What is Baby Led Weaning? What are the benefits?

Does baby led weaning work and is it right for your child?

I wanted to write this post as baby led weaning is something we did ourselves with our little one.

Although I sometimes found the experience a little scary (there’s a lot of gagging going on at the beginning), it’s a weaning method I would now recommend as we have a little boy who is confident feeding himself.

He eats a wide variety of foods and doesn’t seem too fussy (the only thing he hasn’t seemed to like so far were my homemade falafels – I don’t know why, I liked them)

And he has developed great fine motor skills from all the pinching and grasping of his food.

For this post I’m going to:

  • Explain what baby led weaning is
  • Share our experience of baby led weaning
  • Look at the research into baby led weaning – how it compares to the more traditional view on weaning.
  • And find out what the possible benefits and disadvantages are.

So then…

What is baby led weaning?

According to Sellen and Smay (2001), weaning is the process whereby a child moves from a diet of only breastmilk to a diet completely comprised of solid foods, with the period in between called complementary feeding (where the child eats both solid food or purees and breastmilk).

Traditionally, the weaning method advised to most mothers in western countries was to spoon feed their babies a selection of pureed foods and baby rices (starting at around 4 months) for a time before moving on to mashed foods then solids.

The World Health Organisation now suggests to start spoon feeding your baby directly at 6 months and gradually increase the consistency and type of food you feed them.

Baby led weaning, a term coined by Gill Rapley, is an alternative form of weaning whereby you skip the pureed foods part and go straight to solid finger foods at around 6 months.

It has a focus on the child feeding themselves with the family all sitting down together to eat healthy meals that have been prepared so that they are suitable for everyone.

The move to solid foods rather than pureed at six months seems to be backed up by a recent report in which the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recommended breastfeeding exclusively up to the age of 6 months.

After which, parents should introduce a wide variety of solid foods, alongside breastfeeding, with varied textures and flavours.

In the recent paper Baby-led weaning: Where are we now?, Rapley states that baby led weaning ‘is an overarching approach to the transition from milk feeding to family meals that recognises and respects the infant’s instincts, abilities and desire for autonomy.’

This autonomy means that the child has the ability to listen to what their own appetite is telling them and decide what and how much they’d like to eat.

Rapley goes on to write that baby led weaning allows the child to start eating foods when they are developmentally ready, for example, when they are able to sit upright and pick up things and move them to their mouth.

Research has shown that it is normal for a baby to be able to do perform these actions at around 6 months old.

Baby led weaning encourages exploration of food and can incorporate a period of time (could be as long as a few weeks) where the child is just allowed to feel and play with the food before actually eating it.

This handling of food may allow the child to have an idea of how the food will behave when they actually do put it in their mouth.

Experiencing different flavours is also an important part of baby led weaning. The child is encouraged to try a wide variety of different foods and this along with repeated tastings of food has been found to increase children’s development of food preference.

Milk feeding is meant to run alongside baby led weaning and it should be up to the child when they decide they want feeds and when they are ready to reduce the number of feeds they are having.

what is baby led weaning

Our Experience of Baby Led Weaning

Our experience with baby led weaning started with my little sister. She had a baby about 3 years ago now and followed the baby led weaning method with her. She reported really positive things and now my little niece is a really good and non-fussy eater.

After listening to her explain how great she found it and watching my niece eating so confidently and independently we decided to give it a go when our little one (who was born just over a year ago now) was ready.

This was when he was just under 6 months.

He took to it straight away. There wasn’t a ‘playing around with the food’ period for us. He shoved it in!

At first I found the whole thing pretty scary. He still seemed so small and here he was sitting upright in his highchair on his own, cramming carefully cut pieces of solid food into his mouth. And there was a lot of gagging at the beginning. A lot! He would go completely silent and a bit red and it seemed like he stopped breathing for a few seconds before ‘bleugh’, he brought the food that he was struggling with back up into his mouth to have another go at.

There was also a fair amount of coughing but we’d read that this was OK as it meant that air was able to pass through his throat and it was just another way that he used to help move the food from his throat.

I was surprised at how good he was at picking up food and moving it into his mouth – for a baby that is (he wasn’t as good as me and I let him know that often). When you think about it there are a lot of skills involved.

He needed to have good spatial awareness to be able to know where the food was in relation to himself.

He needed to have reasonable hand eye coordination and gross motor skills to be able to move his arm in the correct way and fine motor skills to grasp the food and pick it up.

He was a bit shaky at times and his movements were nowhere near as deliberate and focused as they are now but then he has had a lot of practise since then.

As frightening as I found his initial encounters with food, he soon got the hang of it and the frequency of the gagging incidences reduced (it’s very, very rare these days). He ate a lot of different foods, basically whatever we were having – made with no salt/sugar and cut so that he could pick it up and not choke on it.

I guess because he was introduced to lots of different foods early he will eat almost anything (except the falafels I mentioned earlier!). We never have an issue getting him into his high chair and when we put food in front of him he rarely ever rejects it.

He will let us know when he’s had enough by throwing his food on the floor though…

I really believe baby led weaning has helped with his fine motor skills – although I don’t have anything to compare it to – but when we took him to nursery for the first time they commented on how good he was at feeding himself and they always report back that he’s eaten all his meals.

He’s only just one and has been able to feed himself with a spoon for a while now although his fingers are still his preferred tool of choice. All that practise has got to have helped.

Looking back now, I would regard our baby led weaning experience so far as a positive one, both for us and him. I love that we can all eat the same thing (it saves us time not having to make purees and presumably money) and that we all sit down together to do it. I can sit down next to him and apart from keeping his tray stocked and offering him water every now and again I can leave him to it and enjoy my own meal.

One thing I would comment on though is the mess. I don’t know how it compares to traditional weaning but I’d guess that as you have more control with that and are feeding your child with a spoon it has to be worse. We bought a sheet to go under his high chair (a dog would have been better) and this has reduced the amount of mopping but we still need to get the dustpan and brush out after every meal.

My own anecdotal observations aside, let’s look at the research and see what the professionals think.

What are the benefits?

so then, what is baby led weaning
  • According to Rapley, baby led weaning allows the child to decide when to begin eating foods and what to eat – providing you offer them a selection of healthy foods.
  • And it allows them to control how quickly they eat and how much they decide to consume at a sitting.
  • Rapley also argues that it gives the child the independence to control the pace at which they expand their diet and give up milk feeding.
  • Children were found to be less fussy eaters than traditional weaners. This was reported in a 2017 study of 206 women that were recruited during late pregnancy in New Zealand. They found that the children of parents using baby led weaning showed better attitudes towards food at 12 and 24 months than that of  the control group. So it could make mealtimes less stressful!
  • Baby led weaning involves the inclusion of the child in family mealtimes, where food that is suitable for the infant to eat is made available to all. This means you will have a great opportunity to model correct eating behaviour such as chewing (our boy really watched us as we very exaggeratingly chewed our food).
  • It has been found that children who see others eating certain foods are more likely to eat it themselves. So if everyone is eating at the same time and they see you eating lots of fruit and veg they are more likely to try it as well.
  • As you’re all eating the same food you only have to cook one meal – just make sure its healthy and prepared correctly for everyone.
  • Two separate studies, one conducted in 2012, the other in 2013, reported that baby led weaning children were able to understand when they were full a lot easier compared to those following other weaning methods. They also suggested that baby led weaning led to healthier weight gain in children that were less likely to become obese. However, a more recent 2017 study found no significant difference in body weight when compared to a control group.
  • Better understanding of their gag reflex. A gag reflex is important as it allows babies to bring back up food that is too large for their throats and allows them to chew it some more or swallow a smaller amount. Rapley wrote that after the gag reflex is triggered a few times the baby will learn not to try and swallow pieces that are too large for them. She also says that a baby’s gag reflex becomes less effective as they get older so starting them when they are younger on solid foods will take advantage of it.  A 2016 paper supports this as they found that children following baby led weaning gagged more at 6 months than a control group but reported less incidences of gagging at 8 months.
  • As I mentioned above I believe it’s helped with his fine motor skills – he’s had a lot more practise than he would have otherwise but I can’t find any research to back this up.
  • Baby led weaning may reduce food avoidance behaviour in children and encourage exploration of foods and a willingness to eat. A 2016 study found that ‘looking, touching and licking of food were more common during self-feeding, whereas behaviours such as pushing the food away, occurred more often during spoon feeding’.
  • Levels of anxiety about weaning and feeding have been found to be lower in mothers who adopted a BLW approach.
  • Most mothers questioned in this study reported a positive, relatively stress-free experience with baby led weaning and said it freed up more time as they didn’t have to spoon feed the baby but instead could eat their meals alongside them.

What are the disadvantages?

  • If the child is not developmentally ready to pick up and eat solid foods themselves (ie. they don’t have the motor skills necessary to pick up the food and move it to their mouth) then there is the potential that they may not eat enough and therefore not be taking on the amount of nutrients they need to develop correctly. A 2011 study wrote that baby led weaning ‘could lead to nutritional problems for infants who are relatively developmentally delayed’.
  • If the children are just eating the same food as their parents they may not be getting all the nutrients they need. They especially need plenty of iron as stated in the SACN report. One study has found that baby led weaning children appeared to consume less iron, zinc and vitamin B.
  • They may also be getting too much of something they shouldn’t be having, especially if they are eating foods that are too high in salt or sugar. It has been found that a high intake of sodium in young children can have a harmful effect on the developing kidneys and lead to high blood pressure in later life. A 2016 paper reported that that baby led weaning children consumed more fat than those following traditional weaning.
  • Many healthcare professionals questioned in this study, were worried that a 6 month old would not be good enough at feeding itself to keep up with its dietary needs and rate of growth. This same worry was also reported by some parents in this paper.
  • If the pieces of food are not correctly cut and prepared (we did a lot of thin strips of things) then they may be a choking hazard. However, a 2016 paper found that as long as parents were educated on choking risks there was no significant difference in instances of choking between babies following baby led weaning and that of a control group. Choking, along with iron deficiency, was noted as one of the main concerns of healthcare professionals.
  • Although you could argue that baby led weaning, under different names, has been going on for a long time now, it has only been in the last 15 years or so that it has garnered a substantial following and worldwide recognition. As such, research into it and specifically the long term effects is very limited and any potential problems may not yet be known.
  • As baby led weaning relies on giving your child almost entirely solid food they may miss out on experiencing other softer textures such as purees.
  • As you are eating a lot of the same foods as your child your diet may change to include less salt and sugar. Now I suppose this should be a benefit but I really like salt, tasty, tasty salt, and some sugar’s not too bad now and then either. I guess our diet has changed a bit but only really in the ingredients we use (less salt in the cooking etc. but the meals stay the same), and a 2012 study found that there wasn’t a large change to the parent’s diets they questioned.
  • If you’re all going to eat together you may have to start having your meal times earlier.
  • It’s messy! I’m not going to lie – the floor around our boy’s high chair after a meal looks like the aftermath of the world food fighting championship – covered in dropped or discarded food with sauce splatted up walls and covering his face and hands.

What can you do now?

If you do decide to go ahead with baby led weaning this is the book we used, its written by and based on Rapley’s research and was useful in getting to understand the process.

There is also now a plethora of resources online and plenty of healthy, high-iron, low-salt, low-sugar recipes available (I may share some of our favourites in future post – who knows?).

We also found Facebook a great resource as there are lots of weaning groups (probably one based in or around your area) where you can speak to people who have actually done it/are doing it at the moment. We found these were full of great advice and recipes.

It’s ultimately up to you as a parent to decide what to do. Only do what you feel comfortable with – I can recommend it as a weaning method but understand that it isn’t for everyone. If you have concerns I advise doing lots of research and speaking to a professional about which weaning method is right for you (I am definitely not a professional).

I will say though, as it can be a scary process, one of the things that made me more confident with baby led weaning was, due to my job in a school, that I had a first aid training.

I think it’s great to have first aid knowledge regardless of which weaning method you try as it really could help your child one day but, honestly, those first few feeds were a bit hairy and knowing that I knew what to do if he did choke gave me piece of mind.

I hope you found this post useful/interesting – if you did please share, subscribe and please comment if you have any feedback or questions. I’d love to hear your experiences with baby led weaning.

Lets nurture those neurons!

References and further reading

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