There is no single, right way to feed your baby. Despite what your mom friends, relatives and even your pediatrician say, the only right way to feed is whatever way leads to an enjoyable and trust-building relationship between you and your child. While my purpose here is to tell you about all the reasons I love baby-led weaning, I want to put it out there right away that if you are feeding in a way that is responsive to your baby’s needs then you are doing it right.
So, what exactly is baby-led weaning?
To sum it up, baby-led weaning (BLW) is the way your grandparents, great-grandparents and so on started eating food. BLW allows your baby to eat soft foods of the family by feeding herself. Yes, this means no need for pureed baby food or spoon-feeding rice cereal, rather your baby gets to do all the exploring and feeding on her own. So, you might be thinking, you’ve got to be joking! A baby can’t feed herself! Won’t she choke? Make a mess or get a nutrient deficiency?
And Yes, she will make a mess, there is no getting around that. But there are answers to these other concerns that may surprise you. the truth is that pureed baby foods didn’t become a thing in the United States until the 1920s with the advent of jarred, pureed baby foods for retail. The ease and convenience of these little jars and their contents changed the way we approached feeding babies, but there has been a recent movement to return to the way of old and allow babies to self-feed.
As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist working with parents and children with feeding challenges, I like to think of BLW as a way to prevent future feeding struggles. The most beautiful thing about BLW is its ability to cultivate a healthy feeding relationship from the get go. The most productive feeding relationship is one that follows a Division of Responsibility, a term coined by the marvelous Ellyn Satter MS, RD, LCSW, a Registered Dietitian, Family Therapist and a revolutionary in the work of how to best feed kids. The Division of Responsibility states that it is the responsibility of the parent to decide the what, when and where of feeding, and to trust their child to self-regulate and grow in a way that is right for her body. It is the responsibility of the child to decide whether and how much to eat.
It is simple but oftentimes profound in my work with parents who are struggling to get their kids to eat. I frequently see families in the depths of food struggles, bartering for one more bite or riddled with anxiety about the future health implications of their child’s limited diet. In these scenarios families need to return to their responsibility. If the parent does their job and lets their child do theirs then pressure and stress vanish and room for curiosity and pleasure with food emerge.
So yeah, BLW sets the stage for a healthy feeding relationship but that’s not to say it’s not going to be tough at times. You must sit on your hands while you let your baby make a mess, take her time with exploring and sometimes gag. Also, you will need to be thoughtful in the foods you serve to make sure your baby gets all the nutrition she needs, but the delight you will feel watching your little one’s pure joy and curiosity with feeding is worth it all.
Below you will find 5 essentials to doing BLW successfully and safely. I also highly recommend checking out one of a couple great books out there on the topic. My favorites are Born to Eat by Wendy Jo Petersen and Leslie Schilling and Baby-Led Weaning by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett.
Tips for Safety & Success with BLW
1. Start solids when your baby shows you she is ready. It is easy to get excited about starting solids. After all, it’s a joyous milestone in the life of your child; however, it can be frustrating and even dangerous to start feeding too early. Many babies begin showing signs of readiness around six months of age, but far more important than her age are these signs of readiness:
-She sits up independently.
-She brings toys and her hands to her mouth.
-She no longer thrusts her tongue.
-She can grasp items in her hands with increasing control.
-She shows interest in table food at meals.
2. Make certain foods are soft enough. Food consistency is critical in doing BLW safely. A great litmus test is to ask yourself, “If I had to chew this with my gums alone, could I do it?” You can also test the softness by squeezing the food between your fingers to determine if it’s easily mashed. Cut foods into a shape that will allow your baby to easily grasp the food for self-feeding. Examples of great foods to start with include avocado, scrambled eggs, mashed black beans, ripe strawberries and mango slices.
3. Thoughtfully combine foods for optimal nutrition. During the first year of life your baby has the highest energy needs of her life because she is growing so quickly. In the early months of feeding, food is mostly about developing oral-motor skills and getting exposure to new flavors and textures. For this reason, early feedings are often referred to as complementary feedings because they complement your baby’s diet of breastmilk or formula. However, by 8-10 months of life the amount of nutrition has significantly increased from food alone as your baby begins eating more foods. For this reason, it is important to offer the right combination of foods to meet your baby’s high nutrient needs.
It is particularly important to focus on foods that are good sources of iron combined with foods rich in vitamin C, which helps increase iron absorption, as well as high-energy foods to provide ample fuel for growth. So, at every meal, aim to offer a food rich in iron, vitamin C and energy. Below are a couple of examples of what your baby’s plate may look like:
-1 egg scrambled or hard-boiled and cut into slices (iron source), 2-3 slices of ripe avocado(high-energy) and 2-3 slices of red or orange pepper cut into finger shaped slices (vitamin C)
-Ground beef rolled into finger shaped patty for hand-gripping (iron source), 3-4 slices of soft, ripe strawberries (vitamin C), 1 oz shredded cheese (high-energy)
-1 soft, boiled chicken white or dark meat (iron source), green beans soft and cooked in olive oil (vitamin C and high-energy)
4. Know the difference between gagging and choking. The Research supports that a BLW approach does not result in choking with more frequency than traditional spoon feeding. For more on this see here. However, it’s critical for all parents to know the difference in choking and gagging so you can respond in the right way. Choking occurs when the airway is blocked which then obstructs oxygen from getting to the brain. If your baby is choking, she will not be able to make any noise and may be wide eyed with a scared expression. A choking baby may also turn white or blue.
Gagging, on the other hand, is the bodies protective response against choking. The gag reflex is further forward in a baby’s mouth as a protective mechanism against choking. If your baby is choking you will hear noise as the gag reflex turns on and she moves food around in her mouth.
All parents should be trained in infant CPR regardless of the feeding style you adopt. Child and infant CPR classes are offered frequently in prenatal classes or you can contact your local Red Cross.
5. Saying less is more. While it is natural to want to be your baby’s cheerleader at the dinner table, saying less is best. It is important that your baby get the opportunity to explore on her own without the influence of others. Refrain from trying to encourage her to “take one more bite” or “try this yummy vegetable.” These kinds of encouragement can be perceived as pressure and are likely not going to be effective. Additionally, it is best that your baby learns to trust her own preferences and fullness as this sets her up for trusting herself with food down the line. Also keep in mind that babies are going to make all sorts of animated faces while eating, but they don’t correlate with not liking a food.
Hopefully these tips get you on your way to developing a healthy feeding relationship between you and your baby. This is an exciting time in the life of your child and an opportunity to let your baby learn about the joy that food can bring.
This blog was written by the wonderful, Andrea O’Donnell, RDN, LDN. Andrea is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Individual and Family Connection in Chicago. She is passionate about helping families and individuals cultivate a healthy relationship with food and body. She can be reached at Andrea@IFCcounseling.com.