Baby Led Weaning 101
It’s time to start thinking about introducing solid foods to your baby, and you may have heard about Baby Led Weaning and wondered if it was the right way to go. We talked to some experts and got the scoop on what it is, how it works, and why you might want to try it.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively until your baby is 6 months old. Once you reach that milestone, it’s time to start introducing new foods, and supplementing the baby’s diet of breastmilk or formula.
Instead of feeding your baby traditional purees from a spoon or a pouch, some parents have opted to follow “Baby Led Weaning” strategies in which you can choose to let her feed herself, once she has met a few developmental milestones.
Proponents of Baby Led Weaning feel this can lead to an easier transition to table foods, and may possibly lead to healthier eating habits in the long run. This approach to feeding can also mean less work for Moms and Dads at mealtime as they are not making homemade baby purees.
We spoke to a Registered Dietitian and a couple of New Moms to find out everything you need to know about Baby Led Weaning.
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What is Baby Led Weaning?
Baby Led Weaning is the process of introducing solid foods to a baby by letting them hold and eat the food themselves. It’s part of the overall process of weaning a baby off breastmilk or formula, and it’s seen as an alternative to having Mom or Dad spoon feed their baby all their food.
Baby Led Weaning is a relatively new approach, and has been growing in acceptance within the last several years in the US. There are those who feel this way of feeding a baby comes as a response to the baby-food industry not adapting to the needs of their consumers, especially for those parents wanting to feed their baby organic, fresh foods that offer a variety of textures and flavors.
Baby Led Weaning means letting your baby taste and try many different kinds of foods, and therefore also experience a variety of textures. Instead of simply serving smooth purees, like traditional baby food, the BLW method means you’ll serve your baby soft chunks of food sometimes, or even longer strips of food they can hold and suck on.
Another key aspect of Baby Led Weaning is making a clear distinction between what Mom and Dad are in charge of and what the Baby is in charge of. Mom and Dad decide what, where and when a meal is served, and Baby gets to decide how much they’ll eat of each type of food they are served.
A Hybrid Approach – Blending Old and New
Many parents who choose to use this approach will employ a hybrid way of feeding their baby – meaning they will make an effort to use Baby Led Weaning techniques as well as offer purees from a spoon to develop the proper motor development skills, offer the most diverse array of textures, and ensure that their baby is getting the right amount of the right foods and nutrients during this critical window of development. As with anything regarding parenting, we have found there needs to be a balance. Life with a baby can be busy and even the best laid plans sometimes go awry.
“Our job as parents is to offer our babies the most varied and nutritious food we can,” says Katie Thomson, Nutritionist, co-founder and CEO of Square Baby. “Research has shown that 4-7 months is a critical window for palate development since babies are more likely to accept new flavors and textures in these early months of feeding.” She founded Square Baby as a way to help parents do just that: feed their baby a balanced, varied and complete diet – and inspire healthy eaters for life.
Square Baby developed the “Square Meal System” which offers 100% of baby’s daily recommended servings of veggies, fruit, whole grains, and protein – customized to your baby’s age, stage, and dietary needs with vegan, vegetarian, and animal protein options. They are also leaders in food allergy prevention with their comprehensive Allergen Introduction Menu – making it super easy to offer the Top 8 Allergens through meals like Peanut Pumpkin Pie, Almond Butter & Banana, and Salmon Mash.
Their purees are made fresh and delivered frozen – just like homemade. And their purees are designed for palate development – offering a range of smooth to chunky textures, herbs and spices, and an array of organic produce, meats, eggs, sprouted grains & seeds, and healthy fats.
Katie talked about the reality of life for busy families today and that it’s important to find an approach that works for you and your family, rather than worry about what works for others.
“As parents, we’re all doing the best we can for our families. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all of the recommendations, and parents shouldn’t feel like they need to pick a side in this debate.” Instead, she recommends talking to your pediatrician and focusing on your baby’s cues and readiness for whole foods. Make sure that they are not just offered, but consuming the critical nutrients like iron, Vitamin D, choline, and DHA Omega-3’s in these early months of feeding. And help them get a variety of foods for palate development and early allergen introduction.
“Purees can be really helpful in offering a variety of balanced meals and getting the nutritious foods into your babe. And Baby Led Weaning can be a great way to offer an experience with whole foods that also fosters healthy habits and a good relationship with food. I find a mixture of both is perfect. Use various textured purees for practice with a spoon! And get creative by offering purees as a dip, sauce, or yogurt alternative. Or serve as a smoothie, popsicle, or parfait layer! There are so many options that include offering a variety of purees and BLW techniques.”
What are the Benefits of Baby Led Weaning?
Proponents of Baby Led Weaning feel there are many benefits to this approach to feeding your baby.
- Babies will learn to love food – and lots of kinds of food
- The baby’s meal becomes integrated into the main family meal, ideally sitting around a table
- There’s no need to prepare a separate meal for the baby; which is a time-saver
- Babies learn motor development skills, like hand-eye coordination
- Weaning the baby off breastmilk or formula becomes easier, and many Moms tell us this makes life easier for them
- It gives babies more agency over their food and what they eat
One Mom we spoke with really liked the way it made mealtimes easier for her. “I wanted to be able to feed my baby the food I was already making for the rest of the family. I was not about to make separate baby food, and I didn’t want to buy the little jars. So this method really worked for me.”
What Age Can I start Baby-Led Weaning?
Babies as young as 4-6 months old can begin Baby Led Weaning, but the real determining factor is the baby’s ability to sit up on their own and grasp things in their hands. But even if your baby can’t grasp a spoon yet, they can probably still touch or hold their food on their own, so they may be able to start. The right age to start will depend on each baby’s development and your own readiness to begin.
How will I know if my Baby is Ready for Baby-led Weaning?
According to Katie Thomson of Square Baby, developing the proper motor development and feeding skills is critical. Up until starting solids, they’ve been getting milk or formula by sucking from a nipple. The act of putting food into their mouths, then moving it to the back of the mouth, is all new. Whether they take a puree from a spoon or take a whole chunk of food and learn to chew and swallow, these are motor development skills that all babies need to learn at some point in the process.
Once your baby can sit up by themselves, the next step would be to start trying to get them to grasp things. Once your baby can pick up a puff, or a spoon, that may be a sign they’re ready to start. Sit them in their highchair and put some food on the tray. See what happens. Will some end up in his hair or all over his face? No question. But that’s how he’ll learn.
A note about mess. Messes are going to happen when you start feeding a baby, no matter what method you use. Get used to the idea. Putting down a splat mat under the baby’s chair is one good way to keep the mess to a minimum, but be prepared for some no matter what. And sometimes a lot!
How to Start Baby Led Weaning?
You can start with purees at first, but instead of you holding the spoon, let your baby do it, to help them get practice doing it. Or just let your baby have pureed food all over their hands and bring those to their mouths. It’s all part of the learning process. Gradually, over the next couple of months, you’ll introduce soft foods in bigger chunks, or pieces of soft fruit you’ve crushed between your fingers. You’ll eventually begin to offer foods cut into strips they can hold, like meat, breads, even a chicken leg!
One Mom we spoke to had a cool trick of using what she called “loaded spoons.” You fill one baby spoon with the food on baby’s tray and hand it to her, then you load up a couple more and set them on the tray for her to pick up when she’s ready.
This Mom also had a tip about keeping the mess off the floor: She places what she called a “No Thank-You Bowl” on the baby’s tray, and has taught her daughter to place things in there that she doesn't want to eat, rather than throw them on the floor. We like that!
Can Babies Choke During Baby Led Weaning?
In general, because babies don’t have teeth yet, many of the larger pieces of food you give them can be safe for them to have in their mouths; they will only be able to suck on them, and there won't be chunks of food entering their mouths that could become choking hazards.
A note about caution and safety, however. Certainly there are objects and pieces of food that can be choking hazards for babies, and they are to be avoided. If you choose to try Baby Led Weaning, you’ll need to be mindful of the portions and sizes of the foods you give your baby. For example, if you wanted to feed your baby something the size and shape of a grape or blueberry, you’d need to crush it first, or do something so it would no longer be round.
One of the techniques some parents use during this process is to teach their baby to cough, which is one of the ways to help dislodge any food when choking. Mom and Dad can teach their child by pretending to cough, and getting their child to imitate them.
Adult supervision during mealtime is also important, as is the rule that no one is to put food in the baby’s mouth except the baby. As at any time during your baby’s life, it’s important to keep choking hazards away from them, and to take all precautions.
A study in the American Academy of Pediatrics from October 2016 concluded that babies who were being fed with Baby-Led Weaning were no more likely to choke than babies being fed in traditional ways.
Do we Need Special Gear for Baby Led Weaning?
Part of the idea of Baby Led Weaning is to make mealtime a family affair. That being said, your baby will not be pulling up a chair at the table with you yet, so you’ll need a highchair for sure, at least for a few months. Of course you’ll need spoons, bowls, and cups, and a few other items, too. We’ve made a comprehensive list of the Essential Gear you'll need for feeding your baby, so check that out.
While all this may sound overwhelming, remember that feeding your baby nutritious food is the goal here, and whatever way you choose to do that is up to you. Now that you know more about Baby Led Weaning, do you think you’ll try it out? Let us know.