What is baby-led weaning?
In the last ten years, BLW was popularised in the UK with the publication of Baby-Led Weaning, by Gill Rapley. It offers an alternative to the traditional approach of introducing babies to purees and weaning spoons, by letting babies feed themselves. It is suitable from around six months or when children are developmentally able to sit up, self-feed and swallow food.
But as Lucy Brown, a Director of Nursing and mum of two points out, opting for this approach should be one of personal choice. “Rather than recommend baby-led over spoon-fed I do think it’s down to family choice. While it worked really well for my family, there will be differing circumstances which will factor into parental choice.”
Benefits of baby-led weaning
Though more evidence is needed on the subject, experts have found that the BLW approach enables babies to regulate their own food intake, which might also help to improve eating patterns.
It can offer a range of benefits, says Bupa’s registered dietitian, Maya Aboukhater. “It provides babies with an early and important step in self-regulation, such as teaching them to stop eating when they feel full.”
“It also allows babies to develop their chewing skills, and explore the texture, taste and colour of a variety of foods.”
What do parents think?
Parents who’ve followed BLW are generally passionate about its benefits, and say their babies will eat most things. Mother of two, Sarah, who tried this approach with both her children, believes that it promotes positive eating behaviour, better appetite control and reduces fussiness.
“My first child will try and eat anything. My second was always less adventurous in her tastes but it’s never been an issue because I just offer the food and she either eats it or doesn’t. She can fill up on anything else such as pasta, bread, veg, fruit and yoghurt.”
“She’s now willing to try food. While she often doesn’t like it, at least she is in control and eventually she starts eating it. My children also stop eating when they’re full, and see food as a pleasure to be enjoyed and to help their bodies work – it gives me joy to have given that to my children.”
Jessica, who also used the BLW approach for her three and five year old children, agrees. “I found it hugely enjoyable letting my children explore new tastes and textures. Some of the reactions to things like broccoli and spaghetti will stay with me forever. As I also breastfed it meant that I could have unplanned days out without having to worry about packing bags full of food and milk.”
And for mum of three, Lisa, who tried BLW with her second child only, she believes that it has had a positive impact on his eating habits. “I just started trying him with tastes of anything soft I was eating and then started cutting or mushing whatever his brother had for meal. He really liked that and would try pretty much anything.”
“I honestly think he is a better less fussy eater than his older brother who just ate purees to start with. He is quite happy to try new things and was from a very young age.”
Tips for getting started
So, if you’re considering swapping the baby food processor and weaning spoon for baby-led weaning, here are some tips from these mothers on getting off to a successful start.
Lisa: “I think just be relaxed and be led by your child. It often feels that they aren’t getting much food but you can do a mix of purees and solid food if you are worried they are still hungry. The dissolve in the mouth snacks are great and really get them used to eating without worrying about them choking when you are on the go. My biggest tip would be to get a hand held hoover so all the mess can be easily cleared after meals!”
Sarah: “The plastic Ikea high chair with the tray makes home eating easy. Try three or four different foods on each plate. The baby led weaning recipe book is good for recipe ideas. I still make porridge fingers for my six and nine year old even though they can eat porridge perfectly well!”
Jess: “My friend used to carry a dustpan and brush under her buggy so we could go to a restaurant, order the babies a portion of pasta to share and deal with the mess afterwards!”
Lucy: “I do think a successful start is to eat with your children, have the same foods and encourage family mealtimes – avoid high sugar and processed foods too.”
Baby-led weaning first foods to try
But, for new parents knowing what foods to introduce to your child first can be daunting. Some babies will be ready to move onto mashed and finger foods immediately, says Maya.
“Allow your baby to feed themselves using their fingers, as soon as they show an interest. Start off with finger foods that break up easily in their mouth and are long enough for them to grip, like bits of soft ripe banana or avocado. Pieces about the size of your own finger work well.”
“It’s also important to consider your child’s nutrient intake, by ensuring that you include foods rich in iron, zinc, protein, healthy fats and calories. This helps to support brain development, so foods such as leafy greens, lentils and poultry meats are good,” advises Maya.
Sarah: “Anything that can be presented as a baton is perfect. My first child’s first meal was steak, potato wedges, baby corn and mange tout!”
Jess: “Porridge fingers went down a treat in my house! I even used to mush banana and other fruits into leftover porridge, maybe some cinnamon too. Then you just flatten it on a plate and microwave for 30 seconds. Slice and cool…porridge fingers! Mashed potato, sweet potato, chicken drumsticks and chunky stew (we ate a LOT of chunky stew!).”
Lisa: “Pasta was a great one for us and you can add lots of options of sauce/veggies. Shredded up bits of chicken and salmon were also favourites and easy to cut off what the rest of the family were eating. Bananas are messy but great and easy to bring out with you.”
Lucy: “I do think you need to introduce a variety of different tasting fruits and vegetables. Avocado and mangoes were a huge hit!”
Foods to avoid
While BLW allows parents to introduce a variety of tastes, Maya advises that you should avoid giving some foods to your baby until they are six months old, as they can cause allergies. These include:
- cow’s milk
- foods containing wheat or gluten
- nuts and peanuts
- fish and shellfish
Foods containing these ingredients should be introduced one at a time, with two-three days in between, so you can spot a reaction, suggests Maya. “And, if you're using a spoon, wait for your baby to open their mouth before you offer the food – your baby may like to hold a spoon too.”
“Once your baby is used to the foods above, they can have soft cooked meat, such as chicken, mashed fish (check carefully for bones), pasta, noodles, toast, pieces of chapatti, lentils, rice and mashed hard-boiled eggs.”
Is there a greater risk of choking?
There’s limited evidence to suggest children are more likely to choke on a baby led-weaning diet than a spoon-fed one, and BLW supporters argue that as long as babies can sit upright they should be fine. Lucy Brown agrees. “In my parenting experience my children did not experience any issues with choking through baby-led weaning. They appeared more confident with food and were more open to trying different foods, potentially due to giving them control.”
To prevent choking, and before giving foods to your baby, do the following:
- Cut up foods into pieces big enough for your baby to hold in their fist, with a bit sticking out at the tip. Pieces about the size of your finger work well.
- Peel and lightly cook hard fruits and vegetables, such as apples and carrots.
- Slice small round foods, like grapes or cherry tomatoes.
- Cut cheese into sticks rather than cubes.
- Remove any stones or pips.
- Remove all skin and bones from meat and meat products, like sausages and chicken.
It’s also important to always stay with your baby when they’re eating in case they start to choke, and they must always be supported in an upright position.
Are there any downsides?
Experts claim that further evidence is needed to understand the impact of BLW on babies’ nutrient intakes and overall eating behaviours. “There’s a risk of babies not getting all the nutrients they need, and it can be hard to know how much your baby is actually eating because much of their food can end up on the floor,” says Maya. “Iron-rich food can also be harder to include as babies find it harder to chew chicken, fish or spoon feed themselves some lentils. So for both my children I did a combination of BLW and spoon feeding.”
Sarah: “You need to be somewhere where the child can sit to feed themselves. However, I didn’t find this a problem as you do really have to do this for purees anyway. Also it can be messy but purées are too – you just need the right equipment to deal with it.”
Jess: “I found it a downside having to cook with reduced salt stock cubes (you do get used to the taste) and cut back on the chilli! I suppose that the risk of choking could be a con, but I actually think that children who do baby-led weaning learn how to manage the food in their mouths a lot quicker than those who don’t.”
Lisa: “It is messier and you are always a bit more worried about the choking aspect but as long as everything was cut small it was fine. Luckily my son was an early teether, so could chew most things.”
When to seek professional advice
Talk to your GP and/or a health visitor before trying BLW if you have a family history of allergies, food intolerances or digestive problems. They might refer you to a dietitian. Or speak to your GP if your baby can’t chew very well and has difficulty picking their food.
“Whether you decide to go with baby-led weaning or the traditional weaning approach, let your babies enjoy touching and holding the food, and make it a positive experience,” adds Maya.