What is baby-led weaning? A pro chef—and mom—shares how it works
Introduce your baby to new foods without the hassle of purees.
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When my son, Arlo, was first born, I was inundated with questions about how my wife and I would be introducing solid foods to him when the time came. As an executive chef and two-time Food Network "Chopped" Champion, people took an interest in how—and what—I would be preparing for his initiation into the world of food.
As first-time moms and rookies to the baby game, we were often left pondering this question and coming to the overwhelmingly prevalent answer: We have absolutely no idea what we're doing! We were dizzy with options: purees only, combo feeding, mesh feeders, or straight to solids? Just when we thought it was all too much and we would never find something that worked well for us, we stumbled across Baby Led Weaning and all the pieces finally started to come together.
What is Baby-led Weaning?
Baby-led Weaning (often referred to as BLW for short) is an alternative feeding method which promotes serving appropriately-sized foods to your little one and allowing them to practice feeding themselves right from the start. The goal is to skip the need to spoon-feed your infant purees or traditional baby foods, and instead go straight to a more independent style of eating with an emphasis on introducing a wide variety of tastes and textures to your baby early and often.
It’s recommended that most foods be cut into finger-sized pieces and prepared in a way that leaves them soft enough to squish between your fingers to minimize the risk of choking.
Also, it’s important to wait until your child is showing signs of readiness before beginning BLW. Signs of readiness include the ability to sit unassisted for at least a small period of time, good neck strength and control, showing interest in food, and the loss of their tongue-thrust reflex. Most of these signs will appear right around 6 months of age but every child is different so, as always, consult your pediatrician about when the best time would be for you to start BLW.
Why we chose Baby-led Weaning
Because of Baby-led Weaning's emphasis on independent eating, we felt like it would be the best way to get Arlo engaged in his own food journey. As a chef who is married to a big foodie, it was important to us to help foster a sense of adventure and exploration when it came to his relationship with ingredients. We still introduced him to pureed foods, as its important to get them used to that texture too, we just didn’t want it to be the only texture he encountered. At the end of the day, we just wanted Arlo to have fun with his food, and learn to love it as much as we do.
Another huge plus to BLW is the ease of prep. Let's be real, it's hard to find the time to make entirely different meals for your child. With BLW the goal is to get them to eat what you eat. As long as the preparation is slightly modified—cut into appropriate shapes, omit the salt, reduce added sugars—there is very little reason as to why your little one can’t eat the same dinner as the rest of the family.
What to know about Baby-led Weaning
It will definitely be messy
Since it's important for babies to play with their food to learn the different textures and how to feed themselves, it's likely in the beginning that they'll get more food in their hair or on the floor than they do in their mouths. But that will get better with practice.
Until then, I recommend investing in a wipeable floor mat for under your highchair to help with cleanup when the food inevitably ends up thrown around. We use the Gathre Mini Mat and love how it's wipeable and water-resistant while still being stylish. It also folds compactly for easy storage and transportation so you can take it on-the-go.
Arlo also loves his Bapron. Made of soft, waterproof fabric, Bapron is a cross between a bib and an apron. Instead of tying around your baby’s neck like a traditional bib, this ties around their shoulder blades for a more comfortable experience. It also prevents them from tearing their bib off mid-meal (trust me, it also happens). And the best part is Baprons can be rinsed clean in the sink between meals which reduces the amount of laundry to be done.
It can be nerve-wracking
It's completely normal to feel nervous about skipping purees and going straight to finger foods.
It's worth noting that gagging will happen. But gagging does not mean choking and it's important to know the difference when it comes to BLW. Gagging is an essential part of your baby learning how to swallow and as long as you stay calm with your baby through their gag, they will be able to recover and continue with their meal on their own. The longer you stick with BLW the less frequent the gags will become. During a gag your child’s face may turn red, they’ll often sputter or cough and their tongue will thrust forward. Let them work it out on their own.
During choking their face will start to go blue and they will be quiet or silent. If they have an ineffective cough or no cough this is when you should intervene and take appropriate steps to help your baby. I recommend taking an infant CPR class so that you’re prepared in the unlikely event choking does occur. Tinyhood offers a great online infant CPR and choking class.
I also recommend investing in a good highchair with a foot rest, like our favorite, the Stokke Tripp Trapp. Foot rests help your baby feel stabilized, which in turn allows them to focus their energy towards using the muscles needed to properly swallow their food. A proper seating position will allow your child to feel more comfortable while eating, and will also reduce the risk of choking.
Baby-led Weaning tips and tricks
Introduce new foods regularly
My goal is to introduce Arlo to 100 new foods before his first birthday. In order to do that I introduce him to five new foods a week. This usually includes one new vegetable, one new fruit, one new starchy food, one new protein, and one “challenge” food. The challenge food is either a new potential allergen or a particularly difficult texture or flavor.
It's important to introduce the common allergens early to help avoid potential allergies in the future. The allergens are peanuts, treenuts, dairy, gluten, white fish, shellfish, soy, and eggs. We introduced one of those a week for the first eight weeks. Since then we’ve continued to make these allergens a regular part of Arlo’s meals. We introduce the new food for the first 10 minutes and then incorporate any foods he's already had for the second 10 minutes. I recommend only letting them eat (play) for 20 minutes at a time because more than that and they'll lose interest.
All foods should be roughly the shape and size of your pointer finger so that they can easily grasp it and avoid choking. Pureed or mashed food can be scooped onto a spoon and then handed to them to feed themselves until they learn how to dip the spoon on their own.
I highly recommend the NumNum pre-spoon GOOtensils when first starting out, as its unique shape is great for clinging onto mashed foods and teaching your baby how to dip and scoop foods themselves without it falling off of their spoon.
Once they are more proficient at using a spoon, I love the ezpz Tiny Spoon. It's made of soft silicone to protect baby’s teeth and gums, and is the perfect size and shape for tiny mouths.
For dry foods like pancakes or bread, make sure to top it with something moist like yogurt, mashed avocado, or ricotta cheese to reduce the risk of choking. And, as always, limit salt and sugar in your recipes.
What I hope to gain from Baby-led Weaning
It’s our hope to not only introduce solids to Arlo, but to do it in a way that allows him to truly appreciate the experience and enjoy the ride. We hope to foster an independent and adventurous eater in our son. But also, at the end of the day, we just want Arlo to have fun with his food and learn to love it as much as we do.
Don’t lose hope if your baby doesn’t take to solid foods right away, sometimes it takes a while (weeks or months even!) for them to learn how to feed themselves. Stick with it, trust the process, and know that you’re doing an amazing job no matter how you choose to feed your babe.
For more BLW information, ideas, and inspiration, follow Arlo’s journey on Instagram.
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