Baby-Led Weaning (or feeding) is the latest trend for starting solids. Essentially, it entails skipping purees and allowing infants to feed themselves (which is just as messy – and fun – as it sounds). There are plenty of parents who swear by it. In fact, it has gained something of cult-like following. But is there evidence to support this non-traditional method?
Since BLW is a fairly new approach (at least in any structured sense of the term), the research behind it is also new and emerging. So, there isn’t yet a consensus among scientists and healthcare providers. While still in its infancy (no pun intended), however, there does seem to be some evidence to support baby-led weaning – though with a few caveats.
Gill Rapley, who coined the term Baby-Led Weaning, poses that infants fed using this approach, “discover a wide range of healthy foods and learn important social skills. And he’ll eat only as much as he needs.” But what does the evidence say? As I mentioned, there isn’t yet a lot of research on the subject. So, results should be interpreted with some caution. And of the research that does exist, most relies exclusively on self-reported data, meaning that interpretation of terms like “fussiness” may vary between subjects.
With that said, there is some evidence to support the notion that Baby-Led Weaning may help to facilitate a positive relationship with food. For example, one study by Arden and Abott looked at mothers’ perceptions of their child’s eating habits. They noted that mothers following a BLW approach perceived their children to be highly responsive to satiety cues – meaning that they ate when hungry and stopped when full. This finding was duplicated by Brown and Lee who also found that mothers reported less “fussiness” (or picky tendencies) at 18-24 months. They did note, however, that those results were no longer significant when maternal feeding style was taken into account.
Assessing the Risks – Choking
As you may have guessed, choking is a primary criticism of BLW. Fortunately, current evidence does not suggest a higher incidence of choking with Baby-Led Weaning (as noted in this systematic review). Interestingly, one study (Brown, 2017) found a higher prevalence of choking on finger foods and lumpy purees among infants who were traditionally weaned. The researchers postulated that earlier and more frequent exposure to finger foods could potentially have had a protective effect against choking in groups following a Baby-Led Weaning approach – though more research is needed to better understand this finding.
Assessing the Risks – Nutritional Status
Another potential concern regarding Baby-Led Weaning is nutritional status – both overall and regarding iron specifically. Critics of the approach worry that:
1) Children may not be developmentally able to feed themselves enough foods.
2) Iron status may be compromised as parents often forgo infant cereal.
3) Family foods containing high levels of added sugar and/or salt may be inappropriately given.
The research on this point is scarce. One fairly small study by Morrison et al. did find lower consumption of iron (as well as zinc and B12, which are typically found in foods rich in iron) in children whose parents followed a BLW approach. They did not find a difference in overall energy consumption between traditional and BLW groups.
In Favor of a Mixed Approach
Adopting a Baby-Led Weaning approach doesn’t mean you have to ditch the spoon altogether. In fact, many healthcare professionals now champion a “mixed” approach. Why? Mostly because it may help to safeguard your baby from missing out on nutrients (particularly iron) before she has the skills to get foods into her mouth. In other words, she may need you to help fill in the gaps. But, remember that it’s important to follow your child’s lead – spoon or no spoon. Always pay attention to cues from your child like turning her head away (“no thanks!”) or opening her mouth at the site of the spoon (“yes please!”).
But if your child doesn’t accept food from a spoon, no worries! Put the spoon away and let her explore the other foods on her tray. Or she might be so bold as to grab the spoon herself. Our daughter certainly did! So, we opted to give her her own spoon. And she was all about it. Rolling with the punches is key to a positive feeding dynamic.
A Final Word on First Foods
I will be the first to say that I am a Baby-Led Weaning enthusiast. We did it, and we loved it! But food is personal – and so is feeding. As feeding expert and Division of Responsibility (DoR) pioneer Ellyn Satter notes, each child differs greatly in their approach to eating. What matters most is that you follow your child’s lead. And you can totally do that when spoon feeding!
If, however, you opt to follow this approach, there are a few things to know. Cutting food into safe shapes is, of course, essential. For parents planning to start solids this way, I recommend grabbing a copy of Baby-Led Feeding: A Natural Way to Raise Happy, Independent Eaters – an awesome and straightforward guide on the subject. It’s also important to understand the basics of early nutrition when deciding which foods to offer. In particular, remember that your baby needs plenty of iron-rich foods. But they don’t need foods with added sugar and salt (I promise, your baby will not notice or mind, at least early on). The BLISS study offers a wonderful at-glance resource for safe implementation of BLW.
Regardless of which approach you take, enjoy welcoming your baby to the table! If you have fun with feeding, chances are your little one will too.
Disclaimer: The information on this site is in no way intended to be a substitute for medical advice. It is intended for general informational purposes only. Always seek personalized medical advice and consult your practitioner with questions regarding your or your child’s health.