Baby-led weaning: what it is, and how it worked for us

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"Open up wide! Here comes the choo-choo train!" The spoon zooms towards her mouth and she watches in delight. The tunnel opens, waiting for the mush. Then it slams shut. She avoids the spoon by moving her head from side to side, like one of those fairground clowns, arching her back to get as far away from the spoon as possible. Maybe she doesn't like carrot? But no, the tunnel also shuts for mushed apple, banana, avocado and baby rice.

Then I hear about baby-led weaning.

"It works. It's logical, it makes sense, it's just right," says Gill Rapley, co-author of Baby-Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods and Helping Your Baby to Grow Up a Happy and Confident Eater.

The idea is that your baby decides when they're ready to start eating solids, embarking on a gastronomic adventure by having the opportunity to handle "real" food. No purees, no spoon-feeding, just lots of fun.

While many of us are told that our babies are ready for solids at four months, the World Health Organization's current guidelines state that babies are ready for "nutritionally adequate and safe complementary solid foods at six months together with continued breastfeeding". By six months, babies generally can:

  • sit up with little or no support
  • reach out and grab things effectively
  • take objects to their mouth quickly and accurately
  • make gnawing and chewing movements.

While Rapley doesn't claim to have invented baby-led weaning (BLW), she coined the label while studying babies' development in relation to starting solids. And her research points out that because most babies have reached the above milestones by six months, there is no need for spoon-feeding or purees.

"If you simply give babies the opportunity by putting food in front of them, they will start to feed themselves at around six months," she says. "They'll be able to manage foods that need chewing, without the need for prior experience with purees and mashed foods."

So we give it a try.

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Within days my baby is sucking, chewing and gnawing on cucumber sticks, slices of avocado, steamed and roasted pieces of carrot, parsnip and pumpkin, and chunks of papaya, mango and watermelon. Within weeks, hot cross buns, risotto balls, frittata, Vegemite on toast, falafels, potato wedges, spaghetti, noodles and anything else she can grab gets devoured.

Within two months, she's dipping vegetable sticks into hummus and fruit into yoghurt. It's all real food and it often comes from my plate.

Just how adventurous we can be? According to Rapley, babies are willing to try just about anything.

"Parents are surprised by how much their babies enjoy curries and spicy foods, and they're surprised that their baby might eat something quite exotic like lobster or calamari," she says.

Before you pull out the silverware and invite your baby to join in your T-bone, Rapley urges parents to use common sense: "BLW isn't a laissez-faire 'get on with it, chumps'. It's a supported thing." You must be mindful of this when introducing foods that your baby could be allergic to, as well as processed foods, and those that are high in salt or sugar.

You must also modify the process if your baby has special needs or dietary instructions from their doctor; BLW also isn't for babies who were born prematurely or who have developmental delays. 

When I discuss BLW with other new parents, choking is a common concern. But Rapley is confident that BLW poses no greater risk of choking than spoon-feeding - and, in fact, could make it less likely.

"I think there's this underlying belief we have that children are liable to choke. What fascinates me is that so much of what we think we know about children and eating is based on our experience of giving them purees. My own research shows that babies gagged at any rate more on purees than on chewable foods."

She reminds parents not to confuse gagging and choking, which are quite different. Choking is having your airway completely blocked so no air can pass; you can't make any sound and you turn blue.

Gagging, on the other hand, is a retching movement that expels pieces of food that are too big to swallow. A baby's gag reflex is much farther forward on the tongue than an adult's, so when your baby gags, the food is not near their airway.

My baby did gag, cough and sputter a lot in the early days (and sometimes still does when new foods are introduced), and while my heart leapt, it didn't bother her at all. With continued practice, she is becoming more adept at knowing how much she can bite off (or, more likely, gum off) and how much food can fit in her mouth. There has been no choking and I'm confident that the risk is extremely low.

"If they're sitting upright and they're the ones who are in control of what goes into their mouths, there's no reason to suppose that they're at more risk of choking," Rapley says.

Lastly, embrace the mess. Invest in an easy-to-clean high chair with no hidden nooks, lay a mat on the floor, and wait for the food to go everywhere.

My baby inspects the food as it squashes between her fingers, concentrating intently when she manages to get a bit in. Her little tongue moves all around her mouth as she tries to get it down. Bits fall to her chin, then drop to whatever catches it (rarely the bib, unfortunately).

Rapley sums it up perfectly: "Babies enjoy it and parents enjoy seeing their baby enjoy it."

And she's right. It's been one of my most favourite stages.