Baby led weaning (also known as BLW) is a baby feeding method where you let your baby discover solid food by herself, by giving her suitable family foods that she can suck, chew and initially play with.
Your baby is encouraged to join in eating with you at family mealtimes. The idea is to offer your baby food rather than give it to her. At first your baby eats with her hands, moving on to cutlery later.
This is very different to the more traditional way of feeding your baby - called puree or spoon fed weaning, This is where you make special pureed mixes of fruit and vegetables, and meat and fish.
“The core principle of baby-led weaning is to introduce babies to solid food at their own pace," explains baby led weaning workshop leader Adele Stevenson.
"Instead of being spoon-fed, they’re encouraged to explore food with their own hands, discovering taste and texture and eating as much or as little as they want. It’s also a social experience, as babies join in with family mealtimes and eat the same foods as everyone else.”
"You don't need to encourage them, just put it in front of them," says MissusG in our forum. "Their natural reaction is to investigate things with their mouths. My daughter will pick the food up, put it in her mouth and most likely spit most of it back out. With time, she'll chew/gnaw bits off and learn to swallow."
"It took Kayla a while to get into it," says MM_OMG. "After about a week she decided to start chewing on things and eventually swallowing. We didn’t give her too many things and instead just replaced one that she had already chewed or dropped with a fresh piece when needed."
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What are the advantages of baby led weaning?
- BLW helps build your baby’s confidence and independence with food
- You don’t have to make special purees as babies eat the same as the rest of the family, as long as it’s cooked suitably
- Babies join in with family mealtimes from the start
- It can encourage chewing and hand-eye coordination skills
- Not enough long-term research has been done around BLW yet, but some evidence suggests that BLW may reduce fussy eating and childhood obesity
"When Jeannie was six months I gave her a roasted carrot stick to play with while we ate," says Moira, mum to Jeannie, now 10 months. "The next day it was evident that she’d eaten some of it because it was in her nappy."
"By around 9 months she was eating whatever we were having and enjoying three meals a day. We all sit together for meals, and I’ve never had to worry about packing bowls and spoons when we go out because I can just grab a sandwich."
What are the disadvantages of baby led weaning?
- Parents may worry about their babies gagging on solid food
- It’s very messy!
- As babies may play with rather than eat much of the food at the beginning, parents may worry their babies aren’t eating enough. Remember, they’re getting their main nutrients through milk at this early stage
"I think baby led weaning is actually harder work as you have to deal with food thrown around and mashed up," says smiling_fairie. "I have to admit I tend to feed Oliver with a spoon when I can, just because it's easier."
But won't my baby choke?
The one issue that many of us worry about with BLW is gagging or choking on solid food. "Gagging is very common with baby led weaning, as babies get used to chewing and swallowing," accepts Adele Stevenson. “But this is a reflex that actually helps your baby learn how to master these eating skills. Babies may cough and even vomit, but this helps them move food to the front of their mouth to prevent choking."
Adele is keen to point out that this is not the same as choking. "True choking, where the airway is blocked, is rare."
How to reduce the risk of choking
By taking care, BLW shouldn't increase the risk of choking, but you do have to watch your baby closely and follow some helpful guidelines:
- Make sure your baby is able to sit steadily, and sits upright when she's eating. Ensure she can use her hands and arms freely
- Cut fruit into little pieces, even small fruit such as grapes. Grapes are often a favourite food of babies, but are known to be a choking risk if not chopped up
- Never give your baby whole nuts
- Remove any stones or cores from fruit and veg
- Explain how baby-led weaning works to anyone caring for your baby
- Don't let anyone except your baby put food into her mouth
- Don't try to persuade her to eat more than she wants
- NEVER leave your baby alone with food
What if my baby doesn't seem to be eating much through BLW?
Some parents worry that BLW may initially lead to a limited diet. Health visitor Maggie Fisher thinks it depends on your baby. “If your baby can cope, it should be fine. Be guided by your baby. If you start with finger foods and progress on to soft lumps and your baby is okay, then carry on.”
To counter any worries about baby led weaning offering a more limited diet, make sure your baby’s meals offer a wide variety of food including:
- Steamed vegetables, such as carrot sticks and broccoli florets
- Chopped meats
- Dairy products
How many mums do baby led weaning?
When we asked 500 mums in a MadeForMums survey, just under 1 in 10 said they did BLW exclusively. However, a further third did a combination of finger foods and purees right from the beginning.
- 9% did baby led weaning exclusively
- 31% did a mix of finger foods and purees
- 60% did purees only
Is it OK to mix BLW with purees?
True BLW means that you don't puree any food, so you can't really mix the two. However, there is a third way - the Mix Method - which involves giving purees and then soft solid finger food right from the off. Successful weaning should be a relaxed experience, so go at your baby’s pace and do what you feel comfortable with. While some parents like to avoid purees completely, others prefer the freedom of mixing it up.
Does BLW work for all babies?
The short answer is not all babies or all parents suit BLW, but it can work for most. “Baby led weaning can work for almost all babies, as long as they have the physical ability to pick food up and get it in their mouth," explains baby led weaning advisor Adele Stevenson.
"Some will take longer to grasp the concept than others, and it may seem as if they’re eating very little initially, but almost all get there in time. If, however, your baby has any medical or physical needs or was born prematurely, speak to your GP or health visitor for advice about how best to wean.”
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