Baby-led Weaning: Benefits and Limitations by Hollie Ancharoff
This post is meant to discuss my personal experience with BLW, and is not a comprehensive tutorial– please be sure to read up carefully, and take into account your pediatrician’s advice before starting the process!
One of the most thoughtful gifts I received as a new mother was the book Baby- Led Weaning by Gil Rapley. I was nowhere near ready to begin solids, but I managed to find time to read it during the marathon nurse ‘n nap sessions of my son’s first few months. Unlike traditional advice regarding first foods for infants, BLW states, briefly, that after six months, babies are ready to start experimenting with virtually anything their parents eat. Rather than first introducing rice cereal or pureed sweet potato, for instance, babies should be given foods as close to their natural state as possible. The idea behind the BLW approach is that babies are introduced to foods that are recognizable as food. It’s much more about learning than about nutrition in the beginning.
Think of a stalk of asparagus from a baby’s perspective: “ooooohhh…. It’s bright! I can pick this up…wonder how it tastes? Whoa! That’s a funny flavor! (Takes it out of mouth and inspects more closely) It’s bumpy on top, smooth at the bottom…. I need another taste… I kind of like this! Maybe not the taste so much as the way it feels when I squish it with my gums!”
Get the picture? It’s a very different experience for baby than being distracted while mom stealthily spoons a bit of asparagus puree into her mouth, “WHOA! That tastes strong! What was that? I don’t know if I like that! (spits some out) WHOA, there it is again! Yuck. I don’t like this on principle.” If you can get past my dramatic interpretation you’ll see one of the best aspects of BLW– in the beginning, food is for play, experimentation, learning, and exploration. At it’s best, BLW is preparing kids to learn to eat, and eat lots of different foods.
Foods should ideally be cut into chunks or sticks that can easily be handled, such as wedges of mango, slices of beef or chicken, or well- steamed broccoli crowns. There are, of course things to avoid: hard or raw foods that can pose a choking hazard, and potentially allergenic foods, according to your family history or your pediatrician’s advice.
At six months I faithfully cut up steamed veggie “sticks” and introduced them to my son as described in the book. He did exactly what it promised: tasted, experimented, delighted, grimaced then went back for more, made a huge mess, and so on. We continued this way for three months, and the number of foods he was trying and enjoying was impressive: asparagus, salmon, avocado, pears, mango, and hummus, to name a few. I really felt that he was becoming quite the little gourmand, but he did seem to get frustrated at times. My gut was telling me that at times he wanted more than he was able to slurp from a piece of pear, or strip from a stalk of asparagus with his two little rabbit teeth. At our 9 month checkup my pediatrician encouraged me to include some purees: “No, he doesn’t ‘need’ it. He’s still getting everything he needs from your milk, but if you feel that he wants more then trust your gut. He’s still a baby. You have to help him out a little.” So in the end, I relented. I diverted from very strict BLW principles, included a few purees here and there (yes, even the pouches, which as it turned out, he LOVED), and we continued on our eating journey.
Retrospectively, this is what I learned: there are many positives to approaching solids in this way, but it won’t necessarily be the automatic ticket to your child loving all foods that the book implies. Teaching your baby to eat whole foods in their natural state, with a progression toward foods that are more like what the family is eating together, is a fun and rewarding journey. There will be messes, and it will often feel as though a lot of lovingly selected and prepared meals are
wasted. Your baby will likely develop an appreciation for flavors she would not have otherwise been introduced to at such an early age, and will often surprise you with her preferences. Those preferences may even continue to be “healthier” than the family’s regular meals. I jokingly call my son “my little paleo-baby”, since at 17 months, he will reject a helping of spaghetti and meatballs, but will devour a plate of salmon, cucumber slices, and avocado, (or “CA-doh” as it’s known around our house– he eats practically a whole one every day). In fact, rather than him veering into “family meal” territory, we’ve been forced to pattern our eating after our son’s more simplified taste. Read, less pizza, more CA-doh. However…. Although our BLW baby (now toddler) appreciates more complex flavors, using BLW did not necessarily turn him into a “good eater”. There are still food strikes, sudden reversals in what he previously enjoyed, more enjoyment of sugary items than I’d hoped in the beginning, and the promise of him eating what we eat at this point never really came to fruition. I still find myself preparing special things for him– something I swore I’d never do as a parent, but that’s another story– and frequently putting most of it away or in the trash untouched. When one reads Baby-Led Weaning, it’s easy to get the impression that if you follow this approach, feeding will fuss-free for life, but I’m here to tell you that personalities are all still different, individuals (even tiny ones) still have individual preferences, and toddlers will always be toddlers, even if they inhaled steamed kale at 10 months old.
The bottom line? Baby-led weaning, with a few modifications, is an adventuresome way to teach baby to eat. It may help your baby to develop a wide palette and a joy of eating, and it may also cause you some stress as you pick up all the bits of organic artichoke heart off the floor….again. I’m glad we did it, and I’d make the same choice with another child. I mean, my toddler loves asparagus! It’s worth the extra prep, clean-up, and a little wasted food in my book. In the end, it’s the time you spend together at the table that makes it fun.