Have you heard the term Baby Led Weaning but aren't quite sure what it means? Or maybe you're familiar with it, but are looking for some more details? If you're curious about what BLW is, keep reading!
What is Baby Led Weaning?
In a nut shell, taking a baby-led weaning approach to infant feeding means skipping the pureed foods that many babies start with. With a blw approach to solids, your baby will go straight to soft pieces of food that are about the size of an adult finger.
By going straight to solid finger foods, you skip the spoon feeding that most people associate with baby feeding. Instead, your baby will eat those soft foods by picking them up and bringing them to their own mouth.
The ideas behind baby led weaning are practiced by many cultures around the world. It is still a relatively new concept to many parents who might be reading this, though!
There are a growing number of parents steering away from the more traditional approach to starting solids. Instead of pureed foods, those babies are getting early exposure to foods that look much more like the family meals that their whole family is eating.
What to Know About Baby Led Weaning
First and foremost, the term itself can be confusing to many here in the US. Weaning for us usually means weaning from a bottle or nursing. It isn't necessarily associated with food.
In the case of baby led weaning, the term was coined in the United Kingdom by Gill Rapley. In the UK, weaning is more often associated with the addition of solid foods to a baby's diet. It usually doesn't just refer to their milk.
No matter how you look at it, the introduction of complementary foods of any kind is intended to augment your baby's breast milk or infant formula. Solid food is not intended to replace their milk at this age!
Your baby has very high nutritional needs that by about 6 months of age will start to go beyond what breast milk and formula can provide on their own.
But for that entire first year of their life, breast milk or formula will still be the number one provider of the nutrients that they need in their diet.
When to Introduce Solid Foods to Your Baby
The best way to determine when to start your baby on solid foods is to pay attention to their developmental signs of readiness.
You might see some places advise that you should start your baby on solid foods at 6 months old, and some at 5 months. While 6 months is generally the age to shoot for, every baby is going to develop at their own pace. There is no magic switch that says they're ready!
With that said, it is important to keep in mind that due to their nutritional needs, you do want to start offering them foods by around 6 months of age. Waiting until 8 or 9 months to start solids is not a good idea.
How to Handle Starting Solids With Premature Babies
If you have a preemie, the advice is a little different. With premature babies, it is best to go by their adjusted age for an idea of when to start solid foods. They will generally meet more of their signs of readiness around that 6 month adjusted age mark.
If you aren't seeing the signs of readiness by around 6 months of age, or you have a child with developmental delays, it is important to consult with healthcare professionals that can help you evaluate the best course of action.
Some babies will need just a bit more individualized support to meet their developmental milestones and start solids safely.
What Foods to Start With
It can be tempting to offer foods one at a time when first starting solid foods. This comes into play whether you are spoon feeding or doing baby led weaning. Not to mention giving one food at a time has been the conventional wisdom for a while.
But now the advice from feeding professionals is to offer a range of foods fairly quickly. These will help to support your child being exposed to a wide variety of different textures and flavors early on.
When it comes to specific foods to start with, I recommend serving one food from the iron-rich food category, one food from the high-calorie category, and one food that is a fruit or a vegetable.
Think of giving first foods like a finger of sweet potato, but also an iron-rich food like lentils or a finger of meat. And maybe a finger of avocado at the same time.
For details on these categories and examples of other food in them, head to this article about the important nutrients to offer your baby.
How to Cut Foods for Baby Led Weaning
How you cut foods in BLW is one of the biggest things that set this style of feeding apart from more traditional feeding methods.
In general, you want to cut your baby's food into 1-2x the length of their fist, and 1-2 adult fingers wide. But even more important than the size of the food when you start is the texture!
The texture needs to be smooshable between two fingers. Think ripe, soft fruits that can easily be squished between your fingers. That is about the texture you are looking for.
Once your baby has had some practice with eating and is starting to practice their pincer grasp, it is time to cut their food into smaller pieces! For these small pieces though, we aren't talking miniature! We want them to be able to still manipulate the food in their mouth. Not to just swallow it straight down.
Again, the soft texture of the foods is what will help prevent choking here!
Choking Risk With Baby Led Weaning
It might seem that giving babies bigger chunks of food will leave them at a greater risk of choking. But that is not the case.
Research shows that there is no greater risk in babies fed with baby led weaning than with spoon-fed babies. (ref) The key, though, is that the parents and caregivers are educated on safe foods.
Most people know that whole grapes and hot dogs are choking hazards for kids. But when it comes to babies in their first few months of eating, there are several more foods to be aware of.
For a full run down of the specific choking hazards for babies, and how to prepare those risky foods safely, grab the starting solids course.
Get the Starting Solids: Setting the Foundation Course Today!
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If you plan to do baby led weaning, it is important to know about your baby's gag reflex. Their gag reflex is not at the back of their mouth like yours and mine is.
When they first start eating around 6 months, their gag reflex is closer to the front of their mouth. That means that there is a big chance your baby will gag on something as they are learning to eat and manipulate foods.
Many times, gagging is mistaken for choking. But it is actually a protective action your baby instinctively takes to PREVENT choking. And is not something we need to intervene with.
Combining Baby Led Weaning and Purees
In some circles, baby led weaning has a bit of a dogmatic reputation.
This is often the result of strict rules being pushed about things like not combining finger foods and purees ever. Or that if you do any type of puree feeding then you can't be doing "baby led weaning".
All of these recommendations and rules are false and can be demoralizing!
There is absolutely nothing wrong with combining baby led weaning and purees. Purees are simply one of many different food textures available. We as adults eat many foods in puree form. Things like guacamole, mashed potatoes, apple sauce, and yogurt all fall in this category!
Avoid Topping Up With Purees!
One thing I do caution against is using purees as a way of "topping up" babies who are primarily eating finger foods.
It is really easy as parents to fall into the mindset of "my baby isn't eating enough."
But if you are following your baby's cues and providing opportunities to eat with adults present and modeling eating, serving appropriately cooked and cut food, and focusing on offering enough iron and other nutrients at meals, research shows that they will get what they need! (ref)
By using purees to top up a baby when you think they aren't eating enough, you are disregarding their cues. Not to mention training yourself to encourage them to eat more than they actually need.
That is a slippery slope that many parents fall into. It often leads to parents trying to control their child's intake. And that leads to control battles, exacerbated picky eating, and so much more as toddlers.
It's a much better idea to work on divorcing yourself from how much your child is eating right from their first bite. Focus on what you are offering them, and let them control how much they eat. Even if it seems like they aren't eating much at first.
The Benefits of Baby Led Weaning
One of the biggest benefits of baby led weaning is the natural emphasis on family meals and babies being at the family table with the rest of the family.
I cannot tell you how much this alone is a game changer for feeding babies!
With more traditional methods that involve spoon feeding, many babies end up eating alone. Picture the baby sitting off to the side of the table in their high chair. The adult sits in front of them and feeds them spoonfuls of food.
The adult isn't able to eat their own food because they have to feed the baby. There's no modeling of how to behave during family mealtimes. Or how to eat different foods.
Healthy eating habits have a tendency to be passed down as much by modeling as anything. When our babies see how we are around food at the table, when they are included with meals and family foods just like everyone else, and when they are encouraged to participate socially with the family at mealtimes, that is how we help them grow up to be competent eaters.
Many people think that the foods served are the most important things in baby feeding. But that isn't what forms the basis of the rest of their eating journey.
Yes, we want to offer them all the nutrients they need to thrive.
But if we focus only on that and ignore HOW you're actually doing the feeding, that is where we get into trouble.
That doesn't mean that you can't practice a puree approach to feeding and still support your child well in their feeding journey. It just means that it tends to take less effort when you practice letting your baby lead with eating right from the very first bite.
More: Head here for an even more comprehensive look at baby led weaning, first baby foods, and how to get started.