My daughter is a culinary adventurer. Some of her favourite foods at the moment include Indian dahl, Japanese pancakes, pad thai, and avocado rolls. She’s not quite seven months old.
My little daughter’s varied and mature food experiences at an early age came about because we introduced her to solids using baby-led weaning (BLW), a method that forgoes starter-purees in favour of immediate introduction to family foods. In short, she eats what we eat when we eat.
I first heard the term BLW when she was about three months old, which sent me down a Google rabbit hole, finally leading me to Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett’s book, Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby to Love Good Food. The concepts key to BLW that appealed to me included:
- My baby is in control. As Rapley/Murkett say in the book, babies learn every other developmental milestone in their own time – crawling, walking, talking – why should eating be any different?
By choosing how much and what she wants to eat, she learns to finish eating when she is full and to eat to satisfy her hunger, developing a healthy relationship with food from the very beginning.
- There is a suggestion that babies who learn to eat through BLW may be less picky eaters (individual results may vary!) because they are familiar with a range of adult foods.
Babies get to know not just tastes, but textures and shapes of foods.
- BLW promotes a whole range of motor skills, like learning to manipulate small objects, the development of the pincer grip and spacial relationships.
With my husband’s blessing, we began my daughter’s BLW adventure when she turned six months old (the book discourages starting younger. While baby’s can manage purees earlier, they may not have the necessary skills for whole foods before this age). Many families choose to start out slowly with just one meal a day, but I was excited and jumped in head first with three meals a day. My daughter’s first meal was falafel and asparagus, and to my surprise, she knew just want to do, taking it right to her mouth, licking, gnawing and gumming it. At first, she was mostly sucking on and playing with her food, but we began to see the evidence that she was eating a bit by the third day. After a week, our little girl was a solid food eating machine.
Almost all foods are fair game. Honey and whole nuts are the exception, and we are very careful to keep her sodium intake to a minimum. At this stage, hard vegetables are too difficult for her, so I steam or roast things like carrots, sweet potato and capsicum. Cutting them into long strips with a crinkle cutter helps her to easily grip them. She is not limited to large pieces of food, however, as she has become adept at grabbing handfuls of smaller things like thick oatmeal, scrambled eggs, or a shredded cabbage salad.
A wonderful side effect of BLW has been that my husband and my diets have improved. Because she eats what we eat, I am much more cognizant of the healthiness and variety of our daily meals. I have gotten much better with advance planning since, “oh, I don’t know, let’s just heat up some frozen pizza” at 5:30p.m. just doesn’t cut it for the baby. I’ve also gotten much more creative with the spice cabinet. Because we must limit sodium, I can no longer just salt and pepper our steamed vegetables and call it a day. I have to think harder: cumin on our carrots, sage on our zucchinis, cardamom on parsnips. Who knew?
Our early adventures in BLW have been a joy, and the most fun thing I have done as a mother, so far. We love watching her eat the same foods we do like it is the most natural thing in the world. Often, she is very intense, concentrating on her meal as if it is her solemn job, and she grows her problem solving strategies with every hard to grasp food or piece that’s gone just out of reach. She makes clear what she likes and doesn’t, giving almost everything a taste or lick, and summarily dismissing by dropping on the floor the things she doesn’t care for. Most days, she is so delighted to be sharing family time that we are rewarded with giggles and happy shrieks. She is up for the challenge, and her skills are improving daily.
The BLW method may not be everyone’s cup of tea, so to anyone interested, I highly suggest reading Baby-Led Weaning, as it explains the philosophy in detail and answers almost any question you may have. A few other things to consider when thinking about whether it may be right for you and your baby.
- It is a lot of fun, but can be a little scary. When learning to manage food, it is common for BLW babies to gag and cough. The book explains the difference between gagging and choking, and why choking is relatively rare (babies’ gag reflexes are much higher on their tongue than adults’, meaning the food they can’t manage usually never makes it to the back of the mouth). Even when you know the difference, it can be hard to watch your baby gag, though it usually bothers Mum and Dad a lot more than bub. Taking a First Aid course and making sure that everyone responsible for feeding your baby knows how to spot and treat a choking incident will give you a lot more confidence. This is good sense for all parents, as choking can also happen with puree fed babies.
- It is very messy. OCD Mums may struggle. You are going to have food everywhere. Everywhere.
- Meals take a long time. You or another carer must be willing to sit with your baby as he/she, sometimes slowly, tackles every meal.
- Breast milk or formula still make up the bulk of your baby’s diet until age one, and unlike with purees, it can be hard to know how much your baby is actually eating. You have to have confidence that your baby is going to get all the nutrients he/she needs. The BLW mantra is “food for fun until one.”
- Stuff: There is no required equipment, but my must-haves are: a simple high chair like the IKEA Antilop, long-sleeve bibs, a crinkle cutter, drop cloths (old sheets or newspaper) for underneath the high chair and an endless supply of rags/wet wipes.
Most of all, you need patience, confidence in your baby, a sense of humour and an adventurous spirit. And, of course, no matter how you feed your baby, you absolutely must keep your camera at hand to capture all of the amazing messy face gems.
Have you tried Baby-led weaning? Did it work for you?