While it is generally accepted that the introduction of solid foods should begin around 6 months of age, there is renewed debate over how solid foods should first be offered. The conventional image of an infant opening her mouth wide for a spoon of rice cereal, pureed fruits or vegetables is giving way, at least in some circles, to an image of a baby feeding herself – with or without the spoon. What is this new method for introducing solid foods and why has it increased in popularity recently?
Baby-led weaning (BLW) is an approach to introducing food in which the baby is allowed to direct and control the process of eating solids foods from the very beginning. Parents decide what to feed and babies decide when, how, and how much they are going to eat.
But there are other key components of BLW as well:
Despite all that is known about this method of introducing solid foods, there isn’t consensus on what the actual definition of BLW is and parental perceptions differ: among parents who self-identify as using BLW with their own children, some will spoon-feed their child about 10% of time while others use a more strict definition and offer ONLY finger foods. What this means is that there isn’t a right or wrong way to engage this way of beginning solid foods.
There are several benefits to adopting BLW:
It shifts the focus from emphasizing the quantity of food consumed to experiencing and expanding the diet. The goal becomes introducing babies to a range of flavors and textures rather than ensuring that certain levels of various nutrients are consumed.
It makes introducing solid foods easier and less costly. Purees take time (to make) or money (to purchase pre-made) and require a lot more hands-on and one-on-one time which can be in short supply if, like me, you have two other kids running around the house requiring assistance. There is no need to make and serve two different meals! Allowing baby to take part in family meals helps to develop important social skills. It promotes autonomy – independence and self-governance – which, especially in later childhood and adolescence, has been linked with a range of positive outcomes. Giving control over eating back to baby – as opposed to mom or dad – has also been shown to result in lower levels of restriction, pressure to eat, monitoring, and concern over baby’s weight by parents, which are feeding styles associated with higher weight, fussiness, a lack of food acceptance, and even lowered nutrient intake.
Early exposure (before 10 months) to a variety of solid foods has also been associated with a reduction in “picky” eating. Exposure to a variety of tastes and flavors during complimentary feeding has also been associated with kids being more adventuresome and accepting of food.
The most common concerns around BLW focus on one of three areas: nutrition, choking, and suitability. Perhaps one of the greatest concerns of parents (and health professionals alike) is that their baby is getting adequate nutrition to meet his needs and weaning is a critical period when many children – especially globally – experience sharp rises in illness and malnutrition.
Nutritional concerns: Regardless of the feeding method used, solid food should be a supplement to, not substitution for, breast milk or formula which should remain the primary source of nutrition. Iron insufficiency tends to be of primary concern, but since BLW babies tend to be older and their gut bacteria more mature (than a 4 month old), iron-rich foods can be offered from the outset. To date, the small body of research on BLW has does not support these concerns.
Choking hazards: Although concerns of choking are common, the ability to chew develops before the ability to hold food at the back of the mouth for proper position for swallowing. Thus, what is most often experienced is gagging. With careful consideration of what is placed in front of baby, and with proper supervision, choking should not be of great concern. (You can learn more about common choking hazards, food and otherwise, here.)
Difficult transition: There are some babies and families for whom BLW may be might not be feasible or suitable. This could especially be the case for infants with developmental delays or for whom some other condition interferes with their ability to move food to their mouths, to chew, or to swallow. For others, the transition might just prove to be a difficult one. Although formula feeding by does not preclude adoption of the BLW approach, it may hinder the transition from bottle to table food. The reason is that formula does not offer the same variation in flavor that breast milk does, and it is these sensory properties (of breast milk) that are thought to facilitate the transition to solid foods and the modified adult diet.
If you’re interested in trying BLW, you’ll likely have the best luck if you wait until your child is 6 months old, showing signs of readiness, and continues to get breast milk or formula on demand between meal times. Just like needing practice chewing in order to become accomplished eaters, babies need frequent opportunities to practice feeding themselves to become proficient with this skill.
About the Author:
Kiyah J. Duffey, PhD is adjunct faculty in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise at Virginia Tech, President of Kiyah Duffey Consulting, Inc, a nutrition policy and research consulting group, and co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer at Kizingo, a company whose mission is to design and build products that promote healthy lifestyles among families and encourage independence among children. Kizingo’s award-winning flagship product is a toddler spoon, which is uniquely curved to easily fit into toddler's hands and work with the way they eat encourage successful self-feeding. She lives in Virginia with her husband and three children.
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