I have a confession to make. I was never really very good at pureeing. I didn’t ever quite get round to freezing bits of mashed things in ice cubes trays and I always thought that spoon feeding my baby rather got in the way of me enjoying my own dinner. Instead I put off introducing solid food for as long as possible, relying on breastmilk as a much easier – and of course nutritionally complete - alternative. When my daughter did start to show a real interest at about ten months old we went straight for fingers of toast and marmite and whole bananas and I basically let her get on with it. At the time I thought this was probably just slacking on my part - this is often the way things go with a second baby - but little did I realise that my ‘I can’t be bothered with spoons, let’s just wait till she can hold a slice of pizza’ method actually had a name – Baby Led Weaning.
What is it?
Baby led weaning (often abbreviated to BLW) is just that – giving your baby control of the weaning process. By weaning here I mean introducing your baby to solid foods rather than weaning off the breast completely. BLW is the natural follow on from the principles of breastfeeding on demand – it is an active process in which the baby has the freedom to regulate their own appetite and food intake. Breastfeeding is also a great preparation because your baby will already be used to a variety of different tastes as the flavour of breastmilk varies with your diet.
How does it work?
Baby led weaning ensures a very gradual and relaxed approach to weaning and is very simple to do. You don’t need blenders, mashers or spoons – instead you simply offer whole foods and allow your baby to feed themselves with their hands. You don’t need to worry about preparing special meals for your baby - they can just join in with family mealtimes and eat whatever you are eating. Obviously this works best when you are cooking meals from scratch, as you can cut out the extra salt and other seasonings that would be present in processed foods. You can begin to offer food to your baby whenever they show an interest, so long as they are able to hold themselves upright, either on a lap or in a highchair. By using the BLW approach your baby will instinctively only begin swallowing and digesting food when their digestive systems are mature enough to process it. Even if your baby starts to show an interest at a young age it is very unlikely that they will swallow anything before they are six months old – they will just be enjoying holding and chewing new foods up till then. This means that unless there is a specific history of allergies within your family there is no need to restrict the types of food you offer your baby or to limit yourself to introducing only one new food one at a time – they will know when they are ready to start eating properly.
Keep it simple
To begin with it is best to keep the different foods you offer your baby separate. This allows them to experiment with individual flavours rather than a blend of tastes. This doesn’t mean you can only offer one food per sitting, rather that you offer a selection of unique foods instead of having all the flavours combined in say, a sauce or pie. Providing the opportunity for your baby to explore individual tastes is one of the benefits that BLW has over the puree approach. A lot of the purees offered to small babies, especially those that come in jars and packets, are actually a mixture of several flavours. If there is one taste that your baby doesn’t like they will reject the whole meal without having had the opportunity to properly try any of the other flavours within the mixture. Do keep offering foods that your baby rejects at first - tastes vary as their palette develops and likes and dislikes can change quickly.
Bigger is better
At around six months your baby will be able to pick up big pieces of food and hold them in a fist but they will not be able to release their grip at will. Wedges or batons of food that they can hold in their fist and suck or chew are ideal at this age. The pincer grip, and with it the ability to pick up small items such as raisins, develops later on in line with your baby’s ability to manage these types of food in their mouth. This stops your baby choking from putting something into their mouth before they are able to eat it properly. Despite this built in developmental safety mechanism you should never leave your baby unattended while they are eating.
One of the main benefits of baby led weaning is that you greatly reduce the risk of fussy eating habits or other food issues developing through childhood and even adulthood. A self-weaned baby will tend to accept a wider variety of foods because they are not restricted to enjoying food based on just taste. Being able to feed themselves means they can also explore how the food feels. Different textures, shapes, sizes and smells combine to make a much more stimulating and exciting mealtime experience. The whole process of eating is also far more relaxed for your baby as there is no pressure on them to eat certain types or amounts of food and they are being trusted to follow their own instinct. In this way BLW eliminates to a great extent the chances of your baby developing any negative associations with food or mealtimes.
A common concern for a parent is how you can ensure your baby gets a balanced diet when they are controlling what they eat. The beauty of BLW is that babies, if left to follow their instincts, will tend towards the foods that contain the nutrients they are lacking. So long as you are providing a wide range of healthy food choices there is no cause for concern. A small baby eats intuitively, free from the associations of comfort and guilt that it is all too easy to develop as adults. Remember also that your baby will be actually eating very little to start with and breastmilk should still be providing the bulk of their nutritional needs.
Freedom to explore
So are there are downsides to this puree free approach? A bit of extra mess is really the only one. When you leave a young baby completely free to explore their food and feed themselves with their hands you’ll probably end up with a rather food smeared baby and a debris covered floor. But if a wipe clean mat under your baby’s chair and a quick flannel wash are all it takes to promote a healthy attitude to food for years to come I’d say it’s a price worth paying.
We have talked about BLW as the next step on from breastfeeding on demand, but can the same principles be applied to bottle fed babies? In theory the answer is yes, however there are a few things to bear in mind. Firstly it is important to remember that bottle feeding and BLW are essentially quite different styles of feeding. Bottle feeding is a much more parent led process in terms of feed lengths and timings and a bottle fed baby will not have the same level of skill when it comes to regulating their own food intake. It is less easy therefore to predict how they will manage a baby led approach as the idea of controlling their own feeding patterns will be a new one for them. However, given time to explore and practice, there is no reason why a bottle fed baby should not adapt well to BLW. Remember also that a bottle fed baby will need to be regularly offered water alongside other foods as formula milks do not have the same thirst quenching properties as breastmilk.
Trust your baby
Key to baby led weaning are the ideas of trust and control. Babies are amazing; with a lot more innate selfawareness than we often give them credit for. As a parent you need to trust in your baby’s ability to successfully feed and nurture themselves and in turn you will be rewarded with a child able to confidently manage themselves and their body for years to come