So you may be wondering what the heck baby led weaning (BLW) is all about. Do you have a baby or know a baby? Does the idea of buying or making “baby food” for said baby seem unnatural or daunting to you? Is your baby rejecting purees on a spoon? Do you want to learn a safe, cost-effective, and natural way to feed a baby, without a spoon? Well if you answered yes to any or all of those questions, keep reading for some suggestions to get started, safely and practically, with BLW.
What is BLW?
The term “baby led weaning” was coined by Jill Rapley, PhD –a public health nurse, parent of three, and academic–over a decade ago. BLW allows babies to feed themselves family foods, from around 6 months of age, with their hands, and eventually with utensils. This is in contrast with most current recommendations for babies to be fed purees on a spoon starting around 6 months. However, before the commercialization of baby foods about 100 years ago, many babies were likely feed in the style of BLW.
Supporters of BLW praise it for several reasons:
- One major reason is that allowing babies to self feed as soon as they are developmentally ready is thought to prevent the risk of overweight later in life because they will be better at listening to their internal hunger and fullness cues appropriately.
- Many believe BLW results in babies being less fussy or picky about foods later in life, and it means babies are (ideally) included in family meals from an earlier age. The benefits of family meals for social and physical health have been well documented.
- Other benefits parents mention include saving money and time as they don’t need to buy special foods for baby or to prepare a seperate meal.
- Also, parents often feel that they don’t need to juggle feeding baby and feeding themselves so parents actually get to enjoy hot food (yay!).
Critics of BLW do have some concerns:
- Some healthcare providers worry that not all babies may have the self feeding skills to eat enough calories and could potentially end up underweight.
- Others raise concerns that BLW babies may not get enough iron, zinc, or nutrients in general if the foods being offered are not nutritious enough. Iron and zinc become especially important after 6 months for breastfed babies as they need more of these nutrients than they can get from breast milk alone. Both are essential for adequate growth and development and the best sources of these nutrients usually include pureed baby cereals or meats.
- One final concern some health care providers and parents have is that babies could be at a higher risk of choking, especially since whole foods are started from 6 months and many doubt that babies have the necessary skills at that age to chew and swallow whole foods.
So…Does it “work”?
Well that depends on what you mean by “work.” Does BLW seem to improve fussiness and reduce picky eating? Yes. How about reduce the risk of overweight? Meh. How about increase the risk of choking? Nope. One recently well-designed study randomly assigned two groups of mothers to feed their babies purees starting at 6 months or to do BLW starting at 6 months. Researchers followed the families for about two years to understand how the feeding methods as babies later affected them as children. They found that babies who were fed using BLW were generally happier and less fussy when eating at age 2, than those babies fed purees. Additionally, despite the hype surrounding BLW that it reduces the risk of a child being overweight later in life, researchers found that for both groups, the risk of overweight was practically the same. Finally, researchers noted that BLW babies were not at an increased risk of choking compared to those fed purees, a finding reported in another study.
TLDR: BLW is a safe alternative to spoon feeding purees that may help your child be less picky and fussy about eating later in life. Recent evidence suggests that it does not lead to more choking than feeding purees or that it reduces the risk of overweight later in life.
Really, is it safe? How do I know my baby is ready for solids?
Warning. I’m not going to answer this question the way you want me to. No one can tell you if this method is safe for your baby. Listen to your baby’s doctor, your baby, and your instinct as a parent. Every baby is different, so I will be speaking generally here. Most babies around 6 months of age (if your baby was born early, count his age from your due date, not his birth date) will start to exhibit signs that they have the skills to begin feeding themselves. They will sit independently and be able to pick up objects and bring them to their mouths. By 6 months of age, most babies will have outgrown the extrusion reflex, which is when they tend to push food out of their mouths with their tongue. Also, babies will be able to indicate to their caregiver when they are hungry by opening their mouths and leaning in for more food. They will indicate they’ve had enough to eat by leaning away from food or turning their head when the caregiver tries to feed them. For babies eating table foods, they may scream and point to food when they’re hungry and become distracted, stop eating, or begin throwing food when they’re full.
Dr. Rapley points out on her website that “helping” babies to rush them into eating solids before they’re ready can do more harm than good. What’s helping, you ask? Propping baby up so he’s “sitting with support” so you can spoon feed him. Scooping purees that spill out of his mouth back in because he can’t quite get the hang of moving food from the front to the back of his tongue yet or because he is still pushing food out with his tongue. These are signs that baby is not ready for solids. Why rush? In fact, introducing baby foods too early (especially before 4 months) can make babies more likely to be overweight later in life and to develop food allergies. Breastmilk or formula alone is adequate for most babies until around 6 months old. Also, giving babies inappropriate complementary foods or giving foods before they are ready to begin solids can increase the risk of choking, allergies, or other serious problems.
TLDR: For most healthy, full-term babies who are 1) around 6 months old, 2) able to sit independently, 3) have good head control, and 4) are able to bring objects to their mouths, introducing appropriate whole foods can be a safe feeding option.
Wondering HOW to feed your baby using baby led weaning?
Read Part II of the article here.