Baby-led weaning (BLW) is an approach to introducing solid foods that focuses on a baby’s choices and allows them to choose what they eat. Soft, easily-chewable whole foods and thin sticks or harder fruits and vegetables can help maintain nutritional balance in BLW.
Caregivers can begin using this approach as soon as they introduce complementary foods alongside breastmilk or formula.
BLW is an approach to introducing solid foods that centers the baby’s interests and needs, allowing them to choose what to eat.
Instead of spoonfeeding them purees, parents and caregivers give babies age-appropriate versions of the food that the rest of the family is eating, so they can eat with their hands. These foods often include finger foods such as bananas or small carrots.
This allows babies to begin participating in family meal times and reduces time pressure on parents and caregivers. As they eat, so can their baby.
British nurse Gill Rapley introduced the idea of BLW in the early
The nonprofit Ellyn Satter Institute also encourages a similar approach. It recommends that parents and caregivers are responsible for what, when, and how a child eats. However, the child should always be able to decide whether they want to eat a specific food, and if so, how much of it.
Major health organizations tend not to recommend specific feeding plans or approaches when it comes to introducing solid foods.
For example, the
Other doctors also have varied opinions on BLW. Some may worry about the risk of choking, especially when babies consume certain finger foods, such as apple pieces, that require more chewing. However, research so far suggests that BLW is not dangerous.
However, babies whose caregivers used a traditional weaning approach were more likely to choke on finger foods and lumpy purees later on in the weaning process. This suggests BLW has a slight advantage in terms of safety, although more research is necessary to confirm this.
- sit up alone and without support
- control their head and neck
- swallow food rather than push it out of the mouth
- bring their hands to their mouth
- grasp small objects
A parent or caregiver should not give a baby solid foods if they cannot do the above or are younger than 4 months. They will be more likely to choke.
Some potential benefits of BLW include:
- Independence and autonomy: BLW encourages babies to eat independently. Advocates say this helps children become more confident at mealtimes.
- Self-regulation: By allowing babies to decide what and how much they eat, babies
can learnself-regulation. This means they learn to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.
- Motor skills: Handling food and learning to feed themselves may help babies practice fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
- Convenience: BLW allows babies to eat at any time or place when the rest of the family does. It also means a parent or caregiver does not have to feed them manually.
- Reduced pressure: When children control their own food intake, there may be less stress and conflict over food.
- Adventurous eating: Proponents claim that BLW can reduce pickiness and promote more adventurous eating. However, no research has proven this claim.
Some drawbacks of BLW include:
- Nutritional imbalances:
Some studieshave found that children whose parents use BLW are more likely to have nutritional imbalances or underweight. However, other studies have not reached the same conclusions.
- Exposure to less nutritious foods: If babies eat what the rest of the family is eating, they may ingest more salt or sugar than they would from purees. However, families can address this by eating balanced meals or by creating and offering baby-appropriate versions of what they eat.
- Choking risk: Some finger foods pose a choking risk.
Most research showsno difference in choking rates between babies who feed themselves and those who do not. However, it is important to modify or avoid any foods that pose this risk.
The foods that parents and caregivers must avoid when introducing solid foods are the same, no matter what approach they use. According to the
- Honey: Before the age of 12 months, honey may expose a baby to botulism, a life threatening form of food poisoning.
- Unpasteurized dairy: Heat treating or pasteurizing dairy kills bacteria, reducing the chance of food poisoning. Health experts do not recommend giving unpasteurized milk, yogurt, or cheese, but pasteurized alternatives are safe.
- Cow’s milk: Do not give cow’s milk before babies are 12 months. It contains too many nutrients that are difficult for them to digest and process.
- Caffeine: There is no safe level of caffeine for children under the age of 2 years.
- High mercury fish: Mercury is toxic, and larger fish can accumulate it in their bodies. Babies should not eat bigeye tuna, king mackerel, marlin, shark, or swordfish.
- Foods with added sugar: Added sugars offer no nutritional benefits. They can be present in fruit juices, baked goods, and flavored yogurts. Children under the age of 24 months should avoid them.
- High sodium foods: This includes processed foods such as cured meats, canned soup, and instant dinners.
There is no particular order when introducing foods when following BLW. Instead, advocates recommend taking cues from the child’s interests and abilities.
That said, many health organizations recommend introducing
To start with, a parent or caregiver can try introducing one new food that is similar to what the rest of the family is eating, after modifying it to be safe for babies. For example, if the rest of the household is eating a stew, a parent or caregiver could offer well-cooked baby carrots.
Finger foods work well, as they are easy to grip but small enough for a baby to insert into their mouth. However, they should not be so small that it is easy for them to accidentally swallow whole. Grapes pose a common risk for this.
Some ideas for BLW foods include:
- whole soft fruits, such as banana
- well-cooked vegetables, such as baby carrots
- thin sticks of harder fruits or vegetables, such as apple or celery
- soft or mashed pulses, such as lentils or chickpeas
- pieces of soft, chewable cheeses
- mashed versions of potential choking hazards, such as blueberries or grapes
As the baby tries new foods, parents and caregivers can start giving them different options. Again, it is best to introduce new options one at a time, so that if the baby has an allergic reaction, caregivers can identify the cause.
Each meal should have a source of protein, a vegetable, and a fruit or carbohydrate. For example, one meal might include mashed chickpeas, cooked carrots, and apple sticks.
Caregivers can allow the child to pick up the food themselves without trying to spoonfeed them. It is typical for the baby to occasionally spit food out and make some mess.
BLW does not work for every family. Some potential problems include:
- Lack of interest: If a baby does not show signs of wanting to eat solid foods, this could be because it is too soon for them to eat after their last feed. Try to space out solid meals away from milk or formula meals so they will be more likely to be hungry.
- Difficulty with feeding: If a baby is finding it difficult to feed themselves, try chopping the food into smaller pieces. Caregivers can also show the baby how to eat it by doing it themselves, making sure the child is watching.
- Disliking foods: Babies can take some time to decide if they like something. If they do not appear to be interested in one food on the first try, it does not mean they will not be interested in the future. Try offering new foods a few times before moving on to something else.
Consult a pediatrician if a baby is having significant difficulty with solid foods, particularly if they are not gaining weight or have any new symptoms, such as tiredness or signs of an allergy.
BLW is one of many approaches to transitioning to solid foods. Caregivers who wish to try it should know that research generally suggests it is safe. Supporters of this method also claim it has benefits, such as encouraging adventurous eating and self-regulation.
However, no studies have conclusively proven that BLW is superior to any other method. Like all weaning approaches, it has benefits and drawbacks.
Caregivers can discuss all nutrition concerns with a pediatrician. No matter what weaning approach a family takes, it is important to offer a wide variety of nutritious food to babies.