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What Is Baby-Led Weaning?

We’re tackling a topic today that you may or may not have heard about: baby-led weaning. What is it? What are the benefits? Is it something you should try with your baby? We’ll explore all those questions in this post.

First, though, let’s clear up a misconception about the term itself. The “weaning” part of baby-led weaning refers to the British definition of the word — in the U.K., “weaning” means “adding complementary foods.” It doesn’t mean “giving up breastfeeding or bottle feeding”, which is how those of us in the U.S. would use the term.

What is Baby-Led Weaning?

This is really simple.  Baby-led weaning refers to letting your baby feed herself small chunks of food right off the bat.  No runny purees.  No bowls and spoons (at first).  Just pieces of food, offered to your baby, and she takes it from there.

With baby-led weaning, you don’t feed your baby. She feeds herself. She decides what, and how much, to eat. Basically, baby-led weaning puts feeding in the hands (literally!) of your baby, and not you.

Baby-Led Weaning: The Philosophy Behind It

Baby-led weaning (a term coined by Gill Rapley, a former mid-wife) is based on the idea that babies aren’t really ready for food until they’re around 6 months old. Once they’re 6 months, though, most babies are ready to start feeding themselves.

Advocates of baby-led weaning point out that our babies know better than we do what they want to eat, and how much they want to eat. They also know when they’re ready to eat. So rather than we (the parents) setting arbitrary starting dates for introducing solids, and pushing “mush” (as they call it) on our little ones, it makes more sense to put “real” food in front of baby and let him take care of the rest.

Common Questions About Baby-Led Weaning

The practice of baby-led weaning definitely isn’t mainstream; most of us automatically think about jars of baby food and tiny baby spoons when we think about starting our babies on solids.

So understandably, lots of parents have questions about baby-led weaning — questions like:

  • Do I just give my baby food and then walk away? No, that’s not the idea. It’s true that you, the parent, shouldn’t put food into your baby’s mouth or feed him yourself, but you should be nearby to help encourage him as he eats.  You can help him guide the food to his mouth, and you can make sure he doesn’t choke (more on that next.)
  • Won’t my baby choke?!  That’s a very normal concern with baby-led weaning; it seems downright dangerous to give a 6 month old baby a big hunk of apple to gnaw on, doesn’t it? But baby-led weaning advocates assert that using this technique, babies learn to chew very early on, whereas babies who are spoon-fed purees learn to swallow first and to chew later.  So choking is no more a concern with this technique, they say, than it is with a more traditional approach to starting solids.People who’ve tried this method also point out that gagging is different than choking. Gagging is a baby’s response to swallowing a large lump of something, and it’s a normal, safe reaction.  I know my children all did this when they were little and were first eating solids. Choking, on the other hand, happens when a piece of food actually blocks baby’s airway, and it’s dangerous.  Parents who try baby-led weaning may notice gagging, but that’s not the same as true choking.
  • Is it healthy? You may wonder if allowing your baby to choose his own foods, and to eat as much (or as little) as he wants, is a healthy approach to starting solids.  After all, will your baby really choosepeas? And what if he’s not eating much? Should you encourage him to eat more?Research actually suggests that baby-led weaning is a healthy alternative to more traditional methods of starting solids — in fact, it may be a slightly healthier way to go, according to a recent study. More on that in a moment.

Baby-Led Weaning: The Benefits

According to those who’ve tried it, baby-led weaning has a few key benefits:

  • It makes starting solids less stressful. If you have a baby who’s resistant to solid food, you know how stressful starting solids can be! Baby-led weaning eliminates some of that stress — your baby eats when he wants to and stops eating when he’s done. Since your baby takes the initiative, eating happens on his terms. And basic psychology tells us that when a child (or an adult, for that matter!) feels like something is his idea, and that he’s in control, he’s much more likely to respond well.What’s more, baby-led weaning eliminates some of the work for mom and dad, making mealtimes easier for everyone. If baby’s busy feeding herself, that frees you up to enjoy your own dinner.
  • It follows a more “natural” progression. I’m not suggesting there’s anything unnatural about spoon-feeding your baby purees. Not at all! But the way we traditionally introduce solids to babies today (spoon-feeding runny purees) is fairly new. For most of history, our ancestors have practiced a version of baby-led weaning. They waited until the baby was big enough to sit up, to chew, and to grab food; then, they offered baby small bits of what everyone else was eating.  Seen in that light, baby-led weaning seems less like a new-fangled practice and more like a return to older practices.
  • It’s healthy. As mentioned earlier, a study published in April 2012 by the BMJ Group revealed that baby-led weaning may be a slightly healthier way to start your baby on solids. It seems that babies who’ve experienced baby-led weaning tend to choose healthier options; they also tend to have healthier BMI’s than babies who are spoon-fed (perhaps because their appetites guide their eating.

Should I Try Baby-Led Weaning With My Baby?

To baby-led wean or not to baby-led wean? The choice is yours, of course. It’s probably best if you talk to a healthcare provider about your options; your HCP will be able to steer you towards the healthiest choice for your family.

Considering baby-led weaning? Here are some good resources to check out:

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Have you tried baby-led weaning? What were your experiences? If not, is it something you’d consider? Share your thoughts!

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