Weaning Part III: Baby Led Weaning

This post is part of a series of posts on breastfeeding and weaning. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this series and would love to hear your thoughts on it. You can find the other posts in the series here:

Weaning Part I: When to Start Solids Weaning Part II: Baby's First Food Weaning Part IV: Allergies and Foods to Avoid Weaning Part V: When to Stop Breastfeeding

When I started doing research on weaning I assumed I would give my baby “baby food” meaning purees and mashes. I thought that I would make the “best” baby food choice by making my own baby food, but I never even thought about the fact that purees and mashes weren’t the only option. There is another option and it’s generally called Baby Led Weaning.

Baby Led Weaning is a method of introducing solid foods that skips the purees and mashes and instead starts with soft finger foods. Instead of making airplane noises and “flying” a spoonful of purees and mashes into your baby’s mouth, you simple offer them small amounts of appropriate foods and allow them to feed themselves. Basically, they are continuing to get their nutritional needs met through breast milk, but are offered age appropriate finger foods that they are then allowed to explore and eat at will.

The goal is not to force the child to eat enough to get all of their nutritional needs met, the goal is that they begin to explore and discover different tastes and textures in a safe environment that empowers them to set their own pace for starting solid food.

Baby Led Weaning might not be the best approach with a baby that is younger than six months old. But if you follow the World Health Organization’s recommendation and wait until the baby is at least six months old before introducing solids then a baby led weaning approach can work very well.

There are a few stated benefits to this approach. “This approach allows infants a sense of control over their consumption, which can eliminate feeding battles and help prevent fussy eating habits.” It is also suppose to provide other benefits, “such as faster pincer grip control, increased sensory and motor development, [and] better control of the gag reflex.”

The first time I heard about this concept it just made sense to me. I know it probably isn’t the right approach for everyone, but it felt right for our family. I don’t want meal times to be a battle with my children. I want them to enjoy a wide variety of foods. I want them to have a good sense of when they are hungry and when they are not and to be able to control their own consumption. It makes sense to me that if I make eating a fun and freeing experience from the beginning then my baby will be more likely to enjoy the experience and have a positive attitude towards food.

Some concerns with this method:

  • It’s messy. No doubt about it, this method of introducing solids will produce a big mess. When we first gave Thaddeus some egg yolk I swear the whole thing ended up on the floor, and what wasn’t on the floor was all over his hands, face, and clothing. But, personally the mess hasn’t bothered me all that much. I think I would be far more stressed by trying to get him to eat from a spoon as much as I thought he “should” eat, then I am by sitting with him and letting him explore and then cleaning up afterwards. The whole baby led approach actually feels very relaxed to me.
  • The other concern people have and it was my biggest concern at first too is the risk of choking. Using good common sense, like never leaving a baby unattended while eating, and making sure that the baby is sitting upright while eating, helps to minimize the risk of choking. Gill Rapley, one of the pioneers of this method, says this about choking:

“Many parents worry about babies choking. However, there is good reason to believe that babies are at less risk of choking if they are in control of what goes into their mouth than if they are spoon fed. This is because babies are not capable of intentionally moving food to the back of their throats until after they have developed the ability to chew. And they do not develop the ability to chew until after they have developed the ability to reach out and grab things. The ability to pick up very small things develops later still. Thus, a very young baby cannot easily put himself at risk because he cannot get small pieces of food into his mouth. Spoon feeding, by contrast, encourages the baby to suck the food straight to the back of his mouth, potentially making choking more likely.

It appears that a baby's general development keeps pace with the development of his ability to manage food in his mouth, and to digest it. A baby who is struggling to get food into his mouth is probably not quite ready to eat it. It is important to resist the temptation to 'help' the baby in these circumstances since his own developmental abilities are what ensure that the transition to solid foods takes place at the right pace for him, while keeping the risk of choking to a minimum.”

Of course, just because a young baby hasn’t fully developed the ability to pick up small pieces of food and isn’t likely to choke on them yet, doesn’t mean that accidents don’t still happen. Choking is a concern with young babies, whether it’s choking on small toys or food, and it’s always advisable to keep a close eye on young children while they are playing and/or eating. But, with good supervision the evidence seems to suggest that baby led weaning does not lead to any more incidences of choking then spoon feeding purees and mashes.

So, our plan is to relax about introducing solid foods. Take it slow, allow Thaddeus to set his own pace. We will slowly start to provide him with healthy age-appropriate food options and then allow him to play and eat as he desires. So, far I’ve really liked this method and feel like it has been a very calm and natural way to introduce solids.

Has anyone else tried a baby led approach to weaning? If so, what was your experience with it?

Rejoicing in the journey - Bethany Stedman