Saturday October 1st 2022

Baby-Led Weaning

Feeding your baby the “finger food” way

THE thought of weaning a young baby onto “grown-up” finger food instead of safe, sloppy purees would probably fill most moms with horror.

But fans of baby-led weaning (BLW) say allowing a six-month-old to feed herself pieces of food – instead of being spoon-fed blended vegetables or fruit  – has great benefits.

The nutrition style involves letting a baby self-feed when solids are introduced from six months onwards – this means no pureed, grated or mashed foods. A BLW baby, therefore, would receive a lightly-steamed carrot or large slice of ripe pear as a starter food, instead of the usual baby food jars or homemade puree.

A “new” approach to nutrition

A few decades ago, many parents were introducing solids from three to four months and traditionally fed their babies runny cereals, and vegetable or fruit purees.

But the recommended age for solids is now six months – a developmental phase when a baby’s digestive system has matured, she can sit with support, her fine motor skills have developed and she has better hand-eye coordination, which allows for self-feeding.

BLW was popularized by Gill Rapley, deputy programme director of UNICEF’s Baby Friendly Initiative and a former nurse, midwife and breastfeeding consultant.

She says babies who are offered a variety of nutritious finger foods more easily join family meals and probably won’t be as fussy about food while growing up. Rapley also argues that feeding problems often result from a child’s inability or unwillingness to eat “chewy” foods after being moved from purees to “second-stage” food containing lumps.

How does it work?

Rapley feels the method works best for breastfed babies, who already control their milk intake and so are used to being “in charge” of their nutrition.

Although no scientific evidence exists to suggest that bottle-fed babies cannot be baby-led weaned, it’s probably best to chat to your doctor or a health professional about this first. Bottle-feeders should also be given sips of water during and between mealtimes.

BLW is based on the following principles :

  • A variety of nutritious foods are offered – these are either cut into chip-shapes or are foods with a “handle”, such as broccoli florets, as baby needs to grip one end and chew on the other.
  • The shape of foods is important – young babies have not yet developed their pincer grip, meaning that they can only clasp food in their fists.
  • Obvious danger foods such as peanuts are not included.
  • The best foods to start with are soft fruits and vegetables. Hard veggies and other foods may be steamed until “al dente”  to soften them – but do not cook until they are mushy!
  • No salt, sugar or other condiments are added
  • Baby chooses what she wants from her plate; she may reject everything, eat a little of one food, or clear her plate. No spoonfuls of food – or encouragement from mom to take “just one more bite” – are advocated.
  • Milk feeds continue throughout the process and initially, very little solid food may actually be eaten.
  • After six months, experts also suggest foods such as toast soldiers and banana pieces (do not give a banana whole, but rather in pieces).
  • Some baby experts suggest giving some mashed food, as well as finger food, during weaning.

Is my baby ready?

It is very important that your baby be ready to self-feed before you try BLW. These are signs that she may be able to tackle finger foods :

  • She can sit upright
  • She seems interested in food and tries to grab yours
  • She is starting to develop her pincer grasp
  • There is an obvious willingness and ability to chew
  • The tongue-thrust reflex is lost (this normally occurs around six months). The reflex may force food into the back of baby’s throat, resulting in some chocking or gagging.
  • Ensuring that baby is developmentally ready dramatically reduces the risk of allergies, food intolerances and indigestion.
  • Special needs babies or those with a family history of allergies, food intolerances, digestive disturbances or born prematurely should first be given the all-clear by a health professional.

What about choking?

Experts say that BLW babies are less likely to choke, as they cannot move food from the front to the back of the mouth until they learn how to chew. Since a baby cannot chew until she is able to grasp objects and place them in her mouth, her general development keeps pace with her ability to master food objects.

Babies have a natural gagging or coughing action when food moves too far back in their mouths. Rapley says that this is quite common, isn’t dangerous and may be nature’s way of preventing choking.

Remember that food must not be placed in baby’s mouth. If she can’t pick it up and grasp it herself, she is not able to chew or swallow it yet.

Most importantly, never leave your baby unattended while she is eating.

“I think some older relatives thought I was a bit nuts!”

At 20 months old, Mikey Forbes happily eats chopped versions of his parents’ meals. He also relishes broccoli and easily devoured strips of turkey breast at the tender age of seven months.

Mom Meg, 31, says she came across baby-led weaning on the internet. “I didn’t fancy spending lots of time pureeing food, or buying lots of jars. I did research and was amazed to hear people talking about nine-month-olds eating mini sandwiches!”

Meg and husband Brendan started offering steamed vegetables to Mikey shortly after six months. Sweet potato cut into sticks or chips, green beans and broccoli florets were hits, while “whole pears were sucked to the core at an alarming rate!”

Meg says friends who didn’t practice it have struggled to move to the “lump” stage of baby food jars because their babies gagged on the lumps.

There are some negatives though. “Being a first-time mom, I was naturally terrified of Mikey choking and worried about how I’d deal with it. Fortunately, we’ve never had an incident.”

Some family members insisted on trying to feed him purees even when he was happily eating small bits of solid food, while doctors initially feared that, as a breastfed baby, Mikey wasn’t progressing onto solids fast enough. Later, they were “delighted” with his progress.

Meg is 12 weeks pregnant and plans on doing baby-led weaning with their second child as well.

“Baby-led weaning is actually not a new idea, but rather returns to the way babies have been introduced to solids for millennia,” she says. “This was before modern conveniences allowed for bulk pureeing of foods.

“Although seen as a gradual introduction to solids, rather than weaning as such, babies introduced to solids in this way tend to move onto eating adult foods faster than those started on purees.”

RESOURCES : – comprehensive introduction to baby-led weaning – the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers – summary of baby-led weaning methods

© Beth Cooper, 2010. First published in Your Baby magazine.