||This article contains instructions, advice, or how-to content. (June 2012)|
Baby-led weaning (often also referred to as BLW) is a method of adding complementary foods to a baby's diet of formula or breastmilk. Baby-led weaning allows babies to control their solid food consumption by "self-feeding" from the very beginning of their experiences with food. The term weaning should not be taken to imply giving up formula or breastmilk, but simply the introduction of foods other than formula or breastmilk.
Infants are offered a range of foods to provide a balanced diet from around 6 months. They often begin by picking up and licking or sucking on the piece food, before progressing to eating. Babies are typically able to begin self-feeding at around 6 months old, although some are ready and will reach for food as early as 5 months and some will wait until 7 or 8 months. The intention of this process is that it is tailored to suit the individual baby and their personal development. The 6 months old guideline provided by the World Health Organization is based on research indicating that the internal digestive system matures when the infant is 4–6 months old. It seems reasonable to posit that the gut matures in tandem with the baby's external faculties to self feed.
Initial self-feeding attempts often result in very little food ingested as the baby explores textures and tastes through play, but the baby will soon start to swallow and digest what is offered. Formula or breastfeeding is continued in conjunction with weaning and milk is always offered before solids in the first 12 months. Although breastfeeding is the nutritional ideal precursor to baby led weaning (as the baby has been exposed to different flavours  via its mother's breast milk and the jaw action used during breastfeeding helps the baby learn to chew), it is also entirely possible to introduce a formula-fed baby to solids using the BLW method. Formula-fed babies can successfully wean using BLW.  for the baby to get used to flavours and develop the ability to chew.
Baby-led weaning (term attributed to Gill Rapley) places the emphasis on exploring taste, texture, colour and smell as the baby sets their own pace for the meal, choosing which foods to concentrate on. Instead of the traditional method of spooning puréed food into the baby's mouth, the baby is presented with a plate of varied finger food from which to choose.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no research supporting the introduction of solids by purees, and proponents of baby-led weaning argue that babies can become very confused when lumpy foods are introduced at stage 2 of traditional weaning, unsure whether to swallow or chew.
According to one theory, the baby will choose foods with the nutrients she might be slightly lacking, guided by taste. The baby learns most effectively by watching and imitating others, and allowing her to eat the same food at the same time as the rest of the family contributes to a positive weaning experience. At six months old babies learn to chew and grasp and this is therefore the ideal time to begin introducing finger food.
Self-feeding supports the child’s motor development on many vital areas, such as their hand-eye coordination and chewing. It encourages the child towards independence and often provides a stress-free alternative for meal times, for both the child and the parents. Some babies refuse to eat solids when offered with a spoon, but happily help themselves to finger food.
As recommended by the World Health Organization and several other health authorities across the world, there is no need to introduce solid food to a baby’s diet until after 6 months, and by then the child’s digestive system and their fine motor skills have developed enough to allow them to self-feed. Baby-led weaning takes advantage of the natural development stages of the child.
Signs of readiness
It is very important that baby-led weaning is not started before the child shows developmental signs indicating that they are ready to cope with solid foods. The baby should be able to sit upright, on a lap, in a highchair or unsupported, be eager to participate in mealtime and may even be trying to grab food and put it in their mouth.
Many parents are used to the idea of giving babies puréed food and to some, giving such a young child finger food might sound dangerous. However, advocates of baby led weaning claim babies weaned using the baby-led method are actually less likely to choke on their food, as they are not capable of moving food from the front of the mouth to the back until they have learned to chew. There have been no medical studies completed to corroborate this claim. In turn, they do not learn to chew until they have learned to grasp objects and place them in their mouth. Therefore the baby's general development keeps pace with her ability to manage food.
The basic principles of baby-led weaning are:
- At the start of the process the baby is allowed to reject food, and it may be offered again at a later date.
- The child is allowed to decide how much it wants to eat. No "fill-ups" are to be offered at the end of the meal with a spoon.
- The meals should not be hurried.
- Sips of water are offered with meals.
- Initially, soft fruits and vegetables are given. Harder foods are lightly cooked to make them soft enough to chew on even with bare gums.
- Foods with clear danger, such as peanuts, are not offered.
- Non-finger-foods, such as oatmeal and yogurt, may be offered with a spoon so the baby can learn to self-feed with a spoon.
Very little scientific research has been done regarding baby-led weaning. However, a new study headed by child health specialist Charlotte M. Wright from the University of Glasgow, Scotland found that while BLW works for most babies, it could lead to nutritional problems for children who develop more slowly than others. Wright concluded "that it is more realistic to encourage infants to self-feed with solid finger food during family meals, but also give them spoon fed purees." A more recent study at the University of Nottingham by Ellen Townsend and Nicola J. Pitchford suggests that baby-led weaning may lead to less obesity in childhood. The authors conclude that the "results suggest that infants weaned through the baby-led approach learn to regulate their food intake in a manner, which leads to a lower BMI and a preference for healthy foods like carbohydrates."
- Rapley, Gill, and Murkett, Tracey (6 November 2008). Baby-led Weaning. Vermilion. ISBN 978-0-09-192380-8.
- Mennella JA, Jagnow CP, and Beauchamp GK, 2011, Prenatal and postnatal flavor learning by human infants. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11389286
- Susan A. Sullivan, Leann L. Birch 1994 http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/93/2/271.abstract
- Rapley, G. 2006. Baby-led weaning, a developmental approach to the introduction of complementary foods. In Hall Moran, V and Dykes, F. eds. Maternal and Infant Nutrition and Nurture: Controversies and Challenges. Quay Books, London. pp 275-298.
- Davis, Clara M. Results of the self-selection of diets by young children. Can Med Assoc J 1939 41: 257-61
- Strauss, Stephen. Clara M. Davis and the wisdom of letting children choose their own diets. Can Med Assoc J 2006 175: 1199 http://www.cmaj.ca/cgi/content/full/175/10/1199
- "Baby-Led Weaning Is Feasible but Could Cause Nutritional Problems for Minority of Infants" Science Daily. January 14, 2011. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110112081454.htm
- "Baby knows best? The impact of weaning style on food preferences and body mass index in early childhood in a case-controlled sample" BMJ Open. February 6, 2012. http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/2/1/e000298