Nealy White of Duvall, Washington, remembers trying to start her first child on solid foods when he was six months old. She began with mashed up banana mixed with breast milk, as recommended in Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book. When he wasn’t interested she thought that banana might be too advanced for him, so she tried again to spoon feed him with brown rice cereal. Again he refused, even as he reached for the food on the adults’ plates. She kept trying, though it was frustrating to continue preparing food that he would often reject. One evening she put him on her lap while she ate her dinner, a beef stew. He reached out and helped himself to a stewed carrot from her plate. Although she had not yet heard of the phrase, that was Nealy’s introduction to “baby-led weaning.”
The term “Baby Led Weaning” (BLW) was coined and popularized by Gill Rapley, a British writer who was a “health visitor” for 20 years (health visitors are public health nurses who visit and advise parents and their young children at home – lucky Brits.) In her book Baby-Led Weaning: Helping Your Baby to Love Good Food, Rapley outlines an alternative to the conventional western method of introducing solids with spoons and pureed “baby food.” (“Weaning” has a slightly different meaning in the UK, referring to the act of introducing foods in addition to breastmilk or formula, rather than to ending breastfeeding.) Instead of advancing the baby through a series of stages – first rice cereal, then purees, then lumpy purees, and only later table or adult food that baby feeds herself – the child goes straight to the last stage. Rapley encourages parents to start with foods that babies can easily pick up and hold, like stalks of steamed broccoli, or strips of baked sweet potato. The assumption is that the bulk of her nutrition will still come from breast milk or formula until she is one year old, so the emphasis in baby-led weaning is as much on exploring as it is on eating. Rapley argues that bypassing the spoon and the cereals and purees in the transition to solids puts children in control of their own feeding, a natural extension of on-demand breastfeeding, and that doing so leaves them less likely to be overfed and to have problems later with food and obesity. She also believes that allowing children to choose to experience a variety of tastes and textures leads to fewer battles during mealtime further down the road.
Over the past five years the BLW (also known as “baby-led solids” in the U. S.) crowd has been steadily growing, but feeding babies with “adult” foods isn’t really new. In most cultures around the world, babies have always been fed some version of what adults were eating, rather than separately prepared and processed “baby food.” According to Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Committee on Nutrition, the practice of starting babies with cereal is only a few hundred years old, without much evidence to recommend or reject it. The AAP has no position on baby-led weaning, but Dr. Jatinder says, “If you do a world tour, infants learn to eat the foods they eat by being fed foods that parents eat.”
In America around the middle of the 20th century, breastfeeding went out of favor, “scientifically” developed formulas and cereals went on the market, and doctors began urging parents to start giving solids to their infants at younger and younger ages. While in the 1930s the recommended age was 4 to 6 months, by the 1950s it was 4 to 6 weeks. Of course, these younger infants could only be fed with cereals and purees, and recent studies show that introducing solid foods to babies too early can result in more food allergies, since their digestive systems are not yet sufficiently developed. Now the pendulum has swung back, with the World Health Organization and many medical associations recommending only breast milk or formula until an infant is 6 months old. But the standard method of starting solids in the manner advocated by the baby food industry and many pediatricians hasn’t changed. There have been very few studies done on what kinds of foods and methods are best for starting babies on solid foods, although one study found that delaying the introduction of lumpy foods (foods that are chewed) past a certain age (9 months) resulted in more feeding problems at the age of 7.
Like Nealy White, many parents come to BLW by way of their children. Christa Littleton of Manchester, Maryland, was in a restaurant when her 7-month-old daughter, Julia, who she’d been exclusively breastfeeding, grabbed a handful of macaroni and cheese and started eating. Though she and her husband had fed their older daughter with rice cereals beginning at 4 months, with Julia, after the mac and cheese incident, they went straight to table foods, offering her bananas, cheese, and avocado. Littleton says that “there was nothing that she wouldn’t eat.”
BLW devotees say that the method is much easier on the parents than conventional spoon-feeding. “At first I had worries about choking, but I quickly found that a baby will self-regulate his own feeding and won’t put too much in his mouth because it’s uncomfortable,” says Nealy White. “BLW frees me up to enjoy mealtimes with my friends and family, because I don’t have to be concerned with getting the baby to eat. Feeding is his job, not mine.” Estia Vonken-van Rajj of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, who used BLW for her son Robin (after starting her older son Maarten on purees), says that, for her, “BLW was much easier … I didn’t have to cook a separate meal for my son and prepare it differently : I would just give him pieces of our own meal. With Maarten we even took the blender with us on a holiday trip to mash his fruit, but with Robin we didn’t have to worry about that.”
: Watching her respond to the pleasures of ripe tomatoes, curried rice noodles and all kinds of meats and vegetables has made mealtime a much more enjoyable experience for all three of us. Baby-led weaning does have its downside. Depending on the food that parents offer, the mess can be significant. While my husband and I started our six-month-old daughter Mirah on solids by spoon-feeding her mashed avocado and applesauce, within a few weeks we’d switched to a modified form of baby-led weaning. We still sometimes feed her yogurt and jarred purees but we also let her feed herself “adult” foods more and more. It probably would have made our lives easier if we could have dressed her in a full body hazmat suit. It is hard to watch half of the food you’ve prepared fall into the crevices of the high chair and onto a waterproof tablecloth.
But these problems are fairly insignificant in the face of the benefits. Sharing food with Mirah has turned out to be one of the great joys of parenting. Watching her respond to the pleasures of ripe tomatoes, curried rice noodles and all kinds of meats and vegetables has made mealtime a much more enjoyable experience for all three of us. We can tell she is learning through all of her senses about how various substances respond to being crumbled or dropped or mushed. She seems to really like that she is eating the same foods as we are, and since we are generally sharing the same meal, I am more likely to make us all something healthy.
One of the major concerns that people have when they first learn about BLW is the risk of choking. But Rapley argues that spoon-feeding babies may be even more dangerous, because the babies are unprepared, and they tend to suck food off of spoons which brings the food to the back of the mouth and closer to the throat. She writes that
There is good reason to believe that babies are at less risk of choking if they are in control of what goes into their mouth than if they are spoon fed. This is because babies are not capable of intentionally moving food to the back of their throats until after they have developed the ability to chew. And they do not develop the ability to chew until after they have developed the ability to reach out and grab things.
But can your baby chew if she has few or no teeth? According to Rapley, yes, she can. Babies use their gums to “chew” soft and lumpy foods, though they will need more teeth in order to bite into harder things.
And what about all the special nutrients in foods created especially for babies? Dr. Bhatia says that breastfed babies do need the extra iron and zinc that is found in infant cereals, but that they are not the only source for them; babies can also get them through eating meat. Babies can feed themselves ground meat, and Rapley believes that BLW babies are less likely to lose out on the nutrients in breast milk that are more likely to be displaced when solids are pushed and spoon-fed. And, she argues that it is better for babies to receive nutrients through whole foods rather than through processed and fortified foods.
Is this the end of the road for the food grinder, frozen cubes of puree filling the freezer, and that funny smelling rice cereal? Probably not. But the trend toward baby-led weaning will likely continue to grow, encouraged by our embrace of “whole” foods and our love of anything that simplifies our lives. Moms and dads, it’s time to invest in drop cloths.