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Baby led weaning – what is it exactly?

Updated: Apr 26, 2022

For those of you who haven’t heard of baby led weaning (BLW), it describes the process of introducing complementary foods in a way that gives your baby more control of the situation. Effectively they self-feed as opposed to a parent spoon-feeding them. Soft whole finger foods are offered instead of the traditional purée from a spoon.


Developmentally, babies aren’t ready to use this approach until they are at least 6 months old, so if you do start solids earlier than this you will need to use the spoon-feeding method first. BLW is not necessarily better than the traditional spoon-feeding approach and vice-versa. Most people will use a combination of the two, utilising principles from each method.


Research is very limited on the BLW approach but the research that has been done has shown that it may not provide adequate amounts of iron and zinc to your baby. Intakes of vitamin B12 and C, as well as calcium may also be lower compared to those babies who are fed a puréed diet (1). Energy intake in younger infants (aged 6-9 months) has been shown to be lower than in those who are solely spoon-fed, however by the age of 12 months energy intake becomes similar between the two approaches (2). This is because not much food makes it down the hatch with BLW in the beginning. Most of the food usually ends up on their face, the bib, the highchair and the floor!


Whilst these seem to be negative points, there are many positive aspects to BLW. It provides a real sensory experience for your baby in terms of touch, taste, sight and smell. There is also some evidence to show that it can lead to beneficial mealtime behaviours. Children who were weaned using the BLW approach showed higher satiety responsiveness and slower eating in one Canadian study (3). Satiety responsiveness is a baby’s ability to stop eating once they are full. Adults are notoriously bad at this. This response often gets overridden in childhood. Most of us will remember our parents saying ‘eat all of that food on your plate’ or ‘eat your dinner or you won’t get dessert’, which would inevitably make us eat all of the food, even though we were full. Once a child stops listening to these fullness cues it is very hard to re-teach them this skill. Forcing babies and children to overeat or finish their meals can contribute to bad habits, fussiness and poor health outcomes such as obesity further on in life. We want to preserve their ability to eat intuitively, i.e. to recognise when they are hungry and when they are not, so that they take this skill with them into adulthood.


Another positive aspect of BLW is that it helps children develop their fine motor skills. The Canadian study mentioned above also showed that children who were weaned using a BLW approach had slightly better fine motor skills and pincer grip ability (3). Another survey found food fussiness was reduced significantly in those children whose parents used the BLW approach (4).


There is often talk about choking when BLW is mentioned. The reality is that a child can choke on any food. The key is in reducing the risk that this will happen by providing soft shapes and textures to start with. Most vegetables can be steamed until they are very soft e.g. carrot, pumpkin, kumara, potato. Cut them into thin rectangular pieces that your baby can pick up and grasp. Meats such as chicken and fish can be poached so they are soft. Take skins off and slice against the grain into strips that baby can chew and suck on. Mince is a great food for babies to explore, as is avocado. Mesh feeders are great for foods such as steak, berries and other fruit that may pose choking risks.


Whilst people may think BLW is about your baby feeding themselves with their hands, it is also about them learning to use a spoon. Offer a spoon with each meal and show them how to use it. They will enjoy this just as much as using their hands and they usually pick it up quite quickly (that doesn’t mean the food always makes it from the bowl to their mouth though!).


The good news is that you don’t have to use just one method. Using both approaches, i.e. BLW and traditional spoon-feeding, is a really great way to give your baby the best of both worlds. Try both these approaches and see what works for your little one. For example, you can offer puréed pumpkin from a spoon but also have soft, steamed sticks of pumpkin for your baby to have a go at. You’ll soon work out what approach works best for you and your baby. Babies are all very individual and unique and what some like, others don’t.



References:


1. Morison, B. J., Taylor, R. W., Haszard, J. J., Schramm, C. J., Williams Erickson, L., Fangupo, L. J., Fleming, E. A., Luciano, A., & Heath, A.-L. M. (2016). How different are baby-led weaning and conventional complementary feeding? A cross-sectional study of infants aged 6–8 months. BMJ Open, 6(5), e010665-e010665. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2015-010665


2. Rowan, H., Lee, M., & Brown, A. (2022). Estimated energy and nutrient intake for infants following baby‐led and traditional weaning approaches. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 35(2), 325-336. https://doi.org/10.1111/jhn.12981


3. Campeau, M., Philippe, S., Martini, R., & Fontaine‐Bisson, B. (2021). The baby‐led weaning method: A focus on mealtime behaviours, food acceptance and fine motor skills. Nutrition bulletin, 46(4), 476-485. https://doi.org/10.1111/nbu.12532


4. Fu, X., Conlon, C. A., Haszard, J. J., Beck, K. L., von Hurst, P. R., Taylor, R. W., & Heath, A.-L. M. (2018). Food fussiness and early feeding characteristics of infants following Baby-Led Weaning and traditional spoon-feeding in New Zealand: An internet survey. Appetite, 130, 110-116. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2018.07.033


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