By now you have probably heard the phrase baby led weaning (or BLW for short), which is an avenue for introducing solids to your baby. But you may be wondering what the heck is baby led weaning exactly? Or maybe you know a little about it but want to know more details because there is a whole book on it, but “ain’t nobody got time for that.” Or maybe you haven’t heard of it at all and just assumed the pediatrician would tell you how to start solids, in which case I’d love to introduce you to the concept. Before we had the girls, we knew nothing about introducing solids to a baby. I mean, I’d seen baby food jars at the grocery store before, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I had never even heard of baby led weaning. So, I am going to share the momma’s (note: not expert’s) condensed version of research and experience that got us from not knowing anything to where we are now. A lot of you all asked for a more detailed post on the subject, which is why I have elaborated so much on the what, why and how. I hope you can find this complete summary helpful.
First, I highly recommend reading the book Baby Led Weaning by Gill Rapley, especially if this summary interests you. I found it an easy read and very informative. I will try my best to summarize the information from the book in this post. If I am stating something that sounds factual, it’s a summation of information shared in the book. Consider this my broad citation.
Baby led weaning is a concept for solid food introduction. The alternative concept is known as traditional weaning. In traditional weaning, you start introducing solids by spoon feeding your baby pureed food. Over time you increase the lumpiness of the puree in stages and then eventually introduce finger foods to your baby. In baby led weaning, you skip pureed food and spoon feeding. You start with the finger foods. Really you just start with regularly prepared food, whatever you are eating, and let your baby feed themselves. I’ll go into more detail about the how of this in a minute. In traditional weaning, I would say the focus is on actual food/nutrient intake by swallowing and flavor exploration in the process building up to texture exploration and then finally learning how to chew. In baby led weaning, the focus is on flavor and texture exploration, learning how to manage food in your mouth and learning to chew food and swallow and then eventually increasing the food/nutrient intake to something sustainable without breastmilk or formula.
The World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics now recommend delaying solid food introduction until six months of age. This means nothing except breastmilk or formula before six months old. The reasoning behind this is that baby does not need supplemental nutrition outside of breastmilk/formula and solid foods are hard on baby’s gut. Even up through one year, breastmilk/formula should remain baby’s main source of nutrition.
This recommendation is different from past advice from health advisors that pushed an earlier introduction of solid food around four months of age and a quicker switch from breastmilk/formula-dominate nutrient intake to solid food-dominate nutrient intake.This delay in solid foods opens up the door for baby led weaning as an alternative to traditional weaning because it takes the pressure off food/nutrient intake quantity and because of the developmental milestones baby achieves between four and six months of age.
As you may know, the developmental milestones between four and six months for a baby are astounding. When babies are that young, just a short time frame can make an enormous difference in their capabilities. Three key developmental milestones that happen between four and six months of age are (1) baby perfects grasp, (2) baby learns to sit unsupported and (3) baby loses their tongue-thrust reflex. All of these developmental milestones better prepare a baby to be ready for solids foods at six months of age. It’s like God planned these developmental milestones to go hand in hand with baby’s need for supplemental nutrition and complete gut preparation.Grasp: I have a video of the girls first grasps at just after three months of age. It was brief, but they did it! They held the rattle up themselves! I remember how exciting this milestone was. So obviously their abilities related to grasping were still very limited at four months of age. Certainly, there would be no spoon holding. Really around six months of age is when the purposeful grasping and manipulating of toys began (shake, shake, shake the rattle became their favorite thing). When thinking about this in terms of introducing solids, if you were to do so at four months of age, baby would really struggle to get food to their mouth (hence traditionally spoon feeding). At six months of age the struggle is much less.
Sitting: Our girls started sitting unsupported a week before they turned six months old. Sitting upright is an important safety consideration when eating solid food. Being reclined or wobbling can pose a choking risk. So, at four months of age, managing chunks of food in baby’s mouth safely would have been impossible (hence traditionally pureeing everything). At six months of age (plus or minus a bit) baby can sit unsupported and these safety concerns are minimized.
Tongue-Thrust Reflex: Baby’s are born with many different reflexes that act as safety mechanisms. Basically, a reflex is an automatic action that protects baby until they have learned to perform that action purposefully on their own. Tongue-thrust reflex is a reflex in the mouth that protects baby from choking by causing them to automatically thrust things that get into their mouth outwards. Have you ever seen a video a young spoon-fed baby that thrusts the new food out of their mouth immediately with an aghast face? This video is typically captions, “he/she doesn’t like __________.” That’s not baby disliking the food being offered. That’s the tongue-thrust reflex. This reflex is replaced by a further back gag reflex around six months of age. The gag reflex starts off just behind mid-tongue and recedes to farther back in the mouth from six to twelve months. In other words, tongue-thrust reflex basically rejects everything from the mouth right at the entrance. Then it’s replaced with a gag reflex kind of like a short leash to learn to start moving food around in their mouth but still having that reflex to keep things out of the back of their mouth. Then the gag reflex moves back allowing for a longer leash until gag reflex just resides at the very back giving full control of managing the food in the mouth.
So, the premise behind baby led weaning, is that since baby has now met these developmental milestones, spoon feeding them purees is not necessary. This is how the concept first came to me, back before it even had a name. In fact, an article I found when I first started researching the topic, pointed out that when starting purees at four months of age was the norm, it was common to have baby experimenting with finger foods at six months old anyways.
What I found by reading the book is that more than the just simple why is baby led weaning possible and why it makes sense logically, but there are also several whys or benefits to choosing baby led weaning over traditional weaning. These benefits include practicing fine motor skills, learning how to manage food in the mouth and avoid choking situations, early introduction to varying flavors and textures and fostering division of responsibility and independence for the child.
Going back to the grasp and reflex I talked about a minute ago. The milestones reached at six months aren’t mastery of these skills. A baby’s grasp at six months is still a whole hand grasp. Over time they will refine this grasp to a precise grasp between thumb and pointer finger known as the pincer grasp. Having baby practice self-feeding everyday gives them the opportunity to practice and work on refining that grasp. Same with the gag reflex. At six months it is early up in the mouth and moves back over the next several months. With baby led weaning, baby is moving food around in their mouth starting at six months which will help them become aware of the gag reflex and what it means. They can catch a potential choking situation earlier while its farther up in their mouth and learn how to work through that situation. If you wait until later to practice this skill, the gag reflex will already be farther back in the mouth and baby will have a lot less room for error when learning how to manage food in the mouth.
Another benefit is fostering division of responsibility, which sounds silly, but I’ll pull this quote straight from the APA Pediatric Nutrition Handbook that explains what this is. “Appropriate limits for children’s eating are set by adhering to a division of responsibility in child feeding. Caregivers are responsible for providing a variety of nutritious foods, defining the structure and timing of meals and creating a mealtime environment that facilitates eating and social exchange. Children are responsible for participating in choices about food selection and determining how much is consumed at each eating occasion.” I think it’s fascinating that a nutritional guideline so closely aligns with one of my overarching child rearing thoughts from Mary Montessori, which is, “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” You see we as the parents have the responsibility to make sure that we are offering the right amount and right type of nutrition opportunities for our child and demonstrating correct nutrition. In the process of baby led weaning, we give them the responsibility and independence to then mirror us and nourish themselves. I like to think of it (and lots of things I do) as directed independence. And studies have shown that when given that opportunity children most often succeed at providing themselves with the correct nutrition.
More than just these benefits, I love that I have never had to buy special food for my kids. I don’t have to plan special meals for them. I don’t take extra time out of the day to feed them. We literally just all eat all of our meals together; same food, same time (my mom eats breakfast and lunch with the girls during the week while we are at work and we all eat dinner together when we get home).
So, what are the drawbacks with baby led weaning? Why isn’t everyone doing it? I would say there are two main reasons: concern about choking and concern about nutritional intake. I also want to point out here that your experience may include medical diagnoses probably related to choking or nutritional intake that you would personally be aware of and discuss with your doctor and would incline you to go a traditional weaning route over baby led weaning.
Concern about Choking: This is the number one drawback to baby led weaning. If you have a strong momma bear sense of protection, watching your six-month-old chomping on a piece of steak can be pretty terrifying. I’m in a couple of baby led weaning groups, and I see mommas say repeatedly that they can’t get over the fear of baby choking, that they instantly remove food that baby bites off and that baby gagged on food and it was the most frightening thing ever. If you cannot get over these fears, then baby led weaning may not be for you. But I promise that if you can calm your momma fears and watch baby learning to eat from the sidelines, you will be amazed at what they can do. I personally am one of those mommas who likes to hang back and watch baby try things on their own even if it means a bump or two in the process. It’s just the way I’m wired. So, it was a lot easier for me to dismiss this drawback.
First, I recommend brushing up on the difference between gagging and choking. You may not realize that just because baby has something seemingly stuck in the back of their mouth, does not mean they are choking. If baby is still red in the face, making noises and actively gagging, they are working to get the piece unstuck themselves and it is not necessary to intervene because they can still breath around the piece and (1) it’s a great learning opportunity for them to try to get it unstuck themselves and (2) your actions may further complicate things by lodging the piece further back in their mouth. Remember their gag reflex is further up at that age triggering action to remove food in a precarious before it is actually lodged in the throat.
Next, I would recommend brushing up on baby CPR and Heimlich maneuver. Brad and I took a course, and he, my mom and I periodically review the material with our own in-home crash course to make sure we always feel comfortable with what actions to take in case a choking situation actually arises.
We have had zero choking incidents (our girls our now three and their baby sister has started on blw). We have had many gagging incidents. It’s actually interesting to observe how they learn to move the food as I watch on high alert (but not panic). A few good gags and the food is typically coughed back up. It may seem bad, but it’s really just part of the process. Brad and I like to remain calm but alert. We don’t jump up or make any unusual movements. We just turn our attention to the baby gagging and watch very carefully. Typically, we ask gently, “Are you alright?” or “You got this?” and by the end or our question the gag has been resolved so we say, “You got it.” And then dinner continues as normal.
Concerns on Nutritional Intake: I think the other reason why baby led weaning doesn’t appeal to everyone is because baby isn’t going to intake a lot of solid foods when you start out this process and it can be worrying as to whether they are getting enough nutrition. Sure, solid foods are just supplemental to breastmilk/formula, but what counts as supplemental? Does one bite of meat count as supplemental? Or are we needing full ounces of food to be digested here? That answer isn’t clearly described anywhere and trying to work towards an unclear goal can be stressful. Moreover, many pediatricians will talk to you about nutritional intake in terms of full jars of baby food or bowls of oatmeal since this is what they are used to. Trying to translate and live up to that in baby led weaning seems like a daunting task.
I don’t have any solid answers on how much is enough. I will just say that from all the research, I took supplemental to mean don’t stress about it. When we had our six-month check-up, our pediatrician spent two seconds talking about solid foods. Basically, he said we could start and that eventually they would start slowing down their breastmilk intake and increasing their solid food intake. If our conversation could be that broad and brief, I figured that it definitely wasn’t something to be counting nickels and dimes or ounces and calories over.
As I will talk about more in the how section, we just always offered them enough breastmilk/formula to fill them and then ate solid foods. We approached baby led weaning like it was a way to learn to eat food instead of looking at is to fill our girls’ bellies. It really is a different mindset you need to approach with so that you don’t drive yourself batty.
And I will say for the first three months there was very little food ingestion. Just like with any other skill, our girls took steps and time to get to a place where they were consuming a lot of solid food. For the first month it was getting food from the plate to their mouth. Then they started gnawing off bites. Then they learned to chew those bites and eventually swallow them. It was at about nine months that we personally saw their solid food intake take off. This lined up right along with their pincer grasp. So, while they had been practicing perfecting their pincer grasp, they had also been practicing all of the steps necessary to ingest food and then once it was perfected, they were able to go to town on picking up and eating food. At twelve months, our girls completely eliminated breastmilk/formula. They take milk from a cup, and we feel confident they are eating enough food (as their growing round bellies can attest).
Besides these two concerns, the other thing I hear often (but is a myth) is that you need teeth to eat solid food. This just isn’t true. Number of teeth isn’t a factor in how well you will do with eating solid food. Just ask my fourteen-month-old who still only has two bottom teeth and can eat a whole apple herself like a champ. Ask your great grandparents too lol. I’m just going to leave it at that. It’s simply not a concern.
I will say that one valid drawback of baby led weaning is that it can be very messy! I highly recommend getting a giant bib and giant splat mat for the floor and just trying your best to roll with it. A dog is a great asset to have during a baby led weaning journey.
So how do you go about baby led weaning? Unlike traditional weaning, there really aren’t any schedules or guidelines to follow. That’s the beauty of baby led weaning; the how section is short and simple. The overarching rules that I have heard are (1) no honey (even as an ingredient in something) before one, (2) no nuts and (3) cut or smoosh round things like blueberries and grapes so that their shape does not perfectly fit in one’s throat (because this would make a choking situation even more severe).Basically, when your little ones turn six months old you just start letting them participate in meals with you.
We have Phil & Ted Lobster clip on high chairs, which we love! We have them set up at our dining room table so that everyone can sit together around the table just as if the girls were sitting in a regular chair. The idea of the girls actively participating in family meals is very important to me. (We also bring them to restaurants and on trips since they are portable). When we started off, we just did dinner with the girls. After six weeks we added breakfast and then at nine months we added lunch. We still don’t do many snacks (which is unusual) because the girls are on a sleep-heavy schedule where they aren’t awake long enough to warrant snacks, but we plan to add snacks once we drop to one nap. This easing in to meals is a good way to not overwhelm yourself. Trust me, in just a few short months, you’ll realize the full gravity of needing to plan up and prepare healthy meals for your little one all the dang time; no need to rush it.
Starting out, you want to continue to offer your little one a full bottle of breastmilk/formula before eating. Remember the focus isn’t on achieving large amounts of nutritional intake, it’s on learning to eat, which will be a much better experience for baby if they aren’t starving.
Starting out, you’ll want to offer foods in a stick/finger shape/length. Until baby perfects that pincer grasp, they’ll need the length so that there is actually food sticking out from their fist to eat. As they perfect their pincer grasp, you can start to offer food in smaller-sized bites. We serve meals to the girls on EZPZ Mini Mats set on the table just like our plates (see a full list of our recommended baby led weaning products here). I would suggest always offering a spoon with your meal where appropriate. When there are certain foods that “need” a utensil to be eaten (I put need into quotation marks because my girls have perfected using their hands to eat everything including chili, yogurt and oatmeal), pre-load your spoon with the food and set it down in front of baby so that they have that stick to grasp. It’ll be awhile before they can use their spoon appropriately, but always offering it is the best place to start. Heidi actually really like using a spoon, which has been nice. We fill it up and hand it to her. I just always insist it’s her feeding herself, so even if it’s just that last few inches to her mouth. It’s helping with hand-eye-coordination too. Give consideration to how is the easiest and least messy way to get baby to eat an object when deciding how you serve food. For example, I make yogurt bark to serve yogurt to my girls instead of giving it with a spoon because that saves a huge clean up job (I also suggest some full body bibs because meals can be quite messy). Once baby starts to perfect their eating habits, you can start offering meals as you would eat them (for instance we can hand our girls a whole banana or apple to eat instead of cutting into any shape or size).
The key in baby led weaning is that you are participating in the meal as well. Baby needs to watch you eating so they can learn what the are supposed to do with these strange objects you have placed in front of them. One important thing we emphasized when eating with the girls was chewing. Funny story to illustrate, I used to take bites of my food and explain “chew, chew, chew” with exaggerated chewing motions. To this day, I can say “chew, chew, chew” to refocus B or B on eating food that is just hanging out in there mouth. What I didn’t realize is that anytime I did this, I was also bobbing up and down, so the girls now bob up and down when they chew as well.
I have also found this mimicking to be highly effective for convincing my girls to try any food. Because the are so used to imitating us when it comes to eating, they will trust our judgement in taste as well. So if B or B aren’t touching a particular food on their plate, I’ll take a big exaggerated bite of it and say “Oh so yummy. Do you want some?” and hand them a bite.
A lot of people wonder what is a good “first food” to give your baby. Honestly you don’t just give them one food and you don’t need to give it a lot of thought. Basically any meal can be adapted to work for baby’s first meal. I made a ranch chicken crock pot meal with carrots and potatoes for our girls because it’s yummy and easy to make. Heidi’s first meal was Christmas dinner; turkey and all the trimmings. I think the more important thought is ensuring that you are offering nutritional, balanced options. I like to make sure that I have given ample options to cover all the food groups over a course of a day. At breakfast I focus on something filling like oatmeal and then a bunch of fresh fruit, lunch is usually leftovers from the previous day’s dinner or something quick from the freezer and then dinner is a meat and veggies and sometimes a starch. That’s my favorite thing about baby led weaning, is that I don’t have to do anything different to feed my kids. Now we have baby Heidi, and she just eats whatever I made for the twins for dinner.
Check out my baby led weaning Pinterest board for meal ideas (link).
You can also see my full list of baby led weaning baby registry items here.
I hope you found this post a good summary on baby led weaning. Again, I am not an expert. I’m just trying to give you an idea of something to consider and how to go about it. I personally think solid food introduction (traditional or BLW) is relatively complete by just after a year old. So just like so many other aspects of first year with baby, it seemed like a big deal at the time, but we’re already moving on to bigger and better things. I say that to encourage you that no matter what path you choose, you can’t go wrong and, like the saying goes, before you know it your toddler will be eating stale food off your kitchen floor.
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