Baby-led weaning: An alternative approach to starting your baby on solids

Baby-led weaning: An alternative approach to starting your baby on solids

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Baby-led weaning (BLW) is a method of starting your baby on solid foods by letting her feed herself. Instead of feeding her soft or pureed food, you give your baby safe foods to pick up and eat on her own, at her own pace. BLW is thought to encourage healthy eating habits and fine motor skills. And it's easier for parents and more fun for babies.

What is baby-led weaning?

Baby-led weaning (BLW) is an alternative method for starting your baby on solids. Instead of spoon-feeding him mushy cereals and purees, you put large chunks of soft food directly on the highchair tray or table, and let your baby grasp the food and feed himself. It's called "baby-led" because you let your baby pick up the food and eat at his own pace, instead of controlling how much and how quickly he eats.

This technique first gained popularity when public health nurse Gill Rapley coined the term "baby-led weaning" in the U.K. in 2008. (There, weaning means starting your baby on solid food. It has nothing to do with stopping breastfeeding, as it does in the United States.)

Just as with traditional spoon-feeding, your baby will continue to get most of his nutrition from breast milk or formula until he gets used to eating solid food (usually around his first birthday).

Check out our videos to see how it's done:

  • Baby-led weaning: Signs your baby is ready
  • Baby-led weaning: Getting started
  • Baby-led weaning: 9 great finger foods
  • Baby-led weaning: Is gagging normal?

What's the difference between baby-led weaning and baby-led feeding?

Since the word "weaning" has different meaning in the United States, some people refer to the practice as "baby-led feeding" instead of "baby-led weaning," to avoid confusion.

For some, the terms are synonymous. For others, though, baby-led feeding is a more relaxed approach, one that combines some smoother-textured foods and purees along with foods a baby can pick up and munch on by herself. This method is also called "modified baby-led weaning."

What are the advantages of baby-led weaning?

Proponents say BLW has numerous benefits, including:

  • Healthy eating: BLW may produce healthier eaters than spoon-feeding because babies get to choose how much to eat. Learning to regulate their food intake may help prevent obesity. And allowing babies to explore different food flavors and textures may make them more adventurous eaters, meaning they're more likely to try new foods and eat a broad range of foods as they grow up.
  • Skill development: By trying to grasp and eat chunks of food, infants practice eye-hand coordination. BLW allows older babies to practice picking up small pieces of food using their index finger and thumb, using a fine motor skill known as the "pincer grip." They also may learn how to feed themselves and chew and swallow more quickly than spoon-fed babies.
  • Less stress for parents: BLW can be less time-consuming if you're making your own baby food because you don't have the extra step of pureeing the food, and you don't have to sit and spoon-feed your baby. It also makes it easier for babies to participate in family mealtimes because they can eat many of the same foods as the rest of the family.
  • More enjoyable for babies: When babies get to select which piece of food they want to eat from a variety in front of them, and eat it at their own pace, they may enjoy eating more than if they are spoon-fed by an adult.

Is there evidence to support these claims?

More studies are needed to confirm the results and to evaluate the effect of BLW on nutrition and safety, but existing research suggests BLW may help children develop more positive eating habits and prevent obesity.

For example, one small study in the United Kingdom found that children who started solids using BLW tended to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than spoon-fed kids. Spoon-fed children had a greater chance of being overweight and were more likely to favor sweet food.

Another small study done in New Zealand found babies introduced to solid foods using BLW were more likely than spoon-fed babies to share mealtimes with their families, which may help kids develop healthy eating habits. The BLW babies also tended to eat food the rest of the family ate, while spoon-fed babies were more likely to eat commercially prepared baby food. Eating the same food as other family members may encourage healthier long-term eating patterns, the authors said.

One recent study suggests parents shouldn't set their expectations too high, though. The study of over 500 toddlers concluded that there are positive differences in healthy eating behaviors of children we are self-fed, but that these differences are minimal to modest.

Are there downsides to baby-led weaning?

Potentially, yes. Researchers are studying whether BLW might lead to nutritional deficiencies for some babies.

For example, the BLW babies in the United Kingdom study mentioned above were more likely than spoon-fed babies to be significantly underweight.

This could be because BLW babies may not ingest much food in the first weeks or months. (And it may be more of a problem for babies whose manual dexterity is developing more slowly than average.) Parents also tend to offer mostly fruits and vegetables, which are easy to grasp but don't contain many calories.

BLW babies may also end up deficient in iron, especially if they don't drink formula, because they don't get the iron-fortified cereal that spoon-fed babies may be given.

One small study suggested that parents using BLW who offer at least one iron-rich food (such as beef, chicken, or hummus) at each meal could increase their baby's iron intake.

Another small study raised other nutritional questions. It found BLW infants ate more fat and saturated fat, and less iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 than spoon-fed babies. The authors concluded that if families decide to follow BLW, they should make sure they give infants healthy, nutrient-rich foods.

On the other hand, a recent small Japanese study concluded that BLW did not increase the risk of iron deficiency or growth impairment.

Can baby-led weaning increase my baby's risk of choking?

One big concern about giving babies whole food to eat is whether 6-month-old babies are developmentally ready to chew and swallow chunks of food and whether these chunks – even when they're soft – are choking hazards.

The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) doesn't have an official opinion on BLW. But the organization warns that choking is a leading cause of death among young children and recommends serving babies only mashed, pureed, or ground-up food when they're first starting solids.

According to the AAP, your baby is ready for finger foods once she can sit up and bring her hands or other objects to her mouth. To avoid choking, the AAP says you should make sure any food you give your baby is soft, easy to swallow, and cut into small pieces. This is unlike BLW, in which babies are given large chunks of food.

In a 2018 study of over 1,000 babies, baby-led weaning was not associated with a greater risk of choking. In fact, the highest frequency of choking on finger foods happened in the babies who were given finger foods the least often.

What about gagging?

Whether they're being spoon-fed or trying BLW, many babies gag when they first start solids, and this can be disconcerting or even frightening.

Experts say gagging is a normal reflex babies have as they learn to eat solids. Gagging brings food forward into your baby's mouth so he can chew it some more first or try to swallow a smaller amount. Your baby should gag less often as he develops and learns to regulate the amount of food he swallows.

If your baby gags a lot, try to remember it's a temporary stage that your baby will get through. (If your baby's gagging doesn't improve on its own, talk with her doctor. There are some babies who need feeding therapy, usually with a speech therapist or occupational therapist.)

How can you tell if your baby is choking? Choking means your child's airway is partially or completely blocked, which prevents breathing. Here's how to recognize the difference between gagging and choking:

  • A child who is gagging may push his tongue forward or out of his mouth and do a retching movement to try to bring food forward. His eyes may water. He may cough or even vomit. Let your child continue to cough because that's the most effective way to resolve the problem. Watch this video to see what gagging looks like:
  • A child who is choking is unable to cry, cough, or gasp. He may make odd noises or no sound at all while opening his mouth. You may need to do back blows or chest thrusts to dislodge the blockage.

When can I start baby-led weaning?

Most babies are ready to start BLW when they're about 6 months old, though some may need more time.

It's likely that your baby is ready to start BLW if she can sit up without support and shows signs of readiness, such as being interested in your food (or even reaching for it), grabbing and putting objects in her mouth, and making chewing motions while watching you eat.

Keep in mind that BLW may not be right for babies with special needs or who are unable to pick up and chew food on their own. Talk with your baby's doctor before trying BLW, especially if:

  • Your baby has special needs and can't chew very well.
  • Your baby has difficulty picking up food and moving it to her mouth.
  • Your baby was born prematurely.

How do I start baby-led weaning?

If your baby shows signs of readiness, and his doctor says it's okay for your baby to try BLW, start by taking an infant first aid class to make sure you know what to do in case your baby starts choking. This is important no matter what method you use to feed your baby.

Here are some tips for getting started with BLW:

  • For the first couple of months, schedule BLW sessions when your baby isn't hungry. In the beginning, the focus should be on play and exploration. It will take your baby time to learn to eat solids, and in the meantime, he'll still be getting his nutrition primarily from breast milk or formula.
  • BLW is messy. Protect your baby's clothes with a large bib or smock. You may also want to protect your own clothes by putting a mat or newspaper under your baby's highchair for easy cleanup.
  • Make sure you or another adult is watching your baby carefully during meals and knows what to do if your baby starts choking.
  • Make sure your baby is sitting upright in his highchair, not leaning back.
  • Offer your baby soft or well-cooked food cut into sticks or strips that are at least as long as his fist, not bite-size pieces. He will likely try to clasp the food in his fists and smash it into his mouth at first. Over time, he'll learn to grip the food between his thumb and forefinger.
  • Don't offer your baby foods that can pose choking hazards, such as nuts, grapes, popcorn, and foods cut into coins, including sausages and hot dogs.
  • Make sure your baby's food passes the "squish test" by checking whether you can squish it on the roof of your mouth with your tongue. That means no raw vegetables and no hard raw fruit (such as apples) or citrus fruit (unless each segment is peeled). The exception is pieces of food that are large and fibrous enough that small pieces don't break off when sucked or chewed. So for example, soft-cooked meat is okay, but cheese sticks are not.
  • Put food directly on the highchair tray or table in front of your baby. (Bowls and plates will just end up on the floor.)
  • Introduce new foods one at a time. Just as with spoon-feeding, it may be a good idea to wait two or three after introducing a new food before trying the next one. That way, if your baby has an allergic reaction, you'll know which food probably caused it.
  • Eat as a family whenever possible. Babies learn to eat by observing and imitating other family members. Family mealtimes also make your baby to feel like part of the group.

As with many other parenting approaches, what works for some families won't necessarily work for yours. Some families strictly follow the BLW approach, while others do a combination of BLW and spoon-feeding. For example, you could spoon-feed your baby purees and mashed food sometimes, but allow him to eat finger foods (like the ones listed below) by himself at other times.

What are some good BLW baby foods?

Some foods that are good to use with BLW include:

  • Well-cooked vegetable sticks, including steamed carrots, zucchini, sweet potatoes, and beets
  • Food with interesting shapes and textures, such as steamed broccoli and cauliflower florets, and chunks of soft avocado
  • Soft, ripe fruits, including banana, papaya, pear, kiwi, melon, and soft-cooked apple
  • Soft meatballs or large strips of poached chicken
  • Pasta in a shape that's easy to grab, like fusilli or penne. Try whole grain or vegetable varieties.
  • Rice rolled into balls
  • Lentil patties
  • Salt-free rice cakes

As your baby progresses, she can start learning to dip her food chunks into hummus, yogurt, and guacamole.

How can I be sure my baby is getting enough food?

It takes babies a while to get used to solid food, so to make sure he gets adequate nutrition, it's important to continue breastfeeding or bottle-feeding your baby during his first year, even after he starts eating solid food. (Your baby's main source of nutrients should be breast milk or formula until about 1 year of age, no matter what else he eats.) As he learns to eat solid food, he'll need less breast milk or formula.

Your child's doctor will keep track of your baby's growth at well-child visits, so talk with her if you're concerned about how much your baby eats or weighs.

What experts say about baby-led weaning

Tamara Melton, MS, RDN, LD, Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Atlanta, GA

I generally feel positive about BLW. I think it's fine for parents to try it as long as the baby continues to receive breast milk or formula until at least 1 year of age.

My older daughter did very well with BLW. She loved eating all kinds of foods and had no problem feeding herself soft-cooked fruits, veggies, and yogurt. My younger daughter refused to consume anything but breast milk. She had (and continues to have, at 3 years old) strong preferences about textures and a huge aversion to getting her hands dirty or wet. So BLW didn't work so well for her.

BLW saved me time with one daughter, since I didn't have to take the extra step to purée the food. But for the other one, it was stressful and confusing. It was hard for me to figure out what was causing my younger daughter's aversions. So I would say parents should be flexible and be willing to go with whatever works best for each child.

Jatinder Bhatia, MD, FAAP, Past chair of the AAP Committee on Nutrition, Chief of the division of neonatology, Georgia Health Sciences University, Augusta, GA

We have lots of cultural myths about the best way to feed babies, and we're starting to discover that they're myths. There's no scientific rationale for a particular method of feeding.

There's no problem with BLW, although there are some cautions. Make sure the food is developmentally appropriate for your child. Stay nearby and watch your child eat. Food for 6-month-olds doesn't need to be pureed, but it should be the texture, consistency, and size that the child can handle.

For example, don't give a baby sticky foods like peanut butter or hard foods like raw carrot. (A very soft cooked carrot would be fine.) Soft finger foods are good. Even if a baby doesn't have many teeth, she can still gum foods.

Also, it's still a good idea to introduce only one new food at a time for five to seven days to make sure child isn't allergic. And offer a food multiple times before determining that the baby doesn't like that food.

What parents say about baby-led weaning

It worked for us

"[Baby-led weaning was] one of the best decisions we made with our daughter. She is a fantastic eater and eats a great variety of food. I also believe it made her a great restaurant eater. We always got compliments on how well-behaved she was, and people were always shocked to see a 7-month-old feeding herself in a restaurant."
— Michele

"BLW worked great for us. I have never felt that because of BLW my son wasn't eating healthy foods. In fact, I thought the opposite because he wasn't getting anything processed. As far as controlled amounts, my son definitely got less food by feeding himself than if I were feeding him, and he didn't know how to say 'no more.'"
— Heather

"We started baby-led weaning with my little guy when he was 6 months old, and we have never looked back. We were really nervous at first about him choking, but in the four months we've been doing this, he hasn't choked once! I'm a huge advocate for BLW. My son will eat anything that I put in front of him and is so excited to try new foods."
— Mandy

"I love baby-led weaning, but I agree that it's probably not a magic bullet. I like it because it has freed up a lot of time for me. (I don't have to sit and spoon-feed at every meal.) And it allowed my son to be independent in choosing and eating food. It worked for us because my son was developmentally normal, at a normal weight, and had good manual dexterity, and also because I was able to nurse him quite a lot well past one year."
— Laura

It didn't work for us

"I couldn't do BLW with my son because he has special needs, and at 13 months only started feeding himself Cheerios with pincer grasp. He also doesn't register being hungry, so if I waited for him to feed himself something he would wither away."
— Aly

"My oldest had an aversion to getting her hands messy, and never, ever put things in her mouth. If we had chosen to do baby-led weaning, she wouldn't have eaten anything solid until she was almost 3."
— Lucy522

Check out our Community group on baby-led weaning to see what other questions and experiences parents have had with this technique.

Learn more:

  • Introducing solids
  • Age-by-age guide to feeding your baby
  • New rules for feeding your baby
  • Adventurous first foods for babies

Watch the video: From Puree to Finger Food - How to introduce texture in Baby Food (June 2022).


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