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Most people hear the term "Baby-Led Weaning" and automatically think of an infant giving up formula or breast milk at their own pace. That is actually "baby-led weaning," without the capital letters. Baby-Led Weaning, however, often abbreviated BLW, is the practice of adding complementary foods to a baby's diet and letting your baby feed themselves. No purees. No spoons. Just real food.
Weaning, not weaning
The term "Baby-Led Weaning" is credited to Gill Rapley, a British midwife and public health nurse who literally wrote the book on BLW. She studied infant developmental readiness for solids as part of her master's degree studies, during which time she coined the phrase. Being British, she meant "weaning" as in "to accustom an infant to food other than mother's milk," rather than the way Americans typically use weaning, referring to the withdrawal of something from someone. Rapley's BLW has nothing to do with intentionally ending breast milk or formula feeding — rather it's adding additional real food at the baby's pace.
In BLW you introduce finger-sized food to your child — food they can grasp and hold on their own — and let them explore the taste and texture as they like. BLW takes to heart the adage "food before one is just fun," allowing the child to be introduced to the same food that the parents are eating while still receiving the bulk of their nutrition from formula or breast milk. In BLW you allow your baby to essentially play with their food as they learn to manipulate it on their own, to self-regulate feeding, and they see for themselves what they like.
But won't they choke?
To understand why BLW works, you should understand a little bit about the biology of how infant oral motor control develops. Much like everything else developmentally, it all happens systematically. Babies can't walk before they can crawl — the muscles aren't developed yet. Eating works the same way. First, the tongue-thrust reflex goes — which is the reflex which causes babies to push things out of their mouth. That reflex exists as a safety mechanism, keeping objects out of the baby's mouth before they can chew and swallow. After the tongue-thrust reflex goes, they learn to grab things and bring them toward their mouth. Then they develop the ability to chew. Then they develop the ability to move things intentionally to the back of their mouth to swallow. Somewhere they became able to sit up unassisted, ensuring the food they swallow gets helped by gravity and heads down. All of these physical components of eating develop consecutively, ensuring survival of the child. If solids are introduced safely and your baby has shown signs of readiness for them, there is no reason why your child should choke as they explore.
Then why purees?
BLW was the typical way infants learned how to eat food until about the late-1800s. It was around that time mass distribution of cow's milk formula started. The initial formulas were not very nutritionally dense, so formula-fed babies required alternate means of supplementation at an early age. Breastfeeding was not well-supported, and mothers were often encouraged to supplement with foods early on. Regardless of how you fed your baby, you were told by medical professionals that what you were doing wasn't enough and that you needed to give your child more.
But as discussed, a baby's readiness for solids follows a very specific biological path. Just because a doctor said a baby needed food didn't mean the baby was physically capable of eating it. So to bridge the gap between when a baby could eat non-milk-based foods and when the doctor said they needed to eat them, purees were developed. Purees worked around the tongue-thrust issue, the grasp issue, the chewing issue and the sitting-up issue, with parents basically pouring the near-liquids down the child's throat.
Even though the recommendation now is to wait until six months to introduce foods other than formula or breast milk (when many children are biologically ready to being BLW), the puree habit persists as it has taken root in our modern culture.
Pros and cons
Proponents of BLW claim it instills better overall eating habits as your child learns to choose nutritious foods and develops appetite control by eating at their own pace. BLW children are said to have a more positive attitude toward eating in general, as their experiences are self-guided and start off fun. Feeding them is simpler, as you just modify food you are already preparing rather than making them something separate, and they are feeding themselves so you don't have to spend time feeding them. And it tends to be less expensive, as you aren't purchasing jarred purees or making your own.
Detractors from BLW tend to point to the mess, which is real but only an issue if you make it one. You have to be prepared for the possibility of gagging, which is normal but scary for some parents. Also, some people aren't comfortable with the strange looks you get from others when you hand your baby a hunk of real food to eat.
Before you start:
Before beginning you need to be sure your child is biologically ready for solids. Your child must exhibit the following readiness signs:
- Be able to sit without support.
- No longer pushes solid foods out of the front of the mouth (tongue-thrust reflex is gone).
- Can pick up food with their thumb and forefinger (has developed the Pincer Grasp)
- Shows interest in food and meal times.
^During BLW you should do the following:
- Allow your child to reject food — you can always offer it another time.
- Let them stop when they decide they are full.
- Don't rush them; let them eat at their own pace.
- Offer small sips of water or cupped breast milk.
- Offer softer foods at first. Harder foods may be cooked slightly to soften.
- No potential allergens. Just nutritious whole foods.
Tips!^And these tips can make BLW easier on you and your family:
- Know it will be messy. Babies love to throw things, and your child will most likely throw and drop food. If you go into it expecting a mess, it won't be so bothersome when it happens (and it will happen).
- Offer your child the same food you are eating, modified to their needs. For example, if you are having steak, mashed potatoes and broccoli, cut a finger-sized portion of steak for them, parboil a potato and cut it into wedges and give them a long-stemmed broccoli floret to gnaw on.
- Understand your child will likely consume very little of the food offered. BLW is more about learning taste and texture and exploring their abilities.