Baby-Led Weaning? Huh? Pros and Cons for the Modern Parent

The term “baby-led weaning” was coined by Gill Rapley, author of Baby-Led Weaning: Helping Your Baby to Love Good Food in 2005. The concept and practice, also described as “self-feeding” has gained popularity over the last 10 years in the U.K., New Zealand, and across Europe. According to Rapley, baby-led weaning is “a way of introducing solid foods that allow babies to feed themselves.” In other words, “there’s no need for spoon feeding or purées.” Rapley believes that beginning at around six months, all healthy babies can feed themselves if given the opportunity.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend that babies are exclusively breastfed for at least 6 months. By this age, according to infant nutritionists and childhood development experts, most babies have developed the ability to sit upright, pick up pieces of food, bring them to their mouth, and chew food (even without teeth!). Around 6 months is when Rapley also suggests parents try BLW as babies’ immune and digestive systems are more often than not ready for food. Interestingly, prior to 2003, the World Health Organization and other nutrition experts advocated for the introduction of supplemental food as early as 4 months. As most babies are not developmentally ready to feed themselves by 4 months, spoon-feeding and purees became a “necessary” milestone in an infant’s feeding journey.

Spoon-feeding babies pre-packaged purees was popularized with the advent of industrialized baby food in the late 1920s. According to Amy Bentley, author of the book, Inventing Baby Food, manufactured baby food was marketed as a solution to the “multitude of problems in the domestic sphere.” Not only did baby food “reduce parental anxieties about nutrition and health” but it “made caretakers feel empowered” and “offered women entering the workforce an irresistible convenience.” Chalked full with sugar, salt and preservatives, these baby food products became an on-ramp to what Bentley calls the “industrialized diet” - which continues to be the standard for American food consumption today.

Baby-led weaning can be seen as a direct challenge to the “industrialized” baby-food diet and is more akin to what parents have been doing for almost all of human history (back when processed food was unimaginable!). Instead of buying or blending special “baby” foods, BLW advocates that babies should self-feed themselves foods in their natural, whole form. Instead of the parent choosing how much the baby eats, the baby has the ability to choose what and how much they eat. The advantages of BLW, Rapley argues, are the following:

  • Encourages confidence through play and exploration of textures, colors and smells
  • Helps develop hand-eye coordination and chewing abilities
  • Decreases the possibility of picky eating later in life

There are, however, some key downsides:

  • Some parents are just too darn busy to wait around watching their child play with their food! Eating for a new human is a slow, slow, slow process, and for some busy parents, the number one concern is often getting food into their baby’s body ASAP.
  • What about choking or gagging? Rapley works hard to differentiate the two. When a baby gags, food “isnt ready to be swallowed and is pushed forward in a retching movement to prevent it getting to the back of the throat.” Choking occurs “when something completely or partially blocks the airway” and happens after the gag reflex is triggered. According to many nutrition experts, gagging is much more common than choking, and most babies are very good at activating their gag reflex by quickly spitting up a lodged piece of food. Fact: A baby’s gag reflex is located significantly closer to the front of their mouth than it is for adults, so it is much more easily activated. Rapley claims that the likelihood of choking is the same with baby-led weaning as with spoon-feeding as long as safety rules are followed (baby is sitting up, showing readiness cues to eat, etc.) Many experts, however, assert that more studies need to be done to test if BLW increases a choking risk.
  • It’s MESSY! No way around it!

Our Takeaway:

At Tiny, we believe that food is medicine. Our goal is to help every parent feel their best and feed their baby the healthiest food possible. We believe that every family is unique and that experimentation is key to discovering what works for you and your kiddo.

Comparing purees against finger foods taps into a fascinating and all too familiar conundrum that starts the moment your baby is born: How do I feed my child and how much does she need? Baby-led weaning can be seen as a natural extension of the breastfeeding (or formula-feeding) “on demand” mentality, meaning your baby tells you when he is hungry and when he is finished, and that feeding should directly respond to his cues, rather than the other way around. However, for busy parents in the modern age, spoon-feeding (less mess!) or opting for a pouch may be the quickest, most convenient option at that moment.

We have designed our meals to appeal to both viewpoints. With Tiny Organics, parents can still reap the benefits of BLW but don’t have to sacrifice on convenience. Our finger foods are soft and come in a variety of textures, so your little one can develop those fine motor skills through playing with and munching on the food. Many of our ingredients appear in their whole, recognizable form, so your little one can learn that a pea or blueberry is sphere-shaped (rather than soup-shaped!) and is something she can grasp herself.

Bottom Line:

When to start finger foods with your baby is completely up to you. Every baby is different, so follow their cues. We’re here to help your little one foster a lifelong positive and healthy relationship with food, cultivate healthy eating patterns and reduce picky eating later in life. We also acknowledge that the day-to-day realities of parenting often mean that there won’t be time or energy for a messy mealtime and cleanup. How you feed your child is your decision and it’s the right one. Either way, you’re doing great <3

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