Deciding how to feed a baby can be an emotional experience, whether you’re learning to breastfeed or starting to introduce solid food. And while many people choose to go down the traditional route of spoon-feeding purées as a first food, a growing number are letting their little ones get to grip with finger foods from the word go. Baby-led weaning allows your baby to decide how much he wants to eat and take everything at his own pace once solids are introduced at six months. Gill Rapley started developing her thoughts about baby-led weaning as a health visitor and is now an authority on this approach. She has also been a midwife and breastfeeding counsellor.
How did you become interested in baby-led weaning?
When I was a health visitor, I saw a lot of mums struggling with weaning. Their babies were refusing to be spoon-fed and becoming fussy. I had mums saying their baby wouldn’t eat apple purée but would grab for their apple and it seemed to me that the answer was self-feeding. In the 1980s and 1990s mums were advised to start with purées at four months and I kept baby-led weaning as something I would suggest if people asked for help. When the official guidance for introducing solids changed to six months in 2002/03 I started recommending it more. A lot of the advice which comes from the NHS now is baby-led weaning under a different name.
What are the main advantages of baby-led weaning?
Baby-led weaning is about respect for the baby, trusting they know what they need. It makes mealtimes more enjoyable for the whole family, as there is no pressure on the parents or the baby. Babies learn to manage different shapes and textures of food from the start, so they become skilled at dealing with a wide range of foods. It may help babies learn to choose healthier foods. There is also some suggestion that it can improve hand-eye coordination and aid the development of the jaw and facial muscles.
What’s the best way to get started?
What’s often missing when it comes to weaning is the opportunity to try. How do you know a child is ready to walk, for example? You know they are ready when they just do it. With baby-led weaning there is a lot of licking, touching and spitting out, long before any food gets swallowed. Just sit baby upright in a high chair, place food in front of him and see what happens. It’s not about nutrition at this point and some babies won’t be interested at six months or even at eight months.
Can you suggest some good foods to begin with?
Pretty much anything goes. The old idea that you started with one thing at a time related to the fact you had a baby with an immature gut. If you wait until six months you don’t have to go through that palaver. You can give them vegetables, fruit, meat, cheese – anything that you would give them if you were going to mush it up. Just avoid salt and sugar as you would with purées. It’s the shape that’s important. They have to be able to hold it and have it sticking out of their fist.
How do you know if your baby is getting enough to eat?
Solid meals are just another activity at first, nothing to do with eating. It’s important that baby isn’t hungry when sitting at the table so you might want to give them a milk feed first to make them content. Their main source of nourishment still comes from milk until 12 months. As the baby eats more at mealtimes, he will “forget” to ask for some of his milk feeds, or will take less at each feed. I wouldn’t expect to see any change in the number of milk feeds until the baby is nine months old. Baby-led weaning is slightly easier if you are breastfeeding because it fits with the ethos of baby deciding how much they want. Bottle-feeding parents will just need to adapt to a slightly less controlled method.
Is it a lot more work than purees?
No, you just adapt your own meals so that baby can share. There’s no need to cook separately. You can always take out baby’s portion before you add salt or a spicy sauce, for example, and it’s easy to cut carrots into sticks instead of into round pieces. Another advantage is that baby gets to be part of the family mealtimes from the start. They will be happy playing with their food while you are eating.
Don’t babies choke on the food?
Many parents worry about babies choking, but real choking is very rare. There is good reason to believe that babies are at less risk of choking if they are in control of what goes into their mouth than if they are spoon fed, especially as it appears that a baby’s general development keeps pace with the development of his ability to manage food in his mouth, and to digest it. Gagging, however, is part of learning not to choke. It’s a protective action and means they are clearing it. It doesn’t seem to bother babies and happens well before the food is anywhere near the airways. People are often more worried about gagging and spluttering before they have seen it happen. When they see it they gain respect for how their baby handles it.
LEARN: Gill’s website, rapleyweaning.com, contains plenty of information to point parents in the right direction.
READ: Gill and Tracey Murkett’s book Baby-led Weaning is the classic read on this subject, along with the accompanying recipe book The Baby-led Weaning Cookbook. Their other books are Baby-led Breastfeeding and Baby-led Parenting, which also encourage parents to follow their own and their baby’s instincts.
FIND: Hannah is a freelance journalist and mum-of-one who lives in Staffordshire. Find her at hannahhiles.co.uk.