By Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett
Most people take it for granted that when a baby starts on solid food he will be spoon fed baby rice or mush, one taste at a time, in a schedule decided by his parents. And although most parents hope their child will turn out to be a 'good eater,' the reality is often very different.
The path to relaxed and healthy family meals turns out to be far more difficult than it should be for many families. Mealtime battles, food phobias and fussy eating are just some of the things that parents can face when they start to introduce their little ones to solid food. Many children end up with a limited diet – often based on soft, processed foods – and childhood obesity is on the rise.
In response, a growing number of parents are rejecting the conventions of spoon feeding, turning instead to an approach called baby-led weaning (BLW), which is fast gaining a reputation as a better way to establish long-term healthy attitudes to food in children.
Weaning is used in its fullest sense here – the gradual move away from a milk-only diet, starting with the baby’s first taste of solid food through to the last breast or formula feeding, and taking anything from six months to several years. With baby-led weaning there’s no hurry, and no spoon feeding or baby food. Instead, this is what happens:
- Babies are allowed to join in with nutritious family meals and feed themselves 'real' food with their fingers as soon as they are ready.
- They choose what to eat, how much and how quickly.
- There is no pressure for the baby to eat a set amount of food or any particular food group – the emphasis is on allowing him to explore and discover a range of healthy food in his own time.
- The baby sets the pace for progress with solid foods and decides how quickly he cuts down his milk feedings.
The result is a slower and more enjoyable transition than has been the case for many babies in the past, avoiding many of the common mealtime challenges faced by families, and with potentially healthier outcomes for the infant.
How Does Baby-Led Weaning Work?
Baby-led weaning is based on how babies develop in their first year. It starts when the baby shows signs of being ready to pick up food. This is usually at around six months of age, when he is able to sit upright with little or no support and reach out accurately to grab things with his hands. At this age, most objects get taken to the mouth automatically, as part of the baby's exploratory play – baby-led weaning extends this natural curiosity to the discovery of food.
Research shows that around six months is also the age that babies' gastrointestinal and immune systems become able to cope with food other than breastmilk or formula, and their ability to move things around their mouth is mature enough to deal with non-liquids. This is why it's the age recommended by the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics as the optimum time for solids to begin.
However, the research so far has focused almost exclusively on when to introduce solids, rather than how. Baby-led weaning questions the common assumptions about how babies should be fed.
Spoon feeding babies of six months and older mashed or pureed food has no research to support it. It's simply left over from when solid foods were given to babies when they were much younger, before they were really ready. Spoon feeding is unnecessary for healthy babies of six months – they are able to feed themselves.
The physiological readiness of babies for solid foods coincides with their developing abilities to take food to their mouths and begin to chew. If they have the opportunity, many babies will show their parents they are ready simply by helping themselves to food from someone's plate.The benefits of allowing a child to follow their instincts for this important part of development may be considerable.
The potential advantages include:
- Healthy food choices – babies are allowed to explore the tastes, textures and smells of nutritious family food, rather than the blandness and combined flavours associated with baby foods. Some research suggests children who have done BLW as babies make healthier food choices. Most parents report that BLW babies are adventurous, non-fussy eaters.
- Less obesity – babies are allowed to eat according to their appetite. They can stop eating when they are no longer hungry and are not encouraged to eat more quickly than they want to, have 'one more spoonful' or 'make a clean plate'. Many non-BLW babies have their natural appetite recognition overridden and are encouraged to eat more than they need from the earliest age. Research suggests lower BMI in children age 2-6 years who have done BLW.
- Natural jaw development – babies experience a range of textures from the start, allowing chewing skills to develop naturally. This may facilitate speech development and help to reduce the need for orthodontic treatment later. And, because food that requires chewing spends longer being mixed with saliva in the mouth, BLW may promote enhanced digestion.
- Improved hand-eye coordination and dexterity – BLW babies have lots of practice exploring different shapes and textures in food, learning how to grip them and get them to their mouth, and later how to manage silverware.
- Confidence and enjoyment at mealtimes – No pressure to eat means no mealtime battles, making eating as a family more relaxed and enjoyable. Shared mealtimes also allow babies to copy siblings and parents, learning to share and take turns, and developing social skills.
Baby's First Foods
Baby-led weaning revolves around shared mealtimes, where the whole family eats food that is nutritious, safe, and – as far as possible – free from added salt, sugar, chemicals, and other extras unsuitable for infants. Because the digestive tract of a six-month-old is ready for solid foods, there is no need to restrict the baby to one new food at a time. Almost any healthy family food is suitable, although the way it is presented may need to be adapted so that the baby can handle it easily in the early days. The exceptions are the same as for spoon feeding and include honey, raw eggs, and types of fish that may contain high levels of mercury. Any foods linked to a family history of allergy should be introduced under the guidance of a physician.
Only very small amounts of solid food are needed at first – mainly to supply additional iron and zinc – and it will usually be several weeks before there is any noticeable change to the baby's appetite for his milk feedings. This allows the baby's gut to adjust at a natural pace and ensures that milk feedings are not cut back too soon.
All babies are different, but most babies will not need significant amounts of solid food until they are around nine months. This means that babies naturally develop the ability to feed themselves with these foods before they begin to need them – and they are skilled at eating a range of foods by the time this need kicks in.
How to do Baby-Led Weaning:
- Choose a time when the baby is not tired or hungry. The baby doesn't yet know solid food can fill his tummy – his appetite is still satisfied by the breast or bottle. Food will be just an exciting new toy at first, and he won't be able to relax or concentrate on exploring it if he is tired or hungry.
- Sit the baby up to the table with everyone else. He can be either in a high chair or on an adult's lap – supported, if necessary, so that he can use his hands and arms freely. Make sure he is sitting upright to handle food, not lying back or slumped.
- Dress the baby in a protective bib – or just a diaper, if the house is warm enough - and cover the area under his chair with a large clean cloth or plastic sheet, so that dropped food can be handed back. BLW can be very messy in the beginning but babies learn quickly and, with the opportunity to practice whenever anyone else is eating, they rapidly become skilled eaters and make less mess.
- Offer the baby a few pieces at a time of the same healthy food as everyone else (or a selection from it), in a shape and size that he can handle easily and a consistency that is firm enough to grasp while being soft enough to chew. To start with, this means sticks or strips of food but, gradually, he will show that he can manage smaller pieces and a variety of consistencies. Plates and cutlery may be distracting at first so pieces of food can be offered on the highchair tray or clean table top.
- Allow the baby to explore the food and to eat at his own pace (if at all). This means no hurrying or trying to persuade him to eat, and allowing him to squidge, smear and examine the food as much as he needs. Don't expect him to eat much at first – he will eat when he is ready.
- Offer water in a small shot-sized cup, which will be easy for the baby to pick up, but don't be surprised if a breastfeeding baby continues to prefer to use the breast to quench his thirst for several weeks or months after he has started to eat solid foods.
- Don't allow anyone but the baby to put food in his mouth – making sure he is in control of what goes into his mouth is an important part of keeping your baby safe.
- Don't offer small, hard foods – small foods, such as grapes and cherry tomatoes, should be cut in half; stones should be removed from fruits such as olives or plums. Nuts, whole or in pieces, are not suitable for babies.
Baby-led weaning works best when the focus is on opportunities for play and learning, rather than on eating. As the baby's skills develop, he will gradually eat more at shared mealtimes and his appetite for milk will reduce. Provided the parents are responsive to the baby's cues, the changeover from milk to family meals will happen naturally, led by the baby.
Learning to Chew and Swallow Food Naturally and Safely
Babies naturally develop eating skills in a set order (in much the same way as they always learn to sit up before they learn to walk). The normal sequence that babies follow in the period between five and seven months of age is:
Bringing things to the mouth
Biting and munching
Allowing the baby to remain in control ensures that this sequence is not rushed and keeps the baby safe. Most early bites of food will fall forward, out of the baby's mouth. This protects his airway until he is mature enough to swallow safely – and if he is not able to bite off a piece of food, he is probably not ready to chew it. This is why it is important that no one should try to 'help' the baby by putting pieces of food in his mouth for him.
Gagging (or retching) is common in the early stages of BLW. The gag reflex prevents food being pushed too far back without having been chewed adequately, and it is particularly sensitive between six and eight months. As the baby matures, he becomes more skilled at chewing and the point at which the gag reflex is triggered moves farther back in his mouth, so gagging occurs less often. Although gagging can appear alarming to parents, babies are rarely bothered by it, and it may be that it is an important part of helping them to learn not to overfill their mouths.
Working with Babies, Not Fighting Against Them
All healthy, able-bodied babies roll over, sit up, crawl and walk when they are developmentally ready, provided they are given the opportunity. Most people wouldn't dream of deciding the date for a baby to start walking, and of introducing a 'walking programme' on that day. They would also consider it positively cruel to prevent the child from walking before this designated day arrived. Yet the conventional approach to introducing solids takes exactly this line.
Baby-led weaning is based on the understanding that most feeding difficulties and mealtime battles stem from the fact that the goals of the parent are in conflict with the instincts of the child. Now that we know there is no need to introduce solid foods until six months – and certainly no need for jars or mush – it's time to look again at what babies can do, and accord them the respect, autonomy and 'real' food they deserve. The result will be happier – and healthier – shared eating experiences for all.
About the Authors
Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett are the authors of Baby-led Weaning: The essential guide to introducing solid foods – and helping your baby to grow up a happy and confident eater and The Baby-led Weaning Cookbook: 130 recipes that will help your baby learn to eat solid foods – and that the whole family will enjoy, both published in the USA by The Experiment. Gill and Tracey are also the authors of Baby-led Breastfeeding: Follow your baby's instincts for relaxed and easy nursing, by the same publishers. All three titles are published in the UK by Vermilion, under their original titles. You can find more information from Gill and Tracey by visiting www.baby-led.com and www.rapleyweaning.com