Here, you can find lots of information and help on how to start with the Baby Led Weaning method, what it is, what equipment you might need, foods to avoid and how to introduce allergens. I hope you get all your answers and can't wait for your comments or questions.
What Is Baby-Led Weaning
Baby Led Weaning or BLW for short, is a way to introduce solids to your baby by letting him feed himself from the start rather than the parent or carer feeding him with a spoon. In this method, you let your baby lead the way. He is in control of what to eat, how much to eat and when to eat.
Baby-led Weaning is interesting and fun for both parents and babies. It's amazing how quickly they learn to handle different foods and react to different textures and flavors and how much BLW helps them with other skills too. Babies are happier cause they are doing things for themselves, and parents are happier cause they can enjoy mealtime all together.
Baby-Led Weaning vs Spoon-feeding
Most parents are familiar with the spoon-feeding method, cause this is what we learned from our parents and what we've seen other people do. Parents feel safer with this method. The food is puréed and offered to a baby with a spoon, then he sometimes opens his mouth to take the food or pushes the spoon away and refuses to eat, making the parent stressed and resorting to 'games' and 'funny faces' to force the baby to open his mouth.
On the other hand, Baby Led Weaning encourages the baby to feed himself when he is ready and to explore the food and new tastes by simply grabbing a piece of food and bringing it to his mouth on his own. The baby might put the food in his mouth and chew it, might swallow a little bit, and will definitely throw some on the floor, but all this is part of a learning curve to master the feeding process.
|Kitchen equipment is needed to blend the food and store it in the freezer.
|Parents need to feed the baby before or during mealtime and then feed themselves.
|Baby is introduced to pieces of food from the start.
|Baby goes through different stages of pureed, mashed and lumpy food before having pieces quite often after he's 1 year old.
|Baby is in control of how much and what to eat.
|Baby is offered pureed food with a mix of ingredients all blended and often force-fed until he finishes it all.
|No special equipment is needed to prepare the food.
|Kitchen equipment is needed to blend the food and often store it in the freezer.
|It's easier when travelling, on holidays or out and about.
|You need extra preparation and equipment for travelling and holidays.
|Food needs to be prepared in a certain way to reduce the risk of choking.
|Food is pureed which minimizes the risk of choking.
|Helps the baby to improve hand coordination by handling the food with his little hands and to improve oral skills by working on the tongue muscles.
|Baby is offered food by spoon discouraging independent thought or action.
|It's messy. The baby can end up with food all over his face and hair. The floor can get very dirty.
|The baby ends up relatively clean at the end of his meal as the parent controls the spoon and cleans the baby after each bite.
When To Start BLW
Whether you follow the Baby-Led Weaning method or spoon-feeding, the recommended age for starting solid foods according to WHO and the American Academy of Pediatrics is 6 months old. On top of that, the baby should
- Be able to sit up with little or no support.
- Be able to control his head and neck.
- Grab things and bring them to his mouth.
For the first couple of months, you will notice that your baby is not eating much. It's more about learning different foods and textures and developing the ability to chew and swallow. This is not something you should worry about. Babies are born with stores of nutrients from all the time they spent in the womb and milk, breastmilk or formula, is the baby's main source of nutrients until his first birthday, ensuring that those stores remain full. So from 6 months onwards, your baby gets the chance to work on those skills he needs to start eating solids, so he is ready when food gets to be his main source of nutrients.
No Teeth Myth
Let's set things straight! Babies don't need teeth to start solids. My eldest actually didn't get her first tooth until she was 14 months old, and she was able to handle all sorts of food, even meat!
There is this deception that babies can't have pieces of food and can't chew if they don't have any teeth, so parents resort to spoon-feeding until then. The baby's gums are so strong that they can easily bite and chew food without the need for any teeth. I'm not saying that you can start giving your baby raw carrots, food still needs to be soft to handle but more about this later on.
Gagging vs Choking
Very often parents confuse gagging with choking. Gagging is a mechanism that all babies and adults have in order to push food away from their airways if it's too big to be swallowed. The difference is that babies have this reflex much further forward on their tongue, whereas for older kids and adults, it is triggered near the back of the tongue. Think of it like nature is making sure that the babies don't choke easily.
So when you see your baby gagging on food and making sounds, it usually means that he is trying to get a piece of food he can't handle out and very rarely is a danger of choking. If this happens, it's tempting to put your finger in your baby's mouth to remove that piece, but this can only make things worse and push the food further back. If your baby is sitting upright, then that piece will eventually fall out.
On the other hand, choking happens when the airway is fully or partially blocked. Choking is usually more silent, the baby won't be able to cry and breathe, resulting in the baby's color starting to look quite often blue. This is a rare occasion and can happen even with spoon-fed babies. I always recommend whichever way you decide to introduce solids to your baby to take a choking first-aid class.
What Equipment Do I Need
You don't really need much equipment to start Baby-Led Weaning. You can simply start by putting the baby on your lap during meal times and letting him have some of your food. The things I do find useful though after trying BLW with my two kids and I can highly recommend them to you are
- A highchair that is easy to clean: Baby-led weaning can get very messy. Food escaping the baby's hands or being thrown all over, sticky & dirty little hands touching the chair etc. So make sure the chair that you choose is easy to wipe and clean.
- A couple of silicon bibs with a pocket: I love these little bibs as they are easy to clean, and they also catch any food that might escape their little mouth. The first couple of months, I had to put the food back on the tray myself but as my little one grew he could simply grab it himself from the pocket and eat it.
- A waterproof splat mat for under the chair (optional): I find this one useful if you have a carpet in your dining or feeding area. Babies tend to drop things on the floor A LOT, sometimes as a game or often if they are simply not interested anymore. Alternatively, you could use a plastic bin bag to save some money or some newspaper sheets.
- An open water cup: The variety of water cups for babies out there is endless. I like open water cups to keep with the philosophy of BLW and allow the baby to learn how to tilt the cup and sip. I do have a sippy cup though for when we go out.
- Cutlery: You won't need any forks and spoons, at least to start with. Later on, you could use a little spoon, preload it and place it on the table for your baby to grab and eat. Babies usually begin to grasp the concept of using cutlery after 9 months old.
- Plates & Bowls: Again, there are so many options out there for bowls and plates to use. I recommend starting with using either the highchair's tray, as long as it's easy to remove and wash after, or a plate with a good suction. Babies are small but quite strong, and believe me, they will try to remove that plate. The last thing you want is to end up with the plate and all the food on the floor, but accidents do happen!
How To Start BLW
Many parents get discouraged when their baby refuses to eat or shows no interest, but let me tell you that this is very common. Not all babies show the same interest at the start. In the first days or even weeks, you want to make sure that your baby is rested and not very hungry when you sit down to have food. Otherwise, you will end up with a fussy baby that will start throwing food on the floor or start crying because simply he wants to sleep or he wants his milk, the only known source of food for him so far. After all, solid food is more about experimenting with textures and tastes at this stage rather than filling their little tummy. So continue to offer milk to your baby on demand and when there is a time that he is happy and suits both of you, get started:
- Make sure your baby's hands are clean, as he will be using them to manage his food.
- Put him in his high chair, making sure he's sitting upright and not leaning back.
- Start with one meal a day, breakfast or lunch, according to your schedule.
- Put his bib on and place a little bit of food on his tray or a plate in front of him.
- Don't offer too much food at the start as your baby is unlikely to eat much.
- Join your baby while he's eating. Babies love to copy what we are doing. If you have any older children, then sit down together for mealtime.
- Do not intervene! I know it's hard to resist when you see him struggling to pick up a piece of food or when he puts that piece of broccoli the wrong way in his mouth. He will get there and it's all a learning curve.
- Offer food that is cut the right way for his age and cooked well enough (more here).
- Even if your baby rejects some food, offer it again after a few days. It can take up to 15 times for a baby to accept a new food or texture.
- Make sure any cooked food has cooled right down before offering it to your baby.
- Never leave your baby alone while he is eating.
Foods To Avoid
According to WHO, AAP and NHS, babies can have any food from 6 months, but there are some foods and ingredients you will need to avoid when preparing food for your baby:
- honey: Honey can cause a serious illness in babies, called botulism and must be avoided before the first birthday.
- choking hazard food: Avoid giving your baby hard food that can increase the risk of choking, like whole nuts, popcorn, raw carrots or apples. Small round fruits and vegetables like grapes and cherry tomatoes must be cut in half lengthwise. Make sure you have removed all the bones when offering fish or meat.
- salt: The baby's kidneys are not fully developed, so if you constantly exceed the daily amount of salt/sodium allowed, then that might have long-term health complications. Babies can have up to 1g of salt a day, and that can be easily reached if they have some bread and cheese during the day.
- sugar: same as with salt, sugar is already added to many foods. Avoid adding any extra sugar when preparing your baby's meal and always check the labels before buying a product.
- cow's milk: babies must have breastmilk or formula for their first year, as it has all the nutrients they need. Cow's milk can be used as an ingredient when preparing some recipes, but it should never replace as a drink the nutrient rich breastmilk or formula milk.
- Unpasteurized cheese: These types of cheese should be avoided as there is a higher risk that they might carry a bacteria called listeria.
- Shark, swordfish and marlin: Do not give your baby shark, swordfish or marlin. The amount of mercury in these fish can affect the development of a baby's nervous system.
How to Introduce Allergens
You don't have to wait to introduce high-allergy foods after your baby's first birthday. Actually, the current recommendation is to do it as early as possible. According to NHS page and AAP, evidence has shown that delaying the introduction of peanut and hen's eggs beyond 6 to 12 months may increase the risk of developing an allergy to these foods.
Even if there isn't a history of food allergies in your family, I believe it's a good idea to introduce high-risk allergy foods carefully. We have no food allergies in my family and my eldest had 6 food allergies when she was a baby. If you happen to identify a food allergy or you are not certain, seek medical advice from a professional to guide you.
What I recommend is, introducing the high-allergy foods one at a time with a gap of 2-3 days between foods. Some allergies can show immediately and for others, it might take a day or two to show. Here are the most common allergens
- Dairy: This is also known as CMPA, cow's milk protein allergy and it's very common in babies. Although it's called cow's milk allergy it can occur with dairy food from other animals like goats and sheep.
- Eggs: Another very common allergy. Many babies actually react to the egg white and are fine with the egg yolk so you could potentially introduce them separately.
- Nuts: The most common nut allergy is to peanuts but other nuts can also cause an allergic reaction.
- Wheat: That includes pasta, bread, cereal and many more, so remember to check the food labels.
- Fish: There are many different types of fish and your baby might react with one type but be ok with another.
- Seafood: like shrimps, mussels and others. Same as with fish, your baby might react to all of them or to one specific.
- Seeds: The most common allergen in this category is sesame seeds.
- Soy: For babies with cow's milk protein allergy, it's very common to have a soy allergy too as the two proteins are very similar.
It's worth mentioning that most babies outgrow their food allergies by the age of 3. So if your baby reacts to some foods, seek medical advice to come up with a plan moving forward. As I mentioned before, my eldest had 6 different food allergies and she outgrew all of them by 2.
How To Prepare Food
The nice thing with baby-led weaning is that you don't have to make any special food for your baby, spending hours in the kitchen preparing all sorts of different meals. The entire family can enjoy the same food as long as you follow some principles and don't include any of the foods listed above.
6-8 Months Old
At this stage, your baby will try to grab a piece of food with his whole hand and bring it close to his mouth. Sometimes successfully, sometimes dropping it halfway there. He hasn't developed yet the pincer grasp, the ability to grab a small object using his thumb and index finger, so you should offer the food in bigger chunks or sticks.
For vegetables, like carrots, potatoes, and zucchini, you could cut them in sticks about your index finger size. Then veggies like broccoli or cauliflower can be offered in little florets that are easy to hold with their little fingers. Make sure they are cooked enough, so he's able to gnaw them but not mash them with his little fist.
For fruits, remove the skin as it is too hard and might get stuck on the top of his mouth. Then cut them at finger size, similar to the vegetables. For watermelon and melon, you could cut them in little triangles, leaving the skin on, so they are easier to hold. For round fruits like grapes and blueberries, cut them in half. Hard fruits like apples are better steamed to soften up.
For meat, make sure it's tender enough to chew especially if they don't have any teeth yet. You could offer some chicken cut into long strips or the whole drumstick and he can hold it from the bone. He might not eat much to start but even sucking it and getting some of the juice helps him get some nutrients. You could also mix some ground meat and vegetables and make patties that are easy to hold and the rest of the family will definitely enjoy!
For fish and seafood, make sure you have removed any shells and bones before offering. I find that seafood can be quite chewy sometimes, so one way you could offer it is chopped coarsely and mixed with a sauce on top of pasta or by mixing it with veggies and making patties.
For dairy, make sure you choose cheese that is low in sodium (salt) like mozzarella, emmental, or ricotta cheese. Greek yogurt is thick enough to stay on the spoon while your baby tries to bring it to his mouth, and most importantly doesn't contain any added sugar.
For beans and lentils, you could offer them as a soup mixed with veggies or make patties like falafels. For the soup, you could offer it in preloaded spoons, or in a cup or you could toast some bread, cut it into strips, dip it in the soup and offer it to your baby.
8-10 Months Old
Your baby is starting to eat more and getting better at biting and chewing. You might start noticing a decline in his milk feeds and that is perfectly normal. You just keep offering on-demand like before.
Remember to offer a variety of food to have a balanced diet. Every meal should include some type of protein and iron-rich food, as it's important for your baby's development.
Now that your baby is starting to master his pincer grasp, you will notice that he is able to pick smaller pieces of food. That little piece of carrot that escaped his mouth, he's now able to pick it up and put it in his mouth.
10-12 Months Old
Your baby by now is probably a confident eater, having 3 meals a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner. He enjoys eating food with the whole family and he has tried lots of different flavors and textures.
As you are getting closer to his first birthday and depending on your baby's appetite, you could start offering some snacks at home or when you are out. Whether homemade or store-bought snacks, remember that babies do not need salt or sugar.