When my daughter was a baby over 20 years ago, baby-led weaning meant letting your baby breastfeed until she decided to wean herself (which I happily did!). Now, baby-led weaning—known to most as BLW—has another meaning. BLW is allowing your baby to take the lead when complimentary foods are introduced, letting her learn to feed herself from the get-go. The term BLW became more popular with the release of the 2010 book, Baby Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods and Helping your Baby to Grow Up a Happy and Confident Eater by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett.
Current recommendations are to introduce complimentary foods at around six months of age. Health Canada and the World Health Organization suggest six months, and while the American Academy of Pediatrics says around six months, they do say that babies should be able to sit up by themselves and grab things to take to their mouths—for most that is six months. Given baby’s more advanced development at six versus three to four months, a different approach to feeding can be taken, because at this stage, most babies are more or less capable of feeding themselves.
HOW BLW WORKS
BLW naturally leads to the incorporation of the “division of responsibility” in feeding, a concept developed by Ellyn Satter. Parents decide what, when, and where to feed the children, and the children decide how much to eat, or even whether to eat at all. At first, they may just explore the foods, and then they will gradually start eating more. From you, there is no pressure, no coercing, no “airplane”games to get them to open their mouth to eat more. Trust your baby’s appetite, and realize that it varies from day to day.
Some parents who are open to exploring BLW are worried about their baby choking. Nature has provided a safety measure. Babies have a gag reflex to protect them. Food that isn’t ready to be swallowed, either because it was not chewed enough, or because there’s too much in their mouth, will be pushed forward in the mouth, with a retching movement, so the food doesn’t go down the throat. Some babies learn quickly, others take more time. It is important that your baby is sitting upright, so food does come forward. Most babies don’t seem to be bothered by occasional gagging. And of course, since you will be at the table together, you will be there to watch him closely as he eats. [see DIY Baby Food for a list of foods babies can choke on]
Because BLW is about letting your baby explore food, be prepared for some mess! Try either putting a good splash mat or some newspaper under his chair, or do what I do—bring in the dog after the meal, and put baby in the bathtub. Be sure to take out your cameras too—it’s lots of fun watching him explore.
GENERAL STAGES OF GRIP AND COORDINATION
What can you expect if you choose to introduce food BLW style? Here are the general stages of grip and coordination, taken from the Rapley & Murkett book:
- 6-8 months: Reach and grasp, with the grasp reflex. Picks up with whole hand, tends to squish soft foods. Spends a lot of time examining food and playing with it.
- 7-9 months: Fist opening and closing. Grabs a fistful without as much squishing. Getting better at biting and chewing. May start to take a spoon or stuck of food to dip into other foods.
- 8-10 months: Uses fingers. Can pick up with his fingers, not just his whole hand. May try using silverware to scoop or stab food.
- 9-12 months: Refined pincer-grip. Can pick up small pieces of food with thumb and forefinger. May play less with food and eat more purposefully. Getting better with fork and spoon.
- 11-14 months: Uses silverware more often (slowly) but still eats with his fingers a lot.
BABY IS PART OF FAMILY EATING
The greatest advantage of BLW that I see is that babies are part of family mealtimes from the very beginning of their adventures with food. Eating is social, a time to be together and reconnect. The bonus for you is that you will actually be able to eat your meal while it is still hot, rather than spending time feeding your little one! You may need to change the family’s schedule now and then—ideally, family meals with baby happen when she’s not too tired.
From the start, as your baby sits in her chair, she can eat what the family is eating, though the foods may be slightly modified. There’s no need to add salt or sugar, but go ahead and experiment with different spices and flavors. Try putting pieces of food directly on the high chair tray. Just a few pieces at a time, and add more if she eats it. Include some foods that are easy for her to manage, and some that are good for her to try.
You can start with soft foods. Try bananas, avocados, and cooked apple or pear. Remember at the beginning, your baby will probably just grab the whole thing in his fist, so give him big pieces so some is sticking out of his grip (like a big piece of broccoli spear). As his hold improves, try cutting foods into strips (like a third of a banana if you split it, or shaped like a French fry).
What can you feed your baby? Let her explore all the things that your family eats. Meat and alternates are great sources of protein and iron and zinc; fruits and vegetables, grains and cereals give her vitamins, minerals and fiber. Include plenty of fats for her developing brain, especially from oily fish, avocados, and oils of nuts and seeds; and choose full-fat dairy for the little ones, also the best source of calcium.
Some babies, for example those that have developmental delays, or special medical conditions, may need some spoon feeding. It’s fine to combine approaches, and you can still put some foods on their trays and let them explore in a positive environment.
Of course, continue breastfeeding as much as your baby wants to. First foods are extra, and you probably won’t notice a decrease in breastfeeding until he eats considerable amounts.
Be patient as you allow your baby to begin her journey with eating. Keep offering her a variety of foods at all of your family mealtimes, and let her explore. She will get exposure and start learning eating skills. Before long she will be eating just like you do!
Katja Leccisi, MS, RDN, author of How to Feed Your Kids: Four Steps to Raising Healthy Eaters is a registered dietitian-nutritionist in both Canada and the United States. She has spent her entire career working with families and educators in community, clinical and workshop settings in both countries as a nutritionist, and for ten years as a La Leche League Leader and Certified Lactation Consultant. Visit her website and join the conversation on Facebook