Baby-led weaning is a method of introducing solid foods that skips spoon feeding purees and instead allows the child to feed himself. It’s presenting your baby with a range of healthy food options and trusting his sense of hunger and desire to learn to eat without interfering in the process. It’s more about an attitude of how to feed your baby than a set of rules about what to feed your baby.
The term “baby-led weaning” was coined by British author and heath professional Gill Rapley and can be confusing to us Americans where weaning typically refers to the end of breastfeeding contrary to the UK definition of weaning which refers to the introduction of solid foods. A more accurate description might be baby-led solids or baby-led feeding.
I started doing research about feeding babies when my first was a few months old. I exclusively breastfed her and knew I wanted to feed her wholesome, quality foods that would nourish her growing, but still tiny body. I read the book “Baby-Led Weaning” by Gill Rapely, which is an excellent resource outlining “why BLW is the logical way to introduce solids and why trusting your baby’s skills and instincts makes sense.”
Some of the concepts I love about BLW:
- BLW encourages a baby’s independence by following her cues about when she is ready to eat solids.
- Mealtimes are a family affair where everyone can eat the same meal.
- When a baby gets to decide what foods to eat and what to leave, they are more willing to try new foods.
- BLW is an opportunity to practice developmental skills like gaining hand-eye coordination from bringing food to the mouth and improving dexterity by gripping different sizes of foods.
- Babies who are allowed to choose what to eat from a wide range of nutritious foods and decide when they’ve had enough continue to eat according to their appetite as they get older which can reduce the likelihood of obesity.
- BLW reduces the likelihood that children will choose unhealthy foods later in life because they are used to eating “adult” food and are more likely to be adventurous eaters.
- When the family meals are healthy and nutritious, BLW is easy and requires no extra time or meal prep.
- When there is no pressure on babies to eat, there isn’t an opportunity for mealtime to become a battleground.
- By eliminating the transitions from purees to lumpy foods to table food, there are fewer chances for the child to become picky.
- When you respect your baby’s decisions about food, there is no need for games like “airplane” or tricks like hiding vegetables in foods.
Before you start BLW
One of the key concepts of BLW is that the baby eats the same food as the rest of the family. The most important qualifier here is that the family’s diet should be healthy and nutritious. “Healthy” has a wide range of definitions, but I think most would agree that the healthiest diet for a baby would include whole foods with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
We all want what is best for our children, and cooking for them is a great motivator to examine our own diet and make positive changes. I discovered BLW at about the same time as I discovered 100 Days of Real Food and learned that low-fat milk and Lean Pockets were a far cry from a healthy diet.
My husband and I followed the 100 Days of Real Food Mini Pledges in January 2012 with a goal of cutting out processed foods in our household before our daughter starting eating solid foods. We now eat mostly organic, made-from-scratch meals with a few minimal-ingredient packaged foods for convenience.
When to start BLW
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization both advise exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. Babies should be at least six months old, be able to sit up with minimal support to minimize choking and have lost the tongue-thrust reflex that pushes solid food out of the front of the mouth.
Doctors used to advise beginning solids between four and six months of age, but this is outdated advice. Old-school doctors and well-meaning friends or family are likely to encourage solids for a number of reasons including a small baby, a big baby or to help baby sleep through the night, but solid foods should be reserved for babies at least six months old who are showing the signs of readiness.
Why baby-led weaning complements breastfeeding
Breastfed babies are used to being in control of their feeding from the very beginning, and can appreciate remaining in control once they move to solid foods. Once in the nursing position, even the tiniest newborn baby feeds himself by choosing to latch when hungry or unlatch when full. Babies also have incredible control over the flow of the milk and how much milk they take depending on their needs or mood.
Breastfeeding also helps the transition to solids feel more familiar instead of a strange new experience. The motion a breastfeeding baby makes when nursing is similar to chewing, which helps strengthen the muscles needed to chew food. Breastfed babies are also familiar with the flavors of food due to the changing flavors of a mother’s milk.
Bottle-fed babies can of course follow BLW, but a breastfed baby is uniquely positioned to make the natural transition to solid foods in this way.
First foods for Babies
Rice cereal used to be recommended as a first food, but many moms are choosing to skip this processed food and choose nutritious whole foods instead. Some popular first foods for BLW are sweet potato, carrots, banana or egg yolk. Foods should be soft and served in a shape that can be easily picked up by a clumsy hand, not cut up into tiny pieces.
While many prefer to serve single foods at first to ease baby into solids, it is not necessary to do that because a six month old’s digestive track is developed and ready for solids at this point. Some parents choose to introduce one food at a time and wait several days between introducing new foods, but it isn’t necessary, even with a family history of food allergies like I have.
Both of my babies ate fruits, vegetables, meat and eggs within the first few weeks of BLW, but we avoided grains and dairy until they were about a year old. There are several excellent resources for recipes and food ideas like babyledweaning.com and wholesomebabyfood.com, but I prefer to just cook my family’s favorite meals and serve them to everyone.
What about choking
Many people are worried about choking, and this is a valid concern. There is a difference between gagging and choking and gagging on food is completely normal and should be expected. Babies are learning something new and need time to develop the skills to chew and swallow. Gagging is actually a safety mechanism to prevent the airway from becoming blocked. Two factors that greatly increase the odds of choking are someone else putting food in the baby’s mouth and eating in a reclined position. Be sure to always let baby explore food himself and don’t start until they are able to sit up unassisted.
Even though gagging is normal, it is still frightening as a parent. With our first baby, my husband and I took an infant CPR class and did a “fire drill” regularly to practice how we would handle a choking situation. It made us feel much more comfortable knowing we had a plan of how to get her out of her chair quickly and what to do next.
My experience with baby-led weaning
Gabriella showed all of the signs of readiness well before six months old so we began BLW on her six month birthday. Just because it’s what we were having for dinner, her first food was broccolini. Gabriella loved sitting at the table and playing with her food, but didn’t actually eat much for several months. We only did one meal a day until she was about a year old and didn’t do three meals a day until she was almost 18 months. She continued nursing for 26 months.
I strictly followed BLW and never spoon-fed her even with things like yogurt or oatmeal. She was using utensils properly by about 15 months old and never went through a picky phase. She is almost four now and while she definitely has some food preferences, she eats a wide range of foods and will try just about anything. Mealtimes have always been relaxed and stress-free and I can’t ever remember a time where we’ve had a battle about eating.
Round 2 of BLW with Preston started out with him grabbing a green bean off of big sister’s plate at 5.5 months old. He showed all of the other signs of readiness so we started two weeks early. Preston loved to eat from the beginning and didn’t waste any time before he was actually eating and not just playing. By a year old, he was eating three substantial meals a day.
I was not as strict about adhering to the principles of BLW the second time, mostly because the demands of having two children made it more difficult to let one of them be in complete control of mealtime. Preston is a more aggressive eater and loves to stuff his mouth completely full and tends to gag and choke more often than I’d like. I found myself cutting things into smaller pieces and spoon-feeding messy meals mostly to preserve my sanity. He just turned one and loves a wide range of foods, but already shows signs of strong preferences in his eating.
My children are still young so it’s impossible to know the long-term effect BLW will have on them, but it has been an extremely positive experience for our family. Parenting is hard work and BLW was a welcome break from the extra work involved in pureeing foods. BLW has helped create a family rhythm of sitting down at the table together for all of our meals where we can not only enjoy our food, but engage in conversation, practice manners, and connect as a family.
If you’re curious about BLW, I recommend reading the “Baby-Led Weaning” book. It’s filled with everything you need to know about how to get started including tips on equipment, how to serve food and how to progress at your baby’s pace.