By Kristy Webb, Registered Dietitian
Big thanks to the mamas in my April 2018 Moms Facebook group for sharing their pics of their BLW-babies!
Is it time to introduce your little one to food?
This is an exciting but confusing time, and the internet can sometimes provide more questions than answers: What do I offer first? What the heck is pablum? And what about this baby-led weaning thing I keep hearing about?
Well, fear not, mama—registered dietitians are here to help! While I could probably write a novel about babies and food, today we’ll focus on baby-led weaning.
Let’s start with the basics:
What is baby-led weaning?
Baby-led weaning (or BLW) is a method of introducing solids that baby self-feeds. Parents offer finger foods instead of purees, and baby typically consumes the same foods as the rest of the family in an age-appropriate format.
This is often a nice, natural progression from breastfeeding since in both cases baby is in charge of pacing the meal and is able to follow their own hunger and satiety cues; however bottle-fed babies can also be weaned in this manner.
How do you do it?
Starting as early as 6 months you can begin offering modified table foods to your baby. Some parents choose to prepare separate “baby foods,” but this is not necessary as by this point, most little ones are able to consume the same foods as the rest of the family.
Begin by offering either small, soft finger foods (e.g. cooked beans or eggs) or easily held and gummed foods (like French toast strips). As with traditional weaning, baby’s first foods should be iron-rich. Allow your baby to practice picking up the food and bringing it to their mouth on their own, and resist the urge to help them out too much. Most babies do not actually consume very much in the beginning, and that is completely normal. Rest assured, there is still a lot of learning going on! With time, your baby’s coordination will improve, and you’ll see more food making its way into their belly rather than onto your kitchen floor. (Maman Loup’s favourite way to keep baby clean during baby-led weaning is the BIBaDo bib!)
To encourage baby to eat and experiment with food, bring them to the table hungry but not starving. You can offer either solids or the breast/bottle first depending on what your baby prefers—there is no compelling evidence that it makes any difference in the long term.
Also, do not be afraid to offer seasoned (but not heavily sweetened or salted) foods. Weaning is all about introducing new flavours! Most babies will even enjoys chilis and curries. You may want to tone down the heat a little though, as baby may rub some food near their eyes.
When food is offered in an age-appropriate format, research has shown that babies allowed to self-feed are at no increased risk of choking. A baby may, however, gag as they learn to manipulate the food in their mouth. This is normal! I recommend familiarizing yourself with the difference between choking and gagging before you begin.
Why do it?
I’ve often seen the catchy but misleading statement “food before 1 is just for fun” floated during conversations about BLW. This makes the introduction of food before age 1 sound optional and unimportant while in reality this could not be further from the truth! Beyond the nutritional implications I will discuss below, the introduction of food allows baby to experience the social aspects of mealtime and parents to model healthy eating. Healthy eating habits learned in the earliest stages of life translate to healthier eating patterns all the way through to adulthood. First foods also provide exposure to new colours, textures and flavours and help to improve hand-eye coordination. It’s a time of huge sensory development!
There are quite a few benefits to introducing solids using BLW, not the least of which is that since there is no parental involvement required beyond providing the food and supervision, it allows parents to consume their own meal while it is still warm (this alone is a major #parentingwin in my books).
BLW is considered “responsive feeding” as baby is allowed to pace the meal on their own. This type of feeding has been shown to increase a child’s ability to regulate their calorie intake and may also help reduce the risk of obesity and related diseases later in life. Additionally, allowing baby to self-feed helps to increase hand-eye coordination and can help with the development of the pincer grip. Finally, it has also been established that exposure to lumpier textures and table foods before 9 months of age is associated with a decrease in selective eating behaviours and food refusal. This means fewer dinner time battles down the road.
With any method of introducing solids, including BLW, breastmilk or formula continues to meet the bulk of baby’s energy and nutrient requirements with only two major exceptions.
All babies are born with a reserve of iron from their mothers. As breastmilk does not contain much iron, these stores are mostly depleted by approximately 6 months of age. One of the major goals of introducing solids at or around this age is to replenish these stores.
When doing BLW, it is important to ensure baby is consuming (not just playing with) iron-rich foods regularly. Meats, beans, lentils, eggs, fortified cereals and other iron rich foods should be offered twice daily. If your baby struggles to consume much of these foods beyond the first month or so, I recommend temporarily switching to a pureed meat or infant cereal to ensure they do not develop an early deficiency. The effects of this type of deficiency on a developing infant brain are lasting and irreversible.
Despite what you may have heard, I have yet to come across any science that shows any negative impact from offering both purees and finger foods at the same time. As far as I am concerned, you do not need to “choose a side” when it comes to feeding your baby! Go with the flow.
The vitamin D content of breastmilk varies greatly depending on a mother’s diet. As such, we recommend all babies continue to receive a daily vitamin D supplement until age 2.
Make baby-led weaning part of family time feeding
No matter how you choose to introduce foods to your baby, try to make mealtimes pleasant and relaxed. Turn off the tv. Embrace the mess. Take tons of adorable messy face pictures and enjoy the ride!
Reference: Health Canada Infant Feeding Recommendations