February 2012, written for our local NCT newsletter (with a couple of minor edits)
The core idea behind Baby Led Weaning (BLW) is that you introduce solids by letting your baby self-feed. So instead of spoonfeeding purees, you provide suitable finger foods, while continuing to give them as much milk as they need. This fits well with the current advice from the NHS to wait until your baby is six months old before starting weaning onto solids, as by that age many babies have the fine motor skills to manage to feed themselves food that is easy to handle. The book ‘Baby Led Weaning’ by Gill Rapley describes this approach in far more detail. It certainly inspired us to give BLW a go with our son Owen.
I did have one concern before we started – that Owen might not eat anything for months and months. If you read the book, you get the impression that this quite commonly happens. We already had 'weight issues' and were on the radar of health visitors and I didn't want to compound these. It reassured me that the local health visitor I spoke to was very supportive of this approach to weaning. Nonetheless, we were definitely in the 'let's give this a shot' mindset and don't think we would have persevered too long if nothing was being eaten. We started with food such as banana, avocado, soft fruits and roasted vegetables and it was exciting watching Owen take his first tastes. Although it took him a couple of weeks to really get used to handling the slipperiness of most foods, it was clear from early on that we were definitely not going to have problems with him not eating anything.
The part I had not counted on being quite so tricky was not freaking out about the possibility of choking. Babies not only have to learn to get food into their mouths but to actually swallow it. I had been on a first aid course. I always made sure Owen was upright during meals, and I was fairly cautious about the types of foods I offered. I knew the difference between choking and gagging: definite gagging I didn’t find in the least bit stressful. However, there were still some nerve-wracking moments, not helped by the fact it took me a long time to twig that many of the awkward expressions on his face were in fact the result of him working on a dirty nappy! We also had problems with food getting stuck on the roof of Owen’s mouth. I think the thing that kept me going was knowing that I would have to go through this stage fairly soon anyway, and there's an argument that it's actually safer when they are younger and they still have more of a gag reflex. Luckily, we didn't have any actual choking incidents.
The other learning curve during those early months was getting to grips with the mess. We experimented with everything from having meals in just a vest to all manner of different types of bib. In the end I settled on a plastic mat under the highchair together with two bibs – a light plastic overall which could be either wiped clean or put in the washing machine, and then a pelican bib on top. The cleaning certainly got much easier, partly I think because Owen became less messy but also because I got my act together better with how to deal with it, and I hardly notice it these days.
We gradually moved on from one to two meals a day and then from two to three by the time Owen was about eight months. He had his main meal at lunchtime as he seemed to eat much better then. We also gradually expanded the range of food to include things like omelette and scrambled egg, toast with a variety of toppings, fish, baked potatoes, potato cakes and pasta. Savoury muffins were a big hit at this age (and still are my de facto out and about food) as were apples, peeled, cored and sliced and then fried in butter and cinnamon.
We also started to occasionally offer pre-loaded spoons for breakfast cereal and yoghurt. At the start, I loaded the spoon, and handed it to Owen while I lightly held onto the end just enough to stop it being dropped or thrown. This quickly progressed to being able to hand Owen the spoon and have him feed himself and then hand me back the spoon to reload. At about ten months, he started to show an interest in loading his spoon himself too, and after a very messy phase, he was spoon-feeding himself independently before he reached his first birthday to the astonishment of many people who saw him. He got the hang of using a fork not long afterwards. It’s arguable whether preloaded spoons strictly count as BLW, but I was happy as long as Owen could control the food he ate, and it allowed him to eat a wider range of food. It was also very handy having him able to spoonfeed himself so early!
It felt like it was at about the nine month mark that we started to really hit our stride. I didn't spend all my time worrying about choking or frustrated with the amount of cleaning required. Once Owen could pick up small things, life became much easier as he could manage pretty much anything if it was chopped up well enough. It felt with BLW that you are getting all the hard part of weaning in the first couple of months rather than spread over a longer period of time. It was also at about this point, that I decided I had had enough of making separate food for Owen at lunchtime and that we should start eating the same thing as much as possible.
I did and still do find all the cooking a challenge. Luckily I never got sold on the theory that BLW is less work than puree weaning because they just eat the same as you. Owen was fast asleep by the time my husband was back from work, so having the same dinner was rarely an option, though we did sometimes give him leftovers from the previous day if what we had was suitable. We mostly cooked from scratch but realised how many ingredients we used contained scarily high levels of salt, and also discovered that there is a big difference between mostly cooking from scratch and always doing so. Owen’s voracious appetite also meant that I felt I had to make sure he had plenty of food that he could manage, the main obstacle being that as a late teether, there are lots of things that he trouble chewing. Before we started weaning I was usually having hastily flung together sandwiches for lunch full of unsuitable fillings.
To me this was the main downside of BLW. There was no fallback option of jars or pouches. In the early days, I was slightly jealous of my friends who could just follow a plan in a book. We adjusted what we ate, but that certainly wasn’t effortless. The way I mostly dealt with this was trying to treat it not as a chore but as an opportunity to learn to cook new things. I devoured the River Cottage Baby and Toddler Cookbook (which I preferred to The Baby Led Weaning Cookbook) and borrowed toddler recipe books from the local library. I beavered away in the kitchen while Owen slept in the evenings, and learned that things that I could prepare in advance and then put in the oven were simplest. In retrospect, it would have been worth doing some major furniture rearrangement to set up a baby-safe space in the kitchen. I started to cook in bulk and never had such a full freezer in my pre-child days. Nowadays I rarely cook anything that won’t last more than one meal unless it is something that takes less than ten minutes to make. I got out our slow cooker that was gathering dust and use it to sometimes make dinner for us and just give Owen some earlier on. It took me far too long to discover that frozen vegetables can be an occasional godsend.
I am reluctant to ascribe Owen’s lack of fussiness so far with food to BLW as I am pretty sure he would have loved food however we had weaned him. He doesn’t like grapefruit and possibly brussel sprouts, but I struggle to think of anything else. He will have the odd fussy day, and he sometimes eats his vegetables last, but I have certainly never felt that we have had any problems with food. Rather ironically, we now do the occasional bit of spoon-feeding. Owen learned the trick of opening his mouth for a spoon at nursery and now if he is under the weather or tired, he will hand us the spoon to feed him at the end of a meal when it becomes too hard work to scrape the bowl!
The biggest advantage of BLW in my mind is that it gives the baby control of what and how they eat. It forces you to cultivate a fairly laid back attitude to food and there's no temptation to get into food battles or try for 'just one more spoonful'. It’s pretty much impossible to be pushy if you are letting your baby feed themselves. Although, it’s absolutely possible to spoonfeed respectfully, it would take a whole lot more patience than doing BLW.
I also liked the fact that since food had texture right from the word go, so as far as Owen was concerned there was never a transition to food with texture so he has never had issues there. Likewise, you are more likely to introduce them to adult flavours early on if you try and eat the same thing, rather than falling back on ‘nursery foods’. As Owen wasn't napping anywhere sensible, one of the big plusses for me in the early days was also that I could eat my lunch at the same time as Owen ate.
Overall, I am really glad we did BLW. We certainly needn’t have worried about its effect on Owen’s weight – he went from below the 0.4th percentile at 6 months to the 25th percentile at a year!