For the uninitiated, the phrase Baby-led Weaning refers to a method of introducing solid foods to your baby by straight away giving them ‘real’ food and skipping the puree stage. Other than foods you avoid for safety reasons (honey and nuts), baby can have a portion of your spaghetti bolognese, curry or roast dinner from day one. The elements of the meal are provided into a way that baby can handle (i.e. an appropriate size to pick up), then you let them loose! Whereas traditional weaning usually involves starting baby off on purees and perhaps baby rice, then gradually increasing the chunkiness of the purees, introducing finger foods along the way, and working your way up to regular meals. Baby-led Weaning (BLW) is lately used to describe the methods specifically laid out in Gill Rapley’s book of the same name.
I would describe my ‘weaning style’ (wow, there’s a phrase I never thought I’d find myself using) as a mixture of baby led and traditional. Straight away, the BLW fundamentalists are getting ready to shoot me down, I know, I know! According to them, such a thing does not exist.
But I can’t say we’ve followed pure BLW because I have given my son purees and spoon-fed him. And I can’t say it’s traditional weaning because he’s had ‘real’ food from six months, before he’d ever tasted a puree, and with much more frequency. The mush he does have, he feeds himself with a pre-loaded spoon and is accompanied by finger food.
So how do I describe my son’s journey into the exciting world of solid food? I have taken the elements of BLW that I most like and used them alongside purees, in order to avoid the things I don’t like about BLW.
Best Bits of BLW
- The baby is putting food to mouth himself from the start, which helps his coordination and control.
- He has a variety of foods to choose from, allowing him autonomy.
- Alongside this, the baby chooses how much he wishes to eat – no cajoling if he’s finished, and always offer more if he looks for it.
- From the beginning, baby can try any exciting flavours and textures, which should help discourage future fussiness.
- Early exposure to solid food allows baby to develop his eating skills sooner, rather than simply swallowing puree for months (just as he is used to swallowing milk) and then being shocked by solid food a lot later down the road. By ‘eating skills’ I mean his ability to bite, chew, move food round his mouth (which involves complex coordination of the tongue) and swallow. Gill Rapley expains very well how BLW fits with baby’s natural development in her book, and this appealed to me.
- Giving baby a little of what you eat forces you to examine the suitability of your own diet!
- Meals out are a lot more relaxed when you can simply pass baby a few handfuls of your own meal then get on with eating rather than letting your meal go cold while spooning in baby’s grub.
- BLW takes away the stress and pressure of feeling your baby should be eating a certain amount. He eats as much as he fancies and that’s that. It appears that when given free choice, babies eat a balanced diet over the space of a week – so if one day he scoffs fruit and nothing else, you may well find he eats lots of pasta or meat or vegetables the next. Milk is the priority before the age of one anyway, and should be offered a little before actual meals to avoid baby becoming frustrated through hunger or filling up on fibre.
Worst Bits of BLW
- There is no denying…it is messy!! Spoon-feeding allows parents to retain some control, and BLW hands everything over to baby…don’t decorate the dining room for a while.
- Because baby needs time to develop the skills to bite, chew, manoeuvre then swallow solid food, BLW can mean a VERY long wait until baby is actually consuming a reasonable amount of calories from solids. This is fine, since BLW is of course done alongside breastmilk/formula and in the first year most of baby’s nutrition will come from that. However, if you’re looking forward to dropping feeds/bottles or watching baby scarf down a meal then be prepared to wait until baby is perhaps ten months old (or even older) before much is being consumed. Some greedy munchkins will be tucking in by six and a half months of course, but it depends on the baby so be warned.
- Baby-led Weaning is likely to involve quite a bit of gagging, as baby learns how far to cram food down her throat before it requires chewing! This is fine; since babies’ gag reflexes are further forward than ours, they gag much earlier than we would as a safety precaution to avoid choking. However, a lot of gagging WILL happen during BLW and if you’re a nervy type you will worry a lot about choking. Watch a couple of YouTube videos to see the difference between normal, learning-process gagging and actual slap-on-the-back choking.
RANT ALERT—RANT ALERT—RANT ALERT
Finally, a few words to the BLW Brigade… those fundamentalist baby-led weaners who simply cannot bear for the name of BLW to be taken in vain. I joined a BLW Facebook group a little before beginning baby on solids, as a place to seek advice and read other people’s recipes, ideas and suggestions. I wasn’t expecting to find a battleground! So many women would post questions referring to ‘a mixture of blw and purees’ or would ask about how to go about BLW after already beginning baby on purees, and my goodness the crazies were out in force. “There is no such thing as a mixture”, “I suggest you find a traditional weaning group”, “Finger foods after purees IS traditional weaning not BLW” and so on. Nobody was horrifically unkind, but ever so, ever so patronising and single-minded. When I later joined a ‘combi’ group and a traditional weaning group to cover my bases, I found so many women beginning their posts, “I asked this on the BLW group and they sent me here/chucked me out/were mean to me…”
Giving purees is not ‘technically’ BLW as currently understood – but who decided the terminology?! One woman’s book does not consititute the law, and these crazies don’t even follow her advice properly.
My main problems with BLW fundamentalists are:
-Why are purees banned but porridge, soup and yoghurt can be fed using preloaded spoons? What is the difference to the baby’s experience of food? He is still enjoying a variety of flavours (purees are yummy!) and learning spoon skills.
-Why can’t someone switch to BLW from purees as long as they do it safely, remembering that baby will need to learn to chew before swallowing? I have seen so many women being shot down for this in Facebook groups, when Gill Rapley herself states in her book that there is no problem switching to BLW as long as it is done carefully.
-Why does it matter to you whether someone describes their style of weaning as ‘Baby Led’? All that means is they allow baby choice and autonomy and access to solid food rather than cramming purees down their necks for months on end.
When I read Gill Rapley’s book, I loved so much about BLW. However, when the time actually came to introduce solid foods, my husband and I felt we wanted our son to consume more food than BLW at first allows, so we – like many others – came up with our own system based on what works FOR US. If I were to put our system into rules, they’d look like this:
- Baby is always given a chance to feed himself, even if it’s just a preloaded spoon or a couple of sticks of fruit alongside a puree.
- Baby will not be fed baby rice. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but I felt it was not a nutritious way of filling him up and I was concerned it would replace breastmilk which is much more calorific anyway and better for him.
- Breakfast and lunch are the main meals for BLW in our house.
- His evening meal is always a puree, as we want him to be well-fed this time of day and our own mealtimes/worktimes do not currently allow us to eat one family meal in time for his bed. In time this will change and he will share our main meal, but right now this works best for us.
- We will not wheedle or cajole him into eating more than he wants.
- He should be offered a variety of food as much as possible.
- When it’s practical for him to eat what we are eating, allergies allowing, he should do so.
- If I am eating or drinking a snack, even if unhealthy, he should be allowed to have a bite/sip if he wishes – alcoholic drinks excepted of course! This is to avoid setting up snack food as an unattainable holy grail of food. This only really works with me, as we share a restricted diet.
- We will not feel guilty if lunch some days consists of two rice crackers and the stub of a leftover banana…meals can’t always be Pinterest-worthy!
Starting the solid food journey is exciting but also scary! Your baby has only ever had to guzzle milk, and suddenly you’re faced with purees of differing textures to navigate, sticks of fruit that used to seem innocuous are suddenly rife with choking hazards and poisonous pips, and God forbid you should accidentally feed your child something containing the teensiest bit of honey! So be kind to yourself and other parents embarking on the weaning process – it can be fraught. As long as you act safely and with your little one’s best interests at heart, which we all do, your baby will be fine. At the end of it all, there is nothing quite like seeing a baby putting real food into his own little mouth and discovering the joy of it.