What is baby-led weaning?

What is baby-led weaning?

Baby-led weaning, often referred to as BLW, is a method of adding complementary foods to a baby’s diet of breastmilk or formula. BLW is a philosophy in which a baby is allowed and encouraged to self-feed solid food instead of receiving purees from a spoon. BLW promotes eating healthy foods, self-regulation and sharing family mealtimes. It also encourages a baby to be the only one putting food into his or her mouth, therefore trusting the baby to know how much to eat.

BLW encourages a baby’s innate instincts for eating to develop, and promotes healthy weight and eating habits throughout the child’s life. Research shows that starting to feed with BLW has significant life-long health benefits, including a positive relationship with food and increased body confidence.

We spoke with Le Bonheur dietitian, Allison Gilbert, MS, RD, CSP, LD, who gives us more information on baby-led weaning.

What are the advantages or disadvantages of baby-led weaning?

  • Baby-led weaning saves time and money. With BLW, baby eats what the rest of the family eats. Making pureed baby food is time consuming and buying it can be expensive.
  • Feeding can be fun. BLW takes away the feeling that baby needs to eat a certain amount each day. With BLW, the caregiver offers baby healthy, appropriate solid foods. Until baby turns one, she will continue to receive breastmilk or formula as her main form of nutrition, with solid food as a complementary nutrition.
  • Baby learns to safely handle food by learning to chew and then swallow
  • Baby learns to manage different textures, shapes, sizes and tastes of food
  • Baby learns fine motor skills (hand-eye coordination, pincer grasp)
  • Baby learns to pay attention to feelings of hunger and fullness, and develops self-regulation with feeding
  • Decreased picky eating as a child and adolescent, and decreased risk of childhood and adolescent obesity

How do I get started?

It is important to begin feeding when baby is showing the signs of readiness, which usually appear around six months of age and include:

  • being able to sit up well unsupported
  • absence of tongue thrust
  • grasping items with more hand control
  • putting toys to his or her mouth
  • shows interest in participating at meal times (may try to grab food off your plate and put it into his or her mouth)

First, baby needs a safe place to sit, ideally an upright high chair with buckles. Choose healthy, appropriate finger foods to offer, starting at once per day. Healthy foods are foods that contain only one or very few ingredients and are minimally processed. Great first foods to choose from include: avocado, roasted sweet potato, soft cooked apples, ripe peaches, pears, plums and melon, banana, soft cooked carrots, green beans, zucchini and beets, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cooked pasta and brown rice. All of these foods should be sliced into finger size and shape, making them easy for baby to grab. Pull baby’s chair up to the family table at meal time and allow them to explore their food alongside the rest of the family. Baby learns so much by observing and imitating how and what others at the table eat! Put 1-2 ounces of water in a sippy cup with baby’s meal and snacks to help him or her learn to drink from a cup and to have as baby desires while eating.

What foods should I avoid?

Foods to avoid in the beginner feeding stage include choking-risk foods such as grapes, cherry tomatoes, nuts, hot dogs, marshmallows, popcorn, hard crusty bread, hard candy or any coin shaped food. It is also recommended to avoid honey, lunch meat, fresh cheese (like goat and feta), and cow’s milk under the age of 1 year. Nut butters may be difficult to swallow, so consider offering it spread thin on a banana or mixed into yogurt or oatmeal in the beginner stage.

How do I ensure success with baby-led weaning?

  • Follow the rules of division of responsibility: the caregiver is responsible for where, when and what baby is offered to eat; baby is responsible for if and how much he will eat.
  • Let baby put food in her mouth. Caregivers may need to sit on their hands to keep from jumping in, but baby needs to be in control of how fast the food enters her mouth and how much he eats at all times. Understanding the difference between gagging and choking will give some peace of mind if baby is simply struggling to chew a food well enough to swallow it.
  • Don’t let baby get overly hungry. In this case, eating may become an unhappy experience for everyone. Try to offer baby solid food about an hour after a breast or bottle-feeding.
  • Manage expectations. Baby will likely play with food more than eat the food at first. This is all about learning, building skills and exploring! As he advances, he will begin to consume more and mealtime will not take quite as long.
  • Embrace the mess. Some parents find it is easier to feed baby in a diaper alone or put a washable mat or towel under the high chair for feeding time to help speed up clean up.
  • Right size and softness – food should be big enough for baby to grip, about the size and shape of an adult’s finger. Some parents like to roll slippery foods like avocado or banana in crushed cereal, almond meal or oat flour. If the food can be mashed between your thumb and a finger, baby should be able to mash it between her gums.

Parents are often concerned about baby choking when beginning to feed. Close supervision while baby is eating is necessary, and there needs to be a distinction made between gagging and choking. Gagging is a normal and good reflex that babies use as a safety mechanism to prevent choking. Gagging helps bring foods forward that baby needs to chew more and then swallow. Prior to six months of age, the gag reflex is toward the front of the tongue, but as the baby gets older the reflex moves further back toward the back of the tongue. If baby is choking, the airway is blocked and baby is not able to make any sound. If this were to happen, caregivers need to how to respond. Infant first aid classes that cover choking and CPR are recommended and available through local hospitals.

Another concern often voiced is, “Is my baby getting enough?” Remember that the purpose of solids prior to one year of age is mainly for exposure and learning self-feeding skills. During this time, baby’s main source of nutrition is still breastmilk or formula. Continue to go to regular pediatrician check-ups to monitor baby’s growth and development.

If you have concerns about whether this approach is right for your baby, please consult your pediatrician or outpatient dietitian.

To learn more, here is a list of recommended resources:

Born to Eat: Whole, Healthy Foods from Baby’s First Bite, by Wendy Jo Peterson and Leslie Schilling 

RapleyWeaning.Com 

Baby-led Weaning: The essential Guide to Introducing Solid-Foods and Helping Your Baby Grow up a Happy and Confident Eater, by Gil Rapley and Tracey Murkett 

 “Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding,” Ellyn Satter Institute

Infant Food and Feeding, American Academy of Pediatrics

“Baby Led Introduction to Solids (BLISS) study: a randomized controlled trial of a baby-led approach to complementary feeding”

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