After all of my preamble about developmental readiness for solid foods, some of you may be wondering exactly what baby-led weaning entails.
Also called baby-led feeding or baby-led solids, baby-led weaning (BLW) is a philosophy that allows babies, guided by parents, to control the pace and nature of their transition from breast or formula feeding to solid foods. It is a flexible and child-centred approach that follows the baby’s own readiness cues, rather than prescribed timelines or sequences.
BLW assumes that children, when given the opportunity to exercise their natural curiosity, will be open to trying new foods and will develop positive associations with meal times and eating. Studies show that children who are exposed to a variety of food textures at an early age (flavours are secondary) become much more adventurous eaters later. BLW eliminates the need to purchase or prepare baby-specific foods, as children simply eat the same foods the rest of the family is eating. It also helps babies learn to eat in response to appetite, since they are always permitted to eat as much or as little food as they wish, with no coercion from parents (similar to breastfeeding on demand).
Perhaps the most appealing feature of this approach is that it enables babies to feed themselves right from the get-go, thus allowing parents and babies to eat their meals at the same time, and puts an end to the need for parents to force green-grey mush into their babies with feigned enthusiasm and airplane noises.
There is no prescribed or mutually-agreed-upon sequence in which foods must be introduced when following the baby-led weaning philosophy; rather it is the size and texture of the foods that will change with the baby’s development. That said, most adherents still agree that foods such as cow’s milk, honey and tree nuts should wait until after baby has reached one year old, and that foods known to become easily lodged in babies’ airways (e.g. whole grapes, hard candies) should not be introduced until even later.
At first, foods should be given in chunks large enough for the baby to hold in his or her hands, since most babies will not yet have mastered the pincer grip. Providing large pieces also reduces the likelihood of choking, since the baby will not be able to put the entire piece into his or her mouth at once. Introducing foods that are easy to handle, such as broccoli florets, long slices of bell pepper or large strips of meat, tends to enable early success. Produce can be steamed or cooked to make it softer and more manageable for babies who have few or no teeth.
When babies are first introduced to solids via BLW, they will most likely taste (lick or suck) the given food, but will not actually consume much, if any. More likely, they will squish the food between their fingers, mash it into their hair and throw it on the floor. While critics of BLW will claim that BLW is messy, it is important to remember that all children go through a messy phase when they learn to self-feed; it just happens later for those babies who are initially spoon-fed by their parents.
Babies who are introduced to solids through BLW make a gradual, self-paced transition. Initially, they continue to rely on breast milk or formula to fill all of their caloric and nutritional needs, thereby allowing the early focus to be on exploration and enjoyment of solid foods, rather than nutrition. As the descriptor baby-led suggests, it is the baby who decides how much food to consume at any given time, and eventually makes the transition from being wholly breast or bottle fed to obtaining all of his nutrition from solid foods. For most babies, this does not occur until after 18 months of age. Fortunately, the World Health Organization advises that babies should continue to be breastfed until the age of two, so there is no rush for them to make the transition.
Whether following BLW or a more conventional weaning philosophy, it is important for parents to remain neutral about their babies’ responses to foods, and not attach emotions or labels to foods (e.g. “You like bananas. Bananas are yummy.”). To do otherwise can set the stage for food-related power struggles. Also, just as we sometimes crave certain foods or don’t feel like eating certain foods, so do babies and children. If we do not feel like eating broccoli on a particular night, we will simply choose not to prepare it. Children do not have that option, thus, it is only fair that we also allow them to exercise their food preferences within the context of the food that is placed before them at a given meal. As long as we serve only healthy, nutritionally-dense foods, we do not need to be concerned if a child decides to forego one or more components of a meal.
While BLW allows for the introduction of any and all foods — including grains, dairy and processed or junk foods — it is inherently compatible with Paleo and Primal nutrition (and parenting) philosophies. Parents who wish to feed their children a Paleo style diet needn’t do anything other than present their babies with developmentally appropriate pieces of the same meats, fruits and vegetables they enjoy. Babies should also have plenty of healthy fats in their diets, such as coconut oil/milk, butter and the fats from grass-fed animals.
I have read many, many accounts of peoples’ experiences with baby-led weaning, and everything I read suggests that it produces adventurous eaters who enjoy a variety of foods from an early age and display superior mealtime behaviour to that of their peers. That’s enough to have me convinced!