Introducing Solid Foods: Baby-Led Weaning
We’ve already talked about the current recommendation for when baby should be introduced to solid foods. While it is generally accepted that this should be around 6 months of age, there is renewed debate over how solid foods should first be offered. The conventional image of an infant opening her mouth wide for a spoon of rice cereal, pureed fruits or vegetables is giving way, at least in some circles, to an image of a baby feeding herself – with or without the spoon. What is this new method for introducing solid foods and why has it increased in popularity recently?
What is Baby-Led Weaning?
Baby-led weaning (BLW) is an approach to introducing food in which the baby is allowed to direct and control the process of eating solids foods from the very beginning. Parents decide what to feed and babies decide when, how and how much they are going to eat.
But there are other key components of BLW as well:
- Baby sits at the table with the family at mealtimes.
- Baby is offered the same (healthy) foods as the rest of the family, prepared in sizes that are appropriate to their developmental stage.
- Baby feeds him/herself, first with hands then cutlery.
- Babies are continued to be offered breast milk (or formula), on demand, outside meal times.
Despite what is known about, there is no consensus on what the definition of BLW is and parental perceptions differ: among parents who self-identify as using BLW with their own children, some will spoon-feed their child about 10% of time while others use a more strict definition and offer ONLY finger foods.
What are the Benefits of Baby-Led Weaning?
There are several benefits to adopting BLW:
- It shifts the focus from emphasizing the quantity of food consumed to experiencing and expanding the diet. The goal becomes introducing babies to a range of flavors and textures rather than ensuring that certain levels of various nutrients are consumed.
- It makes introducing solid foods easier and less costly. Purees take time (to make) or money (to purchase pre-made) and require a lot more hands-on and one-on-one time which can be in short supply if, like me, you have two other kids running around the house requiring assistance. With BLW, there is no need to make and serve two different meals!
- Allowing baby to take part in family meals helps to develop important social skills.
- It promotes autonomy – independence and self-governance – which, especially in later childhood and adolescence, has been linked with a range of positive outcomes. Giving control over eating back to baby – as opposed to mom or dad – has also been shown to result in lower levels of restriction, pressure to eat, monitoring, and concern over baby’s weight by parents, which are feeding styles associated with higher weight, fussiness, a lack of food acceptance, and even lowered nutrient intake.
- Early exposure (before 10 months) to a variety of solid foods has also been associated with a reduction in “picky” eating. Exposure to a variety of tastes and flavors during complimentary feeding has also been associated with kids being more adventuresome and accepting of food.
What are the Concerns with Baby-Led Weaning?
The most common concerns around BLW focus on one of three areas: nutrition, choking, and suitability. Perhaps one of the greatest concerns of parents (and health professionals alike) is that their baby is getting adequate nutrition to meet his needs and weaning is a critical period when many children – especially globally – experience sharp rises in illness and malnutrition.
- Nutritional concerns: Regardless of the feeding method used, solid food should be a supplement to, not substitution for, breast milk or formula which should remain the primary source of nutrition. Iron insufficiency tends to be of primary concern, but since BLW babies tend to be older and their gut bacteria more mature (than a 4 month old), iron-rich foods can be offered from the outset. To date, the small body of research on BLW does not support these concerns.
- Choking hazards: Although concerns of choking are common, the ability to chew develops before the ability to hold food at the back of the mouth for proper position for swallowing. Thus, what is most often experienced is gagging. With careful consideration of what is placed in front of baby and with proper supervision, choking should not be of great concern. (You can learn more about common choking hazards, food and otherwise, here.)
- Difficult transition: There are some babies and families for whom BLW may be might not be feasible or suitable. This could especially be the case for infants with developmental delays or for whom some other condition interferes with their ability to move food to their mouths, to chew or to swallow. For others, the transition might just prove to be a difficult one. Although formula feeding does not preclude adoption of the BLW approach, it may hinder the transition from bottle to table food. The reason is that formula does not offer the same variation in flavor that breast milk does, and it is these sensory properties (of breast milk) that are thought to facilitate the transition to solid foods and the modified adult diet.
When Should I Try It?
If you’re interested in trying BLW, you’ll likely have the best luck if you wait until your child is 6 months old, showing signs of readiness and continues to get breast milk or formula on demand between meal times. Just like needing practice chewing in order to become accomplished eaters, babies need frequent opportunities to practice feeding themselves to become proficient with this skill.
In My Home
There are many aspects of baby-led weaning that are very appealing to me, and which fit well with my family’s needs. Alice wants to hold her own food (or spoon) and is always curiously reaching for our plates, she is old enough to sit up unassisted, she has a finely developed pincher grasp, and mimics what we do at the table. I have two older kids with whom we share mealtimes and who also require attention while eating. And lastly, I am a working mom who cares about putting quality food on the table but doesn’t have time to serve as a short-order cook. But there are also times when I can’t let her fully immerse her senses in the food we’re eating. Take yesterday, for example. While traveling from Washington DC I bought a yogurt for us to share but the over-crowded terminal was no place to let her fist-feed herself yogurt. So I opted for controlling the spoon, but paid close attention to her signs of waning interest in the food so that I didn’t overfeed.
If you’re a fan of baby-led weaning, or if you tried and it didn’t work for you/your child, let us know. We’d love to hear your stories.