“Here comes the airplane…!” The enthusiastic, vaguely strained voice of a frustrated parent rings from the kitchen. The child, perched atop the high chair responds by clamping his lips shut and turning his face away. Or maybe he bats at the spoon, wanting to play with it himself. Or perhaps he just lets loose and wails. If you’re a new parent embarking on the world of complementary foods, any of those responses would be discouraging. But your kid has to eat, so what’s a parent to do?
As with all things kids, there is no standard issue user manual for feeding infants. That’s kind of good news, though, because it means there are a lot of ways to try and as long as the food is healthy, there’s no wrong answer. The key is knowing how to read the baby. Some will take quickly to purees, transition easily through textures, and enjoy eating from the get-go. Others will reject it at first but eventually take to it. And some will continually reject all kinds of foods leaving parents frustrated. This painful cycle causes stress for the family and may wind up turning children off to eating altogether which can lead to years of food struggles.
At the end of the day, Baby-Led Weaning (or, BLW) is really simple. No blenders, no spoons, just your kid and some food. And maybe a drop cloth. At its core, BLW is about allowing the infant to try a wide variety of foods on her own terms. That means that things can get messy!
A little background…
Traditionally, an infant’s first solid foods are thin purees spoon-fed by the parent as early as four months old. The World Health Organization (WHO) revised their recommendations for infant feeding to state that infants should be breast or formula fed exclusively until they are six months old.[i] This is a departure from the old guidelines, which recommended introducing solids around 4-6 months. By six months infants are sitting upright unassisted and can purposefully bring things to their mouths, both key components to self-feeding. This is not the case at four months when infants would require someone else to feed them. If, in keeping with the WHO recommendations, parents wait to introduce solid foods until six months, it makes more sense to bypass spoon-fed purees and offer more developmentally appropriate foods.
Gill Rapley pioneered the concept of BLW in her book Baby-Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods-and Helping Your Baby to Grow Up a Happy and Confident Eater. In it she describes the surprisingly simple methodology behind BLW: allowing the child to introduce non-milk foods through exploration and play. BLW embraces the philosophy that “under one is just for fun,” meaning that there’s no need to stress about how much food is actually consumed until the child is a year. Babies are born with nutrient reserves in their bodies. Around six months old, these reserves start to gradually deplete. Milk feedings can provide adequate nutrition even as the stores deplete, but it is important to introduce foods so the baby is nourished as they begin to decrease milk feedings. Thanks to the nutritional stores, it may not be until the child is 9 or 10 months that he takes less milk because he’s eating food instead.[ii]
How’s it done?
An important first step in introducing solids, regardless of your chosen method, is to begin including the baby at mealtimes. Watching adults eat is a great way to pique baby’s curiosity about food. Watching for signs of readiness is another crucial part of introducing solids. These signs include sitting up unassisted, quickly and accurately bringing things to his mouth, and watching food while adults eat. When he seems ready, give the baby foods to gum—more on what kinds of food in a minute—encourage him to play with it and explore it, and seriously consider that drop cloth for the floor. BLW can get messy!
So what foods should you give? The short answer is that you can offer almost anything. Many parents start with vegetables, a great choice because they can easily be cut into stick-sized pieces and steamed to the right texture. You want to make sure they foods are soft enough to mush between your fingers or against the hard palate in your mouth. A good example of a first food is well-steamed broccoli with a good part of the stem still on it to act as a handle. Anything that is hard when raw should be cut into sticks about the size of your finger and then steamed so they are soft enough to gum.
Previous feeding recommendations say to feed specific foods in a specific order, allowing for a few days on each individual food before progressing to something else. The reality is that those rules apply to three and four month olds because their digestive systems are too immature to handle food. That said, if you have food allergies in your family, take that into account and avoid the major allergens (peanuts, egg, soy, wheat, shellfish, dairy and others if you have a specific history of allergies).
What’s most important is that the food is whole, healthful, and contributes to the child’s macro (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) and micro (vitamins & minerals) nutrient needs. Prepare it without salt or sugar, but don’t be afraid of including seasoning you like to use when cooking. It’s important to introduce the baby to as many new flavors and textures as possible by their first birthday. The more they taste now, the broader their palates will be and they may be more willing to try different things. Be aware of spiciness when seasoning, but the goal of BLW is to be able to give the baby the same food the adults are eating.
What makes it cool?
Gill Rapley’s book highlights a lot of the bonuses to BLW starting with: it’s fun! Kids get to play with their food, what could be better? Plus it lets the parent or caregiver eat as well. You’re not spending your whole mealtime spooning food into someone else’s mouth. BLW teaches kids about foods and flavors and how to eat them without choking. It also encourages gross and fine motor skill development and hand-eye coordination.
BLW encourages family mealtime which strengthens social skills as well as the family dynamic. Rapley suggests that using BLW may lead to healthier food choices for both the baby and the adults. Not wanting to set a bad example, adults choose healthy foods to share with the child. It can lead to less pickiness as a toddler because they’ve tried lots of foods and feel in control of their food choices. For the adults, it may even improve your diet because you’re trying to model healthy choices. If that’s not a win-win, I don’t know what is!
“Infant and Young Child Feeding.” World Health Organization. WHO, July 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.
Rapley, G.; Murkett, T. Baby-Led Weaning: Helping Your Baby Love Good Food; Vermilion: London, UK, 2008.
Satter, Ellyn. “Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding.” Division of Responsibility in Feeding. Ellyn Stater Institute, n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2015.