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Baby Led Weaning: An Alternative Approach to Starting Solids

Our first food attempt at 6 months - clearly Callum was not impressed!

Before kiddo was born, I thought I’d make my own baby food; I even got one of the cute little food making kits as a gift.  But the closer we got to starting solids, the more I started reconsidering how we would introduce Callum to the world of food.  Somewhere along the way, I stumbled on some information about Baby Led Weaning (BLW; also known as Baby Led Solids).  It was only a blurb describing BLW as skipping purees and going to straight to table food, but it was enough to make me search for more information.

BLW appealed to me for several reasons.  It seemed like a more interesting way for kiddo to encounter new foods and to learn to eat.  It was also easier in that we didn’t have to purchase or prepare purees (although we did modify what we were eating a bit in the beginning).  Most importantly, it seemed like the most natural way to start the weaning process.   Starting solids is the beginning of the weaning process, even if one hopes to breastfed well into toddlerhood, as it marks the transition from breastmilk as the sole source of nutrition to incorporating a healthy range of solid foods.  BLW is called baby led because baby really does get to set the pace as far as when and how much solid food gets eaten.  Of course, one can also be sensitive to a baby’s cues while feeding purees.  For us, though, BLW was a better fit with our overall baby feeding philosophy.

Our second attempt with steamed carrot went much better!

Here are some things to consider as you make a decision about whether BLW is a fit for your family (drawn from my reading on the subject – see the resource list below):

  • When should we start solids? The AAP currently recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months (note: this recommendation comes from the AAP Breastfeeding committee.  The AAP nutrition committee still recommends 4-6 months as the age for beginning solids).  There are several arguments for delaying solids until 6 months; helpful info can be found here.  Obviously, all babies will develop readiness for solids at different paces.   If you choose to do BLW however, it is important that baby be able to sit well unassisted – if baby can’t support himself sitting up, he won’t be able to safely handle and swallow foods.
  • What about cereal? Most of us probably had rice cereal as our first “food” so it’s natural that we’d think this is a must do.  There’s nothing wrong with giving cereal if you choose.  But keep in mind that rice cereal has little or no nutritional value (or taste!).   There are other healthier (and tastier) cereal options – oatmeal and barely cereals for example – but these are still simply optional.   It’s ok to skip cereals if you choose!
  • What about vitamins and important nutrients like iron? If you are breastfeeding, baby will still get all the vitamins he needs from breastmilk.  It is true that by 6 months babies have mostly used up their iron stores they are born with (one reason why some feel cereal fortified with iron is a must).  But it is also true that the iron in breastmilk is far more readily absorbed by baby than iron from other sources.  If you are a formula feeder, formula is fortified with iron so extra isn’t necessary.  Making smart choices about what foods to feed baby also take care of his iron needs.
  • What’s the point of starting solids?That may seem like a silly question – to teach baby to eat, right?!  Maybe the better question is how do you want to go about teaching baby to eat solids?   Purees were developed when it was believed that babies needed to start solids much earlier in life and were incapable of handling solid food.  If you wait until 6 months when baby can grasp and bite food, you could skip spoon feeding and let baby go ahead and explore finger food.  If you choose to do purees, you are teaching eating in two steps – first swallowing and then later handling and chewing food when you begin finger foods.  Neither method is “right” as different parents will have different takes on what makes the most sense for them.

    Roasted sweet potato was a big hit; this was a few weeks in.
  • But how will he eat enough if he’s feeding himself? It’s important to remember that solids are simply for practice in the beginning.  They should not begin to replace breastmilk until much later.   Early solids aren’t so much about nutrition as they are about learning about the different tastes and textures of food.
  • Won’t he choke?This is probably the number one concern of parents considering this approach.   It’s no more likely (and some might argue less so) that your child will choke doing BLW than any other method of introducing solids.  A few things to remember:
    • The gag reflex is our natural protection against choking.  At 6 months, the gag reflex is further forward in the mouth than it is at 1.  That means a 1 year old could get something further back in his mouth before gagging kicks in than a 6 month old.  If gagging happens when the item is still forward in the mouth, it is far less likely to cause choking.    BLW proponents would argue that you’ll have more gagging (and a greater risk of choking) if you delay the introduction of finger foods.
    • Gagging does not equal choking.  Gagging babies make lots of noise and spit the offending item out.  Choking babies are silent.  So while gagging can be unsettling, it is actually a good thing.
    • Gagging is a natural part of learning to eat – all babies will gag some when they first encounter food whether it’s a puree or a solid.
    • When babies have control over the food going in their mouth, they are less likely to gag and choke.  Think about what happens when someone else places food in your mouth (or think about having the dentist poke around in your mouth vs brushing your own teeth) – which is more likely to cause you to gag?
    • All parents should take a course in CPR, regardless of how they introduce solids.
    • Foods that are choking hazards should not be used in BLW (see below).
  • How can he chew with no teeth? Babies chew with their gums (ever stuck a finger in a toothless baby’s mouth?).  Obviously, you will need to delay the introduction of some foods until baby has teeth but you’ll be surprised at what he can handle.
  • Is BLW all or nothing? Nope!  Many parents find that a combination of purees and BLW works best for their family.  What’s most important is that your child gets an opportunity to explore food and that you make meal time enjoyable.
Around 7 months we introduced a spoon (with thick yogurt and mashed banana). Note Oscar dog in the background stalking!

As I mentioned, these are primarily based on my own research into BLW; I’d encourage you to explore further if you think you might want to take this route to solids.  Some resources to check out:

  • Gill Rapley’s book – Baby-led Weaning – is a good place to start.  You can also find some basic info on her website.
  • babyledweaning.com is another helpful site that also has a forum where you can chat with other parents going the BLW way.
  • WholesomeBabyFood is actually geared towards those who want to make their own purees, but it has lots of helpful info on starting solids in general.
  • KellyMom also has some info worth a read if you are breastfeeding and wondering how to best incorporate solids into your nursing relationship.

I’d like to end with some practical tips based on our experience with BLW:

    • Get a good high chair that’s easy to clean. We went with the Svan High Chair because I wanted something wooden and small.  I also liked that it converts to a toddler chair and a youth chair.  We used the tray at first, but now kiddo sits right up at the table with us.  I’ve also heard good things about the Ikea high chair.
    • Enjoy meals as a family. I’m convinced that one reason Callum is a good eater is because we’ve always eaten with him.  This has meant that we’ve moved dinner time earlier than it used to be and breakfast is a much more involved affair than it once was.  But babies and toddlers learn best by example – they want to do what we are doing and eat what we are eating.  Family dinners in particular have been a nice way for us to all reconnect at the end of the day.
    • Don’t be afraid to let baby try “non-kid” things.In the beginning we did stick with giving Callum more basic foods; after the first month or two, we started giving him whatever we were eating for the most part.  He’s had spicy Indian curry, fancy sauces, and plain ‘ole veggies – and has tried everything because he wanted to be like us!  He hasn’t loved them all, but he has tried them.  And you might be surprised at what your kiddo ends up loving.

      By 9 months, Callum was an old pro with small bits.
    • Be prepared for a mess. Learning to eat is a messy business – let it be!  I’m a strong believer that if you are uptight about your kid making a mess while he learns to eat, you are going to create negative associations for him with eating.  Food will be spilled; food will be smeared; food will be thrown!  As Callum has gotten older, we have taught him to use an extra plate or bowl for his “unwanted” items.  Of course, he still likes to feed the dogs (but they do clean up spills so I can’t complain).  If you have a dog, do watch out for foods that are dangerous for dogs like raisins, grapes, and avocados.  You might consider putting newspaper, a sheet, or shower curtain down on the floor if you don’t want to clean up spills – or take dinner outside for very messy things.  Invest in several full body bibs as well – trust me, you’ll be glad you did!
Not a baby anymore! Enjoying some curry around 14 months.
  • Offer different shapes, colors, and textures and a variety of foods. One big advantage of BLW is that kids get to see what food really looks and feels like right from the start.  Even when they aren’t really eating much, they are still learning just from handling food.  Some BLWers will still observe the 1 food every few days rule.  We didn’t as Callum was older and we have no history of allergies.  We did choose to wait on things like eggs and peanut butter until we got the ok from our pediatrician (who was on board with BLW by the way).
  • Start with big pieces and move smaller. 6 month olds haven’t mastered the pincer grasp needed to pick up small bites of food.  Instead offer finger shaped chunks that they can hold in their fist and bite off of.  Don’t worry, baby will quickly figure out what the right sized bite is.  You can go ahead and offer smaller food items as well – beans are good to start with.  Callum picked up the pincer grasp very quickly and I’m sure it had something to do with being offered small food items.
  • Avoid obvious choking hazards. Raw carrots, raw apples, nuts, and things with hard seeds or pits are big ones to avoid.  You can shred carrot or apple (or cook them).  Also, while it’s not exactly high risk for choking, un-toasted bread is hard for little ones as it turns to gummy mush in their mouths!
  • Remember it may be a while before anything gets down the hatch.We started offering food (for 1 meal a day) right at 6 months.  It was several weeks before I started seeing “evidence” on the other end that food had been swallowed (and don’t be alarmed by the appearance of the “evidence” – it takes time for babies to learn to chew fully and digest things!).
  • Take solids slowly. Once we felt like dinner was going well, we started adding in food at other times of the day.  Some days Callum ate a lot; others not much at all.  But he was still nursing well so we trusted that he knew what he needed – and apparently he did as he continued to grow.  Another advantage of BLW is that children learn from the start how to read their hunger cues.  We don’t eat the same amount every day so we shouldn’t expect baby too either.
  • Finally, our early favorite foods: Roasted sweet potato “fries”, roasted butternut squash chunks, black beans, green beans, and steamed carrots

Did you do BLW with your child?  We’d love to hear your tips!  Also, feel free to leave us questions if you are just getting started.  Happy meal times!

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Published in Breastfeeding Food