Tell us about the Baby-led Weaning approach
Baby-led weaning (BLW) is, quite simply, the most natural and logical way to help a baby move on to solid food. Babies begin to reach out towards things that interest them from a few months old; by about six months they can grab them fairly accurately and get them to their mouths. At this age they are also beginning to be able to bite and chew so, provided they have access to food, they will start to explore it with their hands and mouths – not because they are hungry but because they are curious. Gradually they’ll start to actually eat it, whenever they are ready.
How did your ideas for the approach begin?
I first became interested in the transition to solid foods in the 1980s, when I was working as a health visitor. During that time I met many parents who were struggling to spoon feed their baby of around six to eight months. The babies were either eating very little, being very picky about which foods they would eat, or refusing to be fed at all. In most cases, letting the baby feed him/herself solved the problem. It occurred to me that what the babies disliked was not the food itself but the business of being fed.
I began to advocate letting babies feed themselves, using their hands, from around six months. However, at that time, solid foods were generally introduced at around four months, when babies are too immature to chew, so the first foods had to be purees. When the minimum recommended age for solids changed to six months, the logical thing seemed to be to forget the puree stage altogether, and BLW was born!
How do I do baby-led weaning?
First, aim to let your baby share as many of your mealtimes as possible, even if she hasn’t yet begun to eat anything. This will give her the chance to join in the social side of eating and to watch what you do with food. Try to choose times when she isn’t hungry or tired, so she can concentrate on this new experience.
Once your baby can sit up with only very little support (i.e. she can stay balanced without needing to hold on), she is ready to start exploring food with her hands. Sit her in a high chair or on your lap and offer her some food to have a go with. It needs to be in pieces that are large enough to stick out of her fist and soft enough to be munched – for example, cooked sticks of carrot or strips of meat. As she gets more skilled, she will gradually be able to manage smaller pieces and different textures.
What should I expect?
Mess! As part of her learning, your baby will almost certainly drop/squash/smear quite a lot of food at first, so you might want to think about how to manage this. A large bib and rolled-up sleeves are a good idea, and a clean sheet of plastic under her chair will mean you can hand back food that falls down. Scheduling bath time for after she’s eaten is helpful too!
Your baby is unlikely to eat much food at first. Many babies don’t begin to eat measurable amounts of food until they are at least eight months, and some not until later still. This is fine, since milk feeds provide pretty much everything babies need during this time.
Are there any ‘rules’?
There aren’t really any rules to BLW but there are six important principles:
1. Trust your baby – she knows how much she needs and she will become more skilled with practice.
2. Share healthy food – cook from scratch as often as possible, avoiding salt and sugar.
3. Offer your baby food rather than giving it to her. Let her choose what to eat and in what order.
4. Let her play – it’s important for learning and skill development as well as being enjoyable.
5. Keep mealtimes safe – make sure your baby is sitting upright and avoid small, hard, foods such as nuts. Make sure your baby is the only person who puts food in her mouth.
6. Keep offering milk feeds on demand – your baby will decide when and how to reduce them.
Are parents concerned about choking? How can you reassure them?
Yes, parents are often concerned about choking – and grandparents often more so. We know that anyone can choke, and have had it ingrained in us that babies and children are at much greater risk. But it’s important to understand what it is that makes choking likely. The risk of choking is increased – for anyone – if:
· They are lying back;
· They are not in control of when something is put in their mouth or the size of the mouthful;
· They are having to deal with lumps and liquids at the same time;
· They are distracted while eating;
· They are eating small, hard pieces, especially round ones such as nuts.
Given this list, it isn’t really surprising that babies often struggle with lumpy ‘second stage’ baby foods. Self-feeding puts the baby in charge and this helps to keep him safe.
Choking isn’t common with BLW but gagging is, and the two can be confused. Gagging is a sort of retching movement, triggered when something gets a bit too far back in the mouth without being properly chewed. It’s a protective reflex and, provided the baby is sitting upright, the food will either fall out of her mouth or she will start to chew it again. Gagging is a bit alarming to watch but it doesn’t seem to worry babies – and it usually only happens frequently in the first week or two.
Baby-led weaning goes with a baby’s instincts rather than against them. As a result it makes eating more enjoyable for the baby and less stressful for parents. It allows babies to share the same food as the rest of the family (provided that food is healthy), so increasing that chances that they will enjoy a wide range of foods and be less picky as toddlers. It makes eating out easier, with no need to take separate food along for the baby – and, with no need to feed the baby, the parents get to eat their own food while it’s hot. It’s cheaper than buying baby food and a lot less time-consuming than making your own purees.
Is BLW suitable for all babies?
Baby-led weaning works for the vast majority of babies. However, babies who were born very prematurely, those who have an illness that makes a normal diet unsuitable for them, and those who have a condition that affects their ability either to use their hands to pick up food, or to bite, chew and swallow may need to have at least some meals fed to them, either temporarily or long term. This doesn’t mean, though, that they should never be given the chance to feed themselves. Every baby is an individual, who deserves the chance to be as independent as possible.
What do most parents say about BLW?
Parents have a lot to say about BLW. Here are some examples:
- “It’s made us all eat more healthily.”
- “It’s more or less what we did anyway – we just didn’t give it a name.”
- “It’s really messy at first but not for long – they quickly get the hang of it.”
- “Mealtimes are a joy – totally stress-free.”
- “The most difficult thing was learning to trust my baby.”
- “I wish I’d done it with my first child.”
- “It’s the best parenting decision I’ve ever made.”
Gill has co-authored (with Tracey Murkett) two books on baby-led weaning: Baby-led Weaning: Helping your baby to love good food and The Baby-led Weaning Cookbook, both published by Vermilion. For more information, visit www.rapleyweaning.com or www.baby-led.com.