Leading the way
Baby-led weaning, the approach where babies feed themselves, has many fans. Andrea Mara talks to mothers about their experiences of the method
The very moment my first baby turned six months, I began feeding her solids - such was my excitement about getting started. I couldn't wait to see her reaction to flavours and textures after nothing but milk to date. But three days of peeling and puréeing later, the novelty had worn off; I was following guidelines in a very prescriptive book, my hand-held blender was surgically attached to me, and the process had become exhausting and joyless.
With my second baby, just 20 months later, there was a more regular reliance on (good quality, unprocessed) shop-bought baby food, as I struggled with finding meals and preparation methods that worked well for two-under-two and their exhausted mother. So by the time my third came along, I was ready for something new. And that something was baby-led weaning.
Baby-led weaning is a completely different approach to food - it's about trusting your baby to feed himself. He picks up the food in his own hands, and explores in his own time. And with new research from Swansea University showing it poses no greater risk of choking than conventional weaning, its popularity will no doubt continue to grow.
When we started, it was love at first sight. Four of us crowded around my son's high-chair as he picked up a piece of French stick and started sucking on it. Next up was a chunk of broccoli - he gripped it in his fist and put the top in his mouth. Over subsequent days, I put a variety of vegetables and bread on his high-chair tray and let him try them as he wished. His main source of food was still milk, so if he didn't eat anything solid, that was fine. I knew all of this because I'd read Baby-led Weaning by Gill Rapley and Tracy Murkett, the bible for BLW parents.
So if you're considering BLW, what's the best way to get started? I asked Gill Rapley for some practical advice. "The baby needs to be around six months old, and sitting upright - not necessarily on their own, as babies at six months usually aren't, but they should be able to hold the head and trunk upright with support around the hips."
There's no denying that BLW is messy but if you're prepared, it's manageable, says Rapley. "If you're buying a high-chair, buy one that doesn't have too much padding or nooks and crannies, as food gets lodged there. Of course, there's no need for a high-chair - it's fine to sit your baby on your lap and hold her hips while she explores. Put something down to protect the floor such as a big plastic table cloth; if your baby drops food, you can pick it up - it doesn't go to waste."
Preparing is not just about the practicalities, says Rapley, it's also about understanding what BLW is. "Getting your head around it is important - thinking of it in terms of a learning or play activity. Forget about eating - it's about exploring, tasting, smelling, discovering. If some eating happens, that's fine, but there's no reason to eat in any quantity. Milk is still the most important thing at this stage. It's about including your baby in your mealtimes, but not thinking of it as your baby's mealtime."
Introducing a family mealtime was an unexpected benefit for Audrey Graham, who followed BLW with her son Rían, now 16 months. "My partner and I used to eat in front of the TV, whereas now, the three of us sit together. I love that Rían sits at the table with us for each meal - it brings everyone together during the day."
One of my own favourite discoveries about BLW was how easy it is - my youngest was eating roast dinners at seven months, so I never had to cook separately for him. Audrey agrees. "It's just so simple. Once you read a book and get ideas about what to make, it's easy. When we go out for lunch, we don't have to pack any food for Rían - he can eat from the menu. We changed cooking habits slightly - not adding salt, using the right stock cubes - but I'm not spending time puréeing, freezing, and remembering to take food out."
Annette Manning from Cork tried BLW with her second child, and has found that everyone in the family benefits. "My favourite part of baby-led weaning is the incentive for the rest of the family to eat healthily, as the baby copies us and eats most of what we do. It's good to help with shifting the pregnancy weight as I want to be a role model to Noah and show him all the lovely foods available."
She chose BLW for reasons of efficiency. "I decided to do it for time management; not having to painstakingly steam, mash, purée and stew all the various fruit and veg. I had a toddler to be running round after and just didn't have time to do it all. I spent so much time doing it for my first."
It's clear that practitioners of BLW love it, but what about everyone else looking on? Audrey Graham says her partner wasn't sure at first - worrying that Rían was too small to feed himself, and the extended family were concerned too. "We had a high-chair in my mother-in-law's house to feed Rían there, and she was very nervous watching him eat, worrying he was putting too much in his mouth, in case he choked."
Mum-of-three Laura Brouder also faced concerns from family. "A friend introduced me to BLW and I couldn't wait to try it with my oldest. It made so much sense, but particularly around how are we to know when our children are full? Surely they know themselves better than we do! I had trusted my daughter while breastfed to let me know when she was done, so it was just an extension of that. When it came to the BLW journey, however, I found very little support. Family saw the waste, the mess, and were very afraid my daughter would choke. The public health nurse strongly advised against it and re-sent me some purée information."
Gill Rapley agrees that grandparents and extended family are often concerned. "It's scary for them - it goes against what they know." In particular, they worry about choking, as do many first-time parents, but Rapley has solid advice. "In the past, giving finger food was always advised from six months, with purées from four months. Now that weaning isn't recommended until six months, there's an assumption that babies still need to go through purées first, as though they teach them how to chew, but you don't chew purées."
Regardless of weaning choices, it's wise to be prepared, says Rapley. "Three things can happen with babies when they're eating. There's gagging - a retching movement, and not a bad thing in itself. There's coughing and spluttering - which is not life-threatening, and something that happens all of us from time to time. Choking is when the airway is blocked, and it can happen with a toy or a bead or a piece of food. So it's a good idea for all parents to know how to deal with choking."
And, of course, regardless of feeding approach, no baby should ever be left alone with food.
Beyond the fun and the efficiency, there are some unexpected benefits that come with BLW, as mum-of-one Beth Malory discovered. "My little boy is 13 months old so we've been doing BLW since the summer and I still can't sing its praises enough - he definitely eats what he needs, when he needs it. He's got a cold at the moment and pretty much exclusively ate carbs yesterday, when usually he's much more interested in other things. When I was researching BLW I read this could happen, but I'm not sure I fully believed it. I only wish I could eat as intuitively." Beth feels it's all about trusting the baby. "Seb teethes really badly and we have weeks where he doesn't want to eat much. Sometimes I let this get to me and think 'here comes the toddler fussiness', but when he feels up to it, he eats normally again, and usually eats loads to make up for it."
Jill Jordan was so taken with baby-led weaning, she decided to blog about it. "When I started BLW, way back in the mists of time in 2010, there were very few resources out there and no cookbook; because baby eats what you eat, albeit with an eye on salt levels and safety. So I started my blog properfud.com to show what a family doing BLW in the real world would actually be eating. Since then, the 'movement', if you'd call it that, has exploded. There are now lots of BLW blogs, and family cookbooks on the shelves. I'm on my third baby now, and the difference in awareness in the intervening years is huge."
She has noticed one casualty, though. "I think the simplicity of the BLW message has gotten a little lost in its growth in popularity. For me, it boils down to a couple of simple things; the mantra 'Food under one is for fun' and the fact that we don't need to cook separately for adults and kids, which suits my rather lazy parenting style to a tee."
From my own experience, that sums it up perfectly - food under one is just for fun. For my baby-led-weaner and me, BLW took the chore out of solids, and put the joy back in - and gave me just the excused I needed to put down the hand-held blender.
Food tips for baby-led weaning
● Present food in the shape that a six-month-old can easily pick up — sticks or large strips that stick out the top of the fist.
● Try fruit, cooked vegetables, meat, cheese, well-cooked eggs, bread rice, pasta.
● Include meat early on — give them the option to pick it up and suck on it and explore.
● No ready-meals or food that’s high in salt or sugar.
● Season with herbs and spices, instead of salt.
● Later, when you’re offering cherry tomatoes and grapes, always cut them in half.
● Avoid honey, shellfish, shark, and under-cooked eggs.
● Remember — it’s very important that the baby is the only one who puts food in her own mouth.
See RapleyWeaning.com for more on baby-led weaning