What is Baby-Led Weaning (BLW)?
Baby Led Weaning (BLW) is where handheld finger foods are introduced to babies when they start solids instead of spoon-fed purees. Traditionally parents and grandparents in America were taught to use pureed foods starting around 6 months. In BLW, parents offer solid finger foods right from the beginning. The important feature of BLW is that the baby is in control of the feeding, allowing the infant to control their food intake through self feeding and self regulation.
In BLW, the parent decides on what, when and where the infant will eat and should not try to control how much their babe consumes. Infants are responsible for how much and whether they want to eat at all. According to the division of responsibility, it’s more important that we foster a positive eating environment, than worry about how much of every nutrient our baby is eating.
It’s important to introduce solids around the age of 6 months because certain macronutrients, which were provided in the womb, are starting to run out, and milks (breast milk and formula) do not contain enough for your baby. Eating whole foods through BLW increases calorie content, provides macronutrients sooner, and avoids many of the chemicals in processed baby purees.
Infants are more involved with their families at meal times right from the start since they sit with their family at meal time and are offered the same meals (in appropriate piece sizes, without salt and sugar).
Babies gain more dexterity because they self feed, which leads to more independence and less micromanaging by the parent during feeding times, which ultimately means less work for the parent.
A lot of picky eating stems from issues with texture, because babies are fed more variety and texture at an early age, infants are less likely to be “picky” with BLW because they get a wider exposure to textures and tastes.
A concern of parents with BLW is that a child won’t eat enough to grow, however early studies show that they grow just as well as infants fed in the traditional way and they have lower obesity risk later in life, likely because they learn to self regulate their food intake from an early age.
While traditional feeding and recommendations for when to start are age based (ie. start at 4 through 6 months of age), BLW is developmentally based. Here are some developmental signs that say your child is ready for BLW:
They should be able to sit up with support and have neck support
Baby should be interested in food
They’re opening their mouth to suck on items (hands, food or inedible items)
Alertness or change in facial expressions during mealtime
There are a lot of different things on the market, but no studies to support using them. Some popular options are as follows:
Boon Feeders – a silicone spoon with small holes for infants to self-feed easily
Boon Platter – a plate with divided sections for the different variety of foods offered Num Num Pre-spoons A starter set of spoons with grips to help babies keep the food on the spoon to self-feed
Kidsme feeder – a sippy cup with pureed meals, infants can suck and squeeze their meals
It is important to note that eating is a skill to learn. Using some of these instruments may prolong that process as infants are not able to touch and explore their foods. If you use them, you may find it’s best to use them alongside simply letting baby use their hands.
There is not a specific amount of food that babies require to consume at any point. BLW allows that babies will tell the parent when they’ve had enough, and if there is any extra nutrients they require, babies get those through the milk.
Infants starting complementary foods, whether BLW or traditional, should consume solids 2-3 times daily after 6 months, in addition to milk feedings. After 9 months, babies should increase their feeding frequency to 3-4 times daily to improve their skills.
Starting Baby-Led Weaning
When starting BLW, begin with steamed and sliced food so the infant can easily chew and swallow the items. Give soft fruits and vegetables initially. Then introduce lightly cooked harder foods that can be easily chewed with bare gums. Soft foods should be soft enough to be mash with the tongue or your finger.
Great first soft foods might be avocado, banana, steamed sweet potato, steamed carrots, ricotta cheese, and scrambled eggs. With slippery foods, try rolling the foods in something like ground flax, baby cereal or ground almonds. Offer water in small amounts during mealtime in an open cup as early as 6 months. This helps them develop their oral motor skills faster than them using a sippy cup which require a similar sucking technique as bottles.
Food should ideally be shaped like a finger and be easily able to fit in the infant’s hand with a some sticking out of their fists. Initially, babe will be exploring the food and creating a mess more than eating but hey that’s part of the process.
Try offering one new food as a challenge for yourself each day for baby to explore. This allows the baby to have a variety of food selection and explore more options. It also allows you an opportunity to see what kind of foods or shapes are working best.
Your baby is done eating when they turn their head away and close their mouth. It’s important not to keep feeding the baby. Parents need to trust their child’s satiety cues and stop feeding the baby when these signs are visible.
One of the first things parents worry about most when it comes to baby led weaning is choking. This is the number one barrier people have to starting BLW, but it is very unlikely, so long as the infant is feeding themselves. When infants first transition to solid foods, they will gag and cough. Babies gag and cough frequently at a younger age because their gag relax is more forward in their mouth. The gag reflex will move back around 6-8 months and be completely developed around 12 months.
Research suggests that by 8 months, baby led weaning infants tend to actually gag less frequently when compared to spoon-fed infants. Remember, eating is a skill that we need to learn and develop. So, the earlier and more frequently your baby practices, the better their skills become.
Parents should be able to differentiate choking from gagging. Choking is often silent as infants are not able to talk or breathe, and babe’s nails, lips and skin may turn blue. Gagging, in contrast, is noisy and dramatic as the infant will cough and jump. Most babies gag multiple times during mealtime. Don’t be too concerned, this is the body’s best defense mechanism against choking.
Avoid distractions during mealtime. Remove toys, turn off the TV and excessive new faces should be minimized while the baby is learning to eat. As with everything, parents need to supervise their child during mealtime to watch for any signs of choking.
Small round foods should be avoided as they can be choking hazards. Steer clear of whole grapes, hot dog pieces, whole cherry tomatoes, peanuts and popcorn. Cut round soft foods into quarters and avoid hard items like peanuts or popcorn. Some foods that have tougher skins such as apples can be removed to make it a bit easier for baby to manage, and can also be cooked to soften the texture. Avoid foods that form too much crumb in the mouth (like dry crackers) as they can get dislodged in the infant’s mouth. Good examples of food are bananas, avocados and meats as they keep their shape when an infant holds on to them.