesting solid foods. It just so happens that many babies also show the outward signs of readiness at around 6-months-old, when their insides are ready for solids.
With the BLW approach, it is the caregiver's role to offer foods and the baby's role to feed himself. In contrast to Traditional Weaning (TW), which begins with the caregiver spoon-feeding purees or cereals; with BLW, the baby self-feeds right from the start. Both methods include the introduction of finger-foods, but with BLW, everything is finger food! Well, at least until the baby learns to use a spoon or fork, by imitating others at the table.
So rather than focusing on purees vs. finger foods, the easiest way to distinguish BLW from TW is to look at who is putting the food into the baby's mouth. If the baby is grabbing the food and placing it in his mouth, or licking it off the tray, that looks like BLW. If the caregiver is putting spoonfuls of purees or forkfuls of other solids into the baby's mouth, that looks like TW.
Baby-Led Weaning at Mealtimes
With BLW, Baby is included in family mealtimes. When just starting out, this may mean one meal a day, or it could be three meals a day. Whenever Baby is awake and the rest of the family is sitting down for a meal, Baby is welcome to join the fun.
Baby can either sit on a caregiver's lap and grab food directly from their plate or sit in a high chair or booster seat. Baby is offered a selection of foods from the family meal by placing pieces of a suitable size and shape on the tray or table in front of him. The ball is then in Baby's court. It is best to avoid handing food directly to Baby, since that interferes with Baby's freedom to choose which foods to eat.
Baby is in control of deciding what or even whether to eat. He may gobble up all the food and ask for more; try some pieces while leaving others; or play with all the food and then throw it on the floor.
It is also left up to Baby to figure out how to eat the food. He may use his hands to grab the food. Or he may lean forward, with his face on the tray, to bite or lick the food. Given time to observe and copy others, he can learn to use a spoon or fork to shovel food into his mouth.
Baby is allowed to go at his own pace. Mealtimes may take longer than they did before. Baby may be adventurous and try every new food that is placed in front of him. Or he may be slower to start eating and prefer just to examine the food with his hands.
When starting Baby on solids, the goal is to allow him to explore tastes and textures. Since Baby's nutritional needs are still being met by breast milk or formula, there is no need to worry about whether Baby is eating. It is up to Baby to determine how much food he takes in.
Baby-Led Weaning with Real Foods
BLW allows Baby to eat real food right from the start. "Real food" does not only mean finger foods, as opposed to purees and mush. "Real food" refers to nutritious foods that are as close as possible to their natural state, rather than processed foods loaded with additives.
Since complimentary solids take away limited stomach space from more nutritionally dense breast milk or formula, it is important that the foods offered are nutritious, and not just empty fillers.
There are not too many restrictions on particular foods to avoid.
Do not offer foods:
- High in salt;
- Containing processed sugar;
- Which are choking hazards (such as whole grapes, raw carrots, or whole nuts); or
- Which have a family history of causing allergies.
Possible first foods include:
- Strips of meat;
- Steamed vegetables;
- Soft fruits; and
- Cooked egg yolk.
Remember to offer foods in strips or slices that are easy for Baby to pick up in his fist and still have enough food sticking out to eat.
Baby-Led Weaning requires trusting your baby to develop and refine the skills necessary to eat. It is so tempting to help your baby, but he will actually learn faster if he is allowed to figure things out for himself. Instead of interfering, set a good eating example.
Your baby is not going to be an eating pro right off the bat, but given many opportunities to play with food, he will refine his chewing ability; learn to use his tongue to move food around in his mouth; start swallowing food; and develop the pincer grasp (picking up small objects with the thumb and forefinger).
Safely Practicing Baby-Led Weaning
It is important to remain present and vigilantly watching Baby whenever he is playing with food. All parents adopting the BLW approach should take a class on Baby CPR and know what to do in case of a choking incident.
That being said, it is much more likely that Baby will cough or gag to expel food that gets too far back in his mouth. Know the difference between choking and gagging, and if Baby is only coughing or gagging, allow him to work the food out on his own. Attempting to reach into Baby's mouth to retrieve the food could push the food farther back in his mouth and lead to choking. It is crucial to remember that Baby is always the one to place food into his mouth. Putting food into your baby's mouth makes it more likely that he may choke. Also, to enable Baby to cough or gag food out, make sure that he is always sitting in an upright position when eating.
Food should be offered to Baby once it has been cooled to room temperature, rather than hot out of the oven or off the stove. Baby does not yet know how to blow on the food to cool it down. A helpful trick is to place Baby's plate in the freezer while preparing a hot meal, so the cold plate will help the meal cool down faster.
And overall, just use your common sense to ensure a safe eating environment. There should not be any sharp knives or hot liquids within Baby's reach when he sits down for a meal.
Are you excited to try baby led weaning? If you have already begun, what is your favorite part of BLW?