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Feeding babies has been through major changes in the last century: the introduction of the first formulas in the 1920s, the push for standardisation and bottle feeding in the 1950s, beginning weaning at three months in the 1960s, and now the more modern trend of continuing breastfeeding and waiting until six months before introducing solids. Each generation of new mothers has had to decide between the advice given to them by their own mums and that offered by their midwives, doctors and other health professionals, who often give conflicting advice themselves! Waiting until six months and introducing finger foods at this age are currently recommended in the UK, but this isn't full-on Baby-led Weaning.
Baby-led Weaning (BLW), developed by Gill Rapley, is one method for introducing solids, but it's only been around as a concept since the start of this millenium. This can lead to some very confused grandmothers, who are wondering where all the baby spoons and purées have got to. Rapley is a qualified Health Visitor but developed the technique gradually while weaning her three children.
What's the Concept?
The basic concept is simple: give babies normal food and allow them to feed themselves. Easy. The baby is in control of what goes into its mouth, both in terms of what it eats and how much of it. However, this can be something that worries a lot of mums and grandparents if they have come from a background of spoon-feeding. Giving up control and learning to trust your baby can be difficult if your own upbringing was quite controlled when it came to food1. People tend to be quite accepting of babies learning to crawl and walk in their own time, but eating is often seen as something different.
What Does It Look Like?
With spoon-feeding, it's likely that either the baby eats before or after the rest of the family, or the adult doing the feeding has to wait themselves. With BLW you can get everyone sat down together. Provided that the baby is securely strapped in the high chair and its food has cooled down enough, they can be left to their own devices (as long as they are being kept an eye on, of course). Mealtimes will have everyone eating together – but possibly with food on the floor and squished all over baby's tray, face and hands!
What's the Right Age?
The guidelines are that a baby should be able to sit with minimal support (which helps prevent choking), they should be able to reach out and grasp food themselves, and they should be able to keep food in their mouth2. Each baby is different, but unless they have other health conditions they will usually begin to do these things at between five and seven months. Parents of babies who were born premature or who have other health issues should always consult their doctors and health visitors in case there are difficulties. It can be hard to wait until this date as lots of mums still follow the old guidelines and begin the weaning process between four and six months, but these physical changes are important and starting BLW before this date is not a good idea. Babies who cannot sit upright unaided are more likely to choke, and if they can't reach out and grab food then they are unable to feed themselves anyway.
What About Nutrition?
The aim of BLW is not to replace milk feeds right away. Milk, whether breast or formula, will continue to be baby's main source of nutrients until they are usually at least a year old. In the early few months, babies will not actually swallow much, and of that, very little is actually digested. The aim of BLW is to introduce flavours and textures, and to develop eating skills, but not to actually eat in the initial months. This can be weird for someone if they fed their babies purée as the focus is on swallowing food. If you go for BLW you'll need to accept that you'll still be feeding from breast or bottle for a while longer yet!
Babies often start dropping milk feeds themselves at around nine months but this varies wildly from child to child. Milk feeds will gradually turn from their main source of food to one aspect of it. The parent's job is to make sure that the food being offered is of good nutritional value, so when a baby does start to drop feeds the food they are ingesting makes up for the loss of milk.
Why Do It?
Everyone has their own reasons, so here are some of them, in no particular order:
- It allows children to eat at the same time as everyone else and be part of family mealtimes.
- There is no pressure on the child to eat, which makes mealtimes fun for them. If they don't want to eat anything, that's OK, and doesn't give them the chance to use food as a rebellion tool.
- Some people find it easier to cook one meal for everyone than to have to prepare batches of purées in addition to cooking meals.
- Children eventually learn to regulate their eating around their appetites rather than eating everything they are given, regardless of whether they are hungry.
- Because they get to practice their motor skills from an earlier age, BLW makes for less messy toddlers (although it can get pretty messy in the early months while they are learning!)
- As the baby should be eating healthy meals, so will the rest of the family! Some mums find it's the kick they need to eat better themselves.
- Because a child will only eat and digest what they are ready to eat, you can give them almost anything3 as long as you keep an eye on them.
- It allows the feeding process to develop in time with their own growth – first grabbing and playing with food, then learning to chew it, then swallowing only when they are ready.
- BLW makes it easier to introduce many different flavours and textures4.
Foods to Avoid
There are certain foods to avoid for young children, whether they be spoon-fed or self-feeding, and the details can be found elsewhere. The main ones are salt, processed sugar, honey, certain large fish5, raw or undercooked eggs, high-fibre foods6 and whole nuts.
If you are doing BLW you also have to be aware that small foods such as grapes and blueberries can present a choking hazard, so chop them lengthways and always keep a close eye on the child. Make sure you remove any stones or pips too. Similarly, sausage skins and small meat and fish bones should always be removed. Very large bones are fine as long as there is no gristle.
Questions, Questions, Questions
People who haven't heard of BLW will often ask questions. They are usually well meaning, but can often leave you feeling defensive. The best thing you can do is make sure that you read up on BLW and are confident in your choice. For example, most grandparents think that solid foods will cause a baby to choke. This isn't true; feeding your baby in a reclined position, pushing food into their mouth and overriding their gag reflex, or giving them certain foods (as described earlier), increases the risk of choking. However, that is the myth, so you'll end up working out your own way of responding. If someone asks you a question and you don't know the answer, go and find out! That way you will know for sure that you are doing the right thing in your mind.
BLW isn't a magic bullet that will cure all children of being fussy eaters, or prevent obesity, or dramatically improve motor skills. On the other hand, traditional weaning won't either. At the end of the day, read up on both methods7 and go with your gut. Your baby will learn to eat one way or the other – babies are clever like that.