Baby Led Weaning: A Beginner’s Guide

 I’d never heard of Baby Led Weaning (BLW) until my old boss came to meet Primrose and thrust the book at me. “Do this!” she told me. Usually, that kind of order would annoy me in the world of parenting, but she went on to say why… She and her husband, like Phil and I, LOVE food. Indeed, when I worked for her it was as an Event Planner at her catering company. She had read up on BLW and went for it with both her children, who are now mini foodies themselves.

In addition to ensuring a love of food, a quick read of the book further convinced me, for the following reasons:

Eating out on holiday at 11 months
– It encourages independent eating from the get go.

– We don’t mess with other milestones – babies learn to crawl, walk and talk at their own pace: we don’t suddenly decide that one day they will walk and force them to do it.

– Babies are trusted to decide, from what is put in front of them, what does and doesn’t go in their mouths, rather than having this dictated by their parents. Obviously, parents choose the foods but they have a choice: if faced with a piece of chicken, some carrots, some green beans and some potato, they can opt to eat those foods in any order, or leave some out. After all, we don’t fancy certain things on certain days.

– Amazingly, babies seem to know what they need. If Primrose is under the weather, she’ll eat as much fruit and veg as she can lay her hands on. If she’s been swimming or done a lot of walking, it’s all about carbohydrates. Further proof that babies are seriously clever little beings.

– Babies learn to differentiate between tastes and textures from the word go. Rather than having a load of different vegetables and some protein mixed up together and pureed, they can see, touch, smell and taste each thing: every meal is a sensory experience. Consequently, parents can quickly see if there’s something their baby isn’t keen on because they will try it and leave it to one side.

– Eating is a social experience from the beginning. We eat together as a family every night and have taken Primrose to restaurants to eat from the moment she started weaning at six months. We have never cooked a separate meal for her, which has meant no faffing with blenders, ice cube trays or other, often expensive, items of kit.

– Fine motor skills are quickly honed – the pincer grip and hand/eye coordination, plus use of spoons and forks, are practised all the time. Yes, they can feel frustrated when learning each new skill but they pick them up very quickly!

– It seemed a natural progression from offering milk on demand, allowing babies to eat as much –or as little – as they need or want.

– We hated the idea of ‘battles’ over food – trying to make her eat something she didn’t want; determining how much she has to eat before finishing her meal; doing aeroplane noises with a spoon to get her to open her mouth to have food put in… it just didn’t feel right for us as food is there to be enjoyed, right?

 

IMPORTANT POINTS TO NOTE:

It’s not possible to do ‘a bit of both’. Offering finger foods alongside puree is still ‘traditional weaning’, which is absolutely fine, if that’s the way you chose to go.

Both the WHO, Department of Health and NHS now stipulate that babies should not be given solids until ‘around six months of age’. The NHS information on first foods is really helpful. It can be found here. We started a week before Primrose was six months.

Signs of readiness:

– Your baby can sit up and hold their head up with no support.
– They can reach out and grab things easily and accurately.
– Objects are put in the mouth with accuracy.
– They can make a chewing movement with their mouths.
– They have lost their ‘tongue thrust’ reflex.

I’ve heard so many parents say that their baby was ready because they were ‘watching them eat dinner’. Babies watch EVERYTHING you do; want whatever you’ve got. This doesn’t mean they’re ready for solids, unless they are displaying all the signs above as well.

Around 4 months, babies tend to go through a sleep regression. Well-meaning parents, grandparents and friends with older babies may try to tell you that they’re waking because they’re hungry, so need food. Not so. This is a developmental ‘leap’ and one which requires comfort and reassurance from you. If they give hunger cues, additional milk is the answer.

Don’t be fooled by misleading labelling on weaning items. Annabel Karmel, for example, still has products on the market ‘from 4m’. Her bank balance, sadly, seems to be of greater importance to her than following the professional advice from those who know better, as she chooses to flout the advice outlined by the NHS and WHO.

Thinking of offering Baby Rice? You may want to read this first.

There are some babies who, with medical guidance, need to be given solids before 6 months. Severe reflux, for example, often results in paediatricans advising parents to try some solid food (puree) as it sits more heavily in the stomach. My brother was weaned VERY early because of the condition that he had, for example. However, this must be carried out only with medical guidance.

 

MYTH BUSTING/REACTIONS YOU’LL GET BORED OF:

“Oh my GOD, surely she’ll choke!” Usually uttered by the older generation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain that there is less of a choking risk with BLW than with purees – babies have total control and, having spent months shoving toys in their mouths, they know where their gag reflex is. Spoon feeding bypasses that reflex – the food hits the back of their throat and doesn’t hit the gag reflex. So, if it goes the wrong way, choking can occur. Primrose gagged a few times in the early days and it was a bit of a shock (even though I was expecting it!). Go by the saying: Loud and red, let them go ahead. Quiet and blue, they need help from you.
I also did a First Aid Course with St John’s Ambulance to put my mind at rest.

“But seriously, the MESS!” This isn’t strictly a myth. There WILL be mess, sure. But whenever you decide to stop spoon feeding and let baby feed themselves, there’ll be mess. This way, it just happens a bit sooner. We started off needing to clean the floor constantly, along with removing the highchair tray after every ‘meal’. Now, the floor gets swept once a day and the tray gets a wipe down and a spray with antibac.

“How can you trust her to get enough food?” Food before one is ‘just for fun’. Babies’ main source of nutrition until 12m of age is breast or formula milk. The idea that filling up their tummies with solids will make them sleep better is, thankfully, now deemed rubbish. Indeed, the start of weaning at 6 months can spell a few nights of increased wakefulness as babies get used to this new experience. Babies are clever – trust them to get there on their own and, nine times out of ten, they will!

“But you were weaned at 3 months and you’re OK.” Ah, the old ‘you turned out ok’ line. It’s true, I’m not a fussy eater BUT I do also struggle to leave food on my plate even after I’m full. Is it the voice of my parents from 33.5 years ago, still ringing in my head: “Come on, eat it all up like a good girl.” Who knows, but this information on the ‘open gut’ leaves me wondering about friends with IBS, allergies, poor relationships with food etc – do these all stem from being part of a generation weaned (what now seems) crazily early?

“If solids are started before a baby’s system is ready to handle them, they are poorly digested and may cause unpleasant reactions (digestive upset, gas, constipation, etc.).  Digestion of fats, protein, and complex carbohydrates is incomplete in infancy, but human milk contains enzymes that aid efficient digestion (Naylor & Morrow  2001).In addition, from birth until somewhere between four and six months of age babies possess what is often referred to as an “open gut.” This means that the spaces between the cells of the small intestines will readily allow intact macromolecules, including whole proteins and pathogens, to pass directly into the bloodstream.”

Full article available here.

“But she’s barely eaten anything.” Nope, but food before one is mainly* just for fun. She may also not be hungry at the moment. Babies should be offered a milk feed before each ‘meal’ so their nutrition from milk isn’t interfered with.
*at some point after 6 months, iron and zinc requirements aren’t met by breastmilk alone. If you’re offering foods rich in iron and zinc but baby isn’t eating much in addition to breast milk, you may wish to give a multivitamin, rather than just Vitamin D supplements. Keep an eye on their growth and development and speak to your Health Visitor if you have any concerns.

 

FOODS TO AVOID/OTHER POINTS TO NOTE:

Salt: Babies under 12 months can only process a maximum of 1g per day. If you’re making food from scratch, this isn’t a problem. Check labels carefully and, if eating out, make sure plenty of water and/or breast milk is given to keep baby hydrated. Processed foods contain A LOT of salt so offer with caution.

Honey: Should not be given to babies under 12m due to their inability to fight botulism.

Cow’s milk: Shouldn’t be given as a drink before 12m, but whole milk can be used in porridge, mashed potatoes, pancakes etc.

Whole nuts: A choking hazard to be avoided. Small pieces of nut are fine.

Grapes/blueberries/cherry tomatoes: Cut into quarters (halves for blueberries)

Stoned fruit: Needs to be cut and have the stone removed.

Sugar: Like salt, this can easily be reduced if cooking from scratch. Natural sweeteners such as maple syrup or molasses can be used instead. Again, read labels carefully as sugar comes under many different names. Don’t feel the need to completely remove it from your baby’s diet – if they see you eating a cake or biscuit, it is inevitable that they’ll want to try and a little won’t hurt (The holiday photo above is the result of Prim’s first pain au chocolat!)

Lettuce: Any leaves can cause choking as they create a layer at the back of the throat – small babies don’t have molars to chew or grind leaves down.

Typical allergens: Unless you have a family history of allergies, there is no need to avoid any particular food BUT it is wise to offer small amounts of things such as peanut butter initially, just in case of a reaction, and consider doing this earlier in the day, rather than before bedtime, so you can monitor for any reactions. If in any doubt about allergies or intolerances, keep a food diary, just as you would if you suspect them whilst breastfeeding.

 

KIT YOU MAY FIND USEFUL:

The beauty of BLW is that it’s a cheap option, and less time consuming – no need to invest in expensive gimmicks. However, there are a few bits that we’ve found helpful.

IKEA Antilop chair with Pyttig cushion
Highchair: It’s safe to say that the IKEA Antilop is by far the most popular highchair amongst BLWers. Easy to wipe clean, sturdy, no annoying crevices for food to get trapped in, and a steal at £13. You can also buy the brilliant Pyttig supporting cushion for £6. Inflatable, with washable covers and, at £6, it’s worth buying two so you have a spare to take out with you – the wooden highchairs found in most restaurants are much too roomy for tiny bubs!

Wipe clean mat: Not required if you hard flooring or linoleum but a godsend if your dining area is carpeted. Places like Dunelm sell oilcloth by the metre – lots of choice to suit all pockets, wipeable and easy to fold away when not in use. This can also double up as a mat to put down if your child is using paints or doing messy play.

Tall dustpan and brush: Again, not a necessity, but a life saver for your back!

Safe cleaner: You’ll be cleaning your highchair and the floor underneath A LOT in the beginning. Rather than using harsh chemicals around baby, products by companies like Ecover and Method are very effective and much safer.

Flannels: Whilst wipes are handy when out and about, cleaning baby’s hands before each meal, and after eating, three times a day with them would cost a fortune. This 10 pack from IKEA have been brilliant – enough to have some in the wash, some drying and some in use at all times.

BabyCup: I can’t recommend these enough. Tiny cups for tiny hands – I was expecting Primrose to drink out of a beaker with a spout before listening to Gill Rapley talk about ensuring utensils are functional for little hands. These cups hold 50ml of water, so if it spills, it barely makes a mess, and contain no nasty chemicals that can leach into water either. Dishwasher safe and in packs of four, meaning one can go in your bag for trips out – seriously handy!
Helpfully, they are also fantastic for giving expressed breast milk to babies who don’t want to take a bottle.
More information available here.

‘Rice’ forks: Again, making sure that forks can actually spear food is important – nothing more frustrating for a baby than trying to master a skill without having the tools to do the job. Whilst the tines on these melamine forks by Rice aren’t sharp, they could still hurt, so it goes without saying that babies will need to be watched carefully when using them.

Munchkin cup: Although we love the BabyCup, they aren’t the most practical for car journeys or playdates, when lots of toddlers are running around! For times like these, we use the Munchkin Miracle 360. No spills = WINNING!

Suction bowls: There are lots of these available, from various different companies and they are really useful in avoiding spills. We started using ours again recently when mastering cereal with a spoon (rather than hands), to stop milk going everywhere.

Hippychick coveralls
Coveralls: Between Lauren and I, there aren’t many coveralls we haven’t tried. As they’ve been washed and worn so many times over the past year, we’ve found the following the most useful: Hippychick (tie neck, rather than Velcro), John Lewis (Velcro at the neck AND a tie across the back) and Close Pop-In (various reliable fastenings and stain resistant). Other brands we’ve tried have either only Velcro fastenings, which eventually lose their ‘stick’ OR, as with the JoJo Maman Bebe coverall, the pocket at the front that catches spillages is really rigid, so is difficult to tuck in and is distracting for baby, who’ll want to play with it/tip the food out.

WHAT FOOD SHOULD I START WITH?

Venison, baby corn and green beans at 6.5 months
Anything that you’re having. Seriously! Some of Primrose’s first foods (apart from a pizza crust that was snatched out of my hand and gnawed on), were rice cakes, chunks of avocado and tomato, strips of steak, broccoli, potatoes and some carrots.

It is worth making sure that vegetables are fairly well cooked so they can be ‘gummed’. You may also want to remove the skin from (low salt) sausages, as well as bones from fish and, if you give meat on the bone, make sure the bone itself is ‘sturdy’. Chicken legs, for example, are better then wings, and other bones can splinter, leaving sharp areas. Common sense is all that’s needed.

Obviously, you may need to adapt certain meals. Soup, for example can be offered with chunks of bread to dip, or soak it up. Anything requiring cutlery can be ‘preloaded’ onto spoons – porridge, yoghurt etc – but can equally just be eaten with hands. Messier, yes. More fun, absolutely!

 

AND FINALLY…

I honestly cannot recommend Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett’s books highly enough, so much so that I recently organised an event at which Gill was one of the speakers. Her ideas just makes sense – she says herself that BLW isn’t a ‘new’ thing – just that she’s put a name to something that many parents have been doing for years. Her website is a useful tool and the books are available there, as well as at all major bookshops.

 

Of all the Facebook groups I joined, it is Baby Led Weaning UK that I would recommend. All the admins are incredibly helpful and it’s a great resource when you’re starting out.

GO FOR IT, AND HAVE FUN 🙂

Jo, The Mother Side xxx

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