What is Baby-Led Weaning, Anyways (BLW)?
This is a guest blog post written by Beth Fynbo, an Army veteran, mother, and creator of the Busy Baby Mat. Her company helps families get back to enjoying mealtime by putting an end to the endless game of picking toys and utensils up off of the floor.
As any new parent can tell you, feeding your baby can be stressful. From learning how to breastfeed, or choosing the right formula, there are a zillion decisions to make and they keep on coming!
One of the next big decisions you'll make as a parent is when your child is around four to six months old – Solids! But how to start? Do you start solids with a method referred to as "Baby-Led Weaning", give purees and mashed first foods, or continue only giving formula or breastmilk as you have been?
Most parents feel more comfortable introducing food by spoon-feeding purees since they have the most control. Baby-lead weaning is a more child-led exploration of food. This is great for your baby’s development, but tough for parents who worry about choking. Could the benefits outweigh the risks? That’s a decision for each parent to make for their situation.
And guess what? There's no right answer. As a parent, you know best what your child needs, and whichever choice you make is the right one for your baby. But to help you make your decision, I'll break down what it means for you if you choose the path of Baby Led Weaning (BLW).
What is Baby Led Weaning?
Baby led weaning (BLW) is the name given to introducing food to babies by letting them feed themselves, rather than spoon-feeding them purees.
The name is a bit misleading because, at this age (~4-6 months), your baby will still be receiving the majority of their nutrition from milk or formula. You aren't actually 'weaning' them from those nutritional sources, but it does provide your baby with some additional fine motor and digestive development as they learn to eat new foods.
What's the big deal?
BLW is a sometimes-controversial method to introduce food to your child that isn’t right for every parent. Why? Well, it comes down to a lot of conflicting research from some authorities we all know and trust.
Can babies start eating at 6 months old or is it breastmilk/formula ONLY until age 1?
This is where there is a clear dividing line, and some people feel very passionately one way or the other.
What do the experts say?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend exclusive breastmilk or formula until 6 months and then those same things as the primary source of nutrition until age 1. These organizations recommend adding solid foods at 6 months as long as the child shows the developmental signs of readiness.
However, there are other well-respected sources, such as the Mayo Clinic who actually recommend introducing solids as early as 4 months, especially in families with a history of anaphylaxis or other severe food allergies.
The reason why is that research has found that early introduction of allergens in your child's diet can actually help them avoid developing a more serious allergy later on.
"Researchers found that high-risk children who regularly consumed peanut protein, such as peanut butter or peanut-flavored snacks, were around 80% less likely to develop a peanut allergy." (Source Mayo Clinic)
But as with most things regarding your little one, the choice is yours and it's up to every parent and their own pediatrician or health care team to make this decision.
Next, we'll weigh the benefits and risks of choosing this method for your child.
What are the benefits of BLW?
- Healthy Eating Habits- Your baby will get used to different food textures from the beginning and exposed to more textures and tastes early on.
- Feeding Regulation- Your baby will learn to stop when they feel full. Learning how to regulate could help prevent obesity later in life.
- Fine Motor Skill Development- Your baby will gain more practice persistence and gain finger dexterity picking up food pieces.
- Hand-Eye Coordination- Your baby may develop skills by trying to grasp and eat chunks of food.
- Meal Prep Become Easier- As a parent, you're likely already feeding the rest of your family. With BLM you're not opening those little jars or preparing separate purees. You can offer baby (mostly) the same food that the whole family is eating.
What are the risks of BLW
- Choking- This is no more common in BLW than traditional spoon feeding and is reasonably common in all babies. In BLW and all early-feeding methods, you will avoid foods that present significant choking hazards. Gagging is a natural part of development where babies learn to manage food in their mouths, but choking can mostly be prevented with Infant CPR education and food selection and preparation.
- Food Allergies- Do not offer cow’s milk or honey to your child before they are one year old. Research shows that exposure to peanuts may help prevent peanut allergies in high-risk children (see above). Start with single-ingredient foods to introduce and identify allergies if you suspect your child may have some.
- Iron Deficiencies- Babies who don’t drink formula may miss out on the iron offered in iron-fortified cereal that spoon-fed babies may be offered.
Next, we'll talk through if you and your baby are ready to try BLW.
Are you (and your baby) ready to try BLW?
You may be excited to try this new feeding method out with your baby, but it's just as important to make sure your baby is ready, as you are as the parent.
First, your BABY must show signs of being ready.
Typically, this happens around 6 months old, but every baby develops differently so don’t focus on just the age.
- Your baby must be able to sit up unassisted AND hold their head steady in a highchair
- Baby is showing interest in your food
- Baby can grasp or pick up food
- Reduced tongue-thrust reflex
YOU must also be ready as their parent.
- Familiarize yourself with an infant CPR course to ensure you know what to do if your baby does begin to choke. Here's a primer on YouTube that we recommend for an infant CPR
- Consider asking your nanny or caregiver to complete an infant CPR course too, if applicable
- Ensure you're aware of which foods to avoid that may be choking hazards (ie: Raw carrots, pretzels, popcorn, hard candy, etc)
- Consider choosing a helpful placemat like the Busy Baby Mat to make clean-up easier as you'll be sure to make a mess together.
Here are some quick and dirty tips about baby led waning if you and your baby are ready to start your food journey and want to learn more.
- Start simple with single-ingredient foods (to introduce and pinpoint allergies)
- First foods should be soft or steamed cut into substantial-size pieces that your baby can manage with a fist (until they develop the pincer-grasp).
- Move to food cut up into small pieces once baby is able to grasp them and pick them up with their thumb and forefinger.
- Don’t cook with salt or sugar.
- Use a tray or plate with edges that is not movable to assist baby in picking up food pieces like these trays from Busy Baby.
- Once baby has tried and tolerated multiple foods individually, begin to offer dishes with foods that are high-calorie and offer healthy fats, iron, zinc, and protein.
More resources to check out
Food Ideas: The Best Baby-Led Weaning Foods
Recommended Reads: Born to Eat: Whole Healthy Food From Baby's First Bite, Simple & Safe Baby-Led Weaning, and Baby-Led Feeding: A Natural Way to Raise Happy, Independent Eaters
Blogs: fortifiedfam.com and solidstarts.com
Instagram account to follow @babyledweanteam
Are you thinking about or starting to try BLW with your child? Let us know what's on your mind in the comments below!
Beth Fynbo, an Army veteran, mother, and creator of the Busy Baby Mat. Her company helps families get back to enjoying mealtime by putting an end to the endless game of picking toys and utensils up off of the floor. Shop now and follow Busy Baby Mat on Instagram.