The baby-led weaning (often also referred to as BLW) is a method of gradually weaning a baby from a milk diet onto solid foods. It allows a baby to control his solid food intake by self-feeding from the very beginning of the weaning process.
Infants are offered a range of foods to provide a balanced diet from around 6 months. They often begin by picking up and licking the food, before progressing to eating. Babies typically begin self feeding around 6 months, although some will make a grab for food as early as 5 months and some will wait until 7 or 8. The beauty of this process is that it is tailored to suit each particular baby and their personal development. The 6 month guideline provided by the World Health Organisation is based on research indicating the internal digestive system matures over the period 4-6 months. It seems reasonable to posit that the gut matures in tandem with the baby's external faculties to self feed.
Initial self-feeding attempts often result in very little food ingested as the baby explores textures and tastes, but she will soon start to swallow and digest what is offered. Breastfeeding is continued in conjunction with weaning and milk should always be offered before solids in the first 12 months.
Baby-led weaning places the emphasis on exploring taste, texture, colour and smell as the baby sets their own pace for the meal, choosing which foods to concentrate on. Instead of the traditional method of spooning puréed food into the baby's mouth, the baby is presented with a plate of varied finger food from which she may choose.
Contrary to popular belief there is no research supporting the introduction of solids by purees and in fact babies can become very confused when stage 2 foods are introduced (with lumps) unsure whether to swallow or chew.
According to one theory, the baby will choose foods with the nutrients she might be slightly lacking, guided by taste. The baby learns most effectively by watching and imitating others, and allowing her to eat the same food at the same time as the rest of the family contributes to a positive weaning experience. At six months babies learn to chew and grasp and this is therefore the ideal time to begin introducing finger food.
Self-feeding supports the child’s motor development on many vital areas, such as their hand-eye coordination and chewing. It encourages the child towards independence and often provides a stress-free alternative for meal times, for both the child and the parents. Some babies refuse to eat solids when offered with a spoon, but happily help themselves to finger food.
As recommended by the World Health Organization and several other health authorities across the world, there is no need to introduce solid food to a baby’s diet until after 6 months, and by then the child’s digestive system and her fine motor skills have developed enough to allow her to self-feed. Baby-led weaning takes advantage of the natural development stages of the child.
Signs of readiness
It is very important that baby-led weaning is not started before the child shows developmental signs indicating that she is ready to cope with solid foods. The baby should be able to sit well supported, be eager to participate in mealtime and maybe even trying to grab food and put it in her mouth. The child should show signs of developing a pincer grasp, as well as an ability and willingness to chew. The tongue thrust reflex protects a baby too young from consuming food. This is why often when purees are introduced, parents can be seen catching liquid forced back out before trying to re-introduce it.
Many parents are used to the idea of giving babies puréed food and to some, giving such a young child finger food might sound dangerous. However, according to a statement on the UNICEF UK Baby Friendly Initiative website (citation?), "there is little or no scientific basis for the currently-accepted method of offering first foods as spoon-fed purees and that more research into effective weaning practices is urgently needed". Babies weaned using the baby-led method are actually less likely to choke on their food, as they are not capable of moving food from the front of the mouth to the back until they have learnt to chew. In turn, they do not learn to chew until they have learnt to grasp objects and place them in their mouth. Therefore the baby's general development keeps pace with her ability to manage food.
If a child gets a piece of food too far back in their mouth, they will often promptly clear it themselves by gagging or coughing the piece out. According to Gill Rapley this seems to be fairly common and not dangerous - it's simply nature's way of preventing any risk of choking.
Food should not be placed in the baby's mouth for her. If the baby is unable to pick up and grasp the food, she will also be unable to cope with chewing and swallowing it. It is also very important that the baby is sitting up straight and well supported during mealtimes and never left unattended while self-feeding.
The basic principles of baby-led weaning are:
- At the start of the process the baby is allowed to reject food, and it may be offered again at a later date.
- The child is allowed to decide how much she wants to eat. No "fill-ups" are to be offered at the end of the meal with a spoon.
- The meals should not be hurried.
- Sips of water are offered with meals.
- Initially, soft fruits and vegetables are given. Harder foods are lightly cooked to make them soft enough to chew on even with bare gums.
- Food given is free of added salt and sugar.
- Food is not cut into bite-sized pieces as these are difficult for the baby to pick up and handle.
- Food is offered in baton-shaped pieces or in natural shapes that have a 'handle' (such as broccoli florets), so that the baby can get a good grip and chew one end.
- Foods with clear danger, such as peanuts, are not offered.
There is still very little, if any, information published on baby-led weaning. With the exception of the research done by Gill Rapley, most of the information available about the subject is passed on from parent to parent in the Internet parenting forums and blogs. In these, mothers interested in baby-led weaning offer each other peer support and share their knowledge and experiences. Gill Rapley has also produced a DVD training package on baby-led weaning with advice and testimonials from mothers who have tried the method.
In this article weaning is considered as the process of gradually introducing the infant to solid foodstuffs. Baby-led weaning is not to be confused with natural weaning which is also sometimes called baby-led weaning.
- IWMM Gill Rapley Webchat
- Gill Rapley's Guidelines for Baby-led Weaning
- Baby-led weaning website
- Baby-led weaning: the UNICEF UK Baby Friendly Initiative's position
- Association of Breastfeeding Mothers
- Kellymom Breastfeeding & Parenting Site