What is all this hype around baby-led weaning, aka BLW? Is it really a safer and healthier method of introducing solids to infants? According to the experts, most research points to yes. Recent studies are even showing that the long-term effects of the BLW approach are leading to healthier eating habits and a drop in toddler obesity compared with their spoon-fed counterparts.
Baby-led weaning is a method of introducing your baby to solid foods through self-feeding, rather than using the traditional, adult-led spoon-feeding approach. Soft, manageable, finger-sized pieces of food are placed in front of the baby to touch, smell, taste, chew, and swallow without any adult intervention. No need to make or buy purees; just offer your baby foods you are already eating.
Most parents find that by 6 months old, babies are reaching for their food at mealtimes and even mimicking chewing. The baby-led weaning approach says, "Go ahead, hand it over!" Offer food to your baby by placing it right in front of him on his high-chair tray in small pieces. Experts say giving the baby control of the eating process engages the senses and enhances the eating experience.
While spoon-fed babies are usually fed until the food is finished, the baby-led approach allows a baby to decide when she is full. This full awareness is said to give a child a much happier and healthier approach to eating later in life than parent-led feeding.
"Allowing the child to regulate their own appetite and not pressuring them to eat more than they need is a really important step in encouraging children to develop healthy eating patterns for life," says researcher Amy Brown from Swansea University in Wales.
Critics of BLW worry that there is an increased risk for choking. Let's face it, handing solids to a baby is a scary prospect! Studies show the baby-led approach is actually safer for teaching proper chewing and swallowing techniques than using the spoon-fed approach. When given pureed foods, a baby is taught to suck the food right off of the spoon then swallow immediately. The baby-led approach teaches the child to chew the food first, which naturally moves it to the back of the throat for swallowing.
According to a study conducted at the University of Otago in New Zealand: "It has been argued that this is one of the advantages of BLW in that the infant learns to eat finger foods at a time when the gag reflex very effectively keeps large pieces of food well to the front of the mouth, only allowing well-masticated food to reach the back of the mouth for swallowing."
Baby-led weaning gives parents full control of what their baby eats and limits the additives and preservatives commonly found in store-bought baby food purees. BLW also allows babies to experience a much wider variety of foods that are not normally pureed and preserved. Another study conducted by psychologists Ellen Townsend and Nicola Pitchford at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. concluded that toddlers who used the baby-led weaning approach as babies had a lower Body Mass Index and a higher preference for healthy foods.
While baby-led weaning provides benefits for the baby, it can create frustrating work for parents. First of all, it's messy—very messy. Some say it's the equivalent of putting food in a blender and turning it on without a lid. To combat the blender effect, strip your baby down to the bare minimum and place a large wipeable tablecloth under the feeding area. The good news is, as your baby masters self-feeding, the mess will diminish. It's also recommended to only introduce a few pieces of food at a time. This will reduce the chances of the baby being overwhelmed by selection—and will limit the mess. Also note, your baby should be monitored closely for allergic reactions when introducing new foods.
Another concern of parents about baby-led feeding is that they worry their child is not getting enough food. Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician at Stanford University's Lucile Packard Children Hospital and author of Feeding Baby Green: The Earth-Friendly Program for Healthy, Safe Nutrition, says the key is not to get caught up in counting servings, but to explore different flavors, smells, and textures during the period of introduction to head off picky-eating habits.
Because a baby will continue to receive the majority of her nutrition from breast milk and/or formula until the age of 1, experts say feeding on demand should be continued even after solids are introduced. If you are still concerned about your baby's solid food intake, you could also mix techniques by offering finger foods at family meal times and a pureed snack at another time in the day as a further supplement.
Before starting solids, discuss the options with your pediatrician to discuss will be best for your baby. Another saying to keep in mind is, "Food before 1 is just for fun." Allow this time to be an enjoyable exploration for both you and your baby!