There has been a lot of buzz about Baby Led Weaning (BLW) in the last few years, and I often get parents asking how I feel about the topic. I can’t give a clear yes or no because it depends on several factors, and I wanted to explain my thoughts as a pediatric feeding therapist and some important points to consider on both sides of the debate.
Let me first say that as a natural childbirth, breastfeeding, baby-wearing mama, I love the idea behind BLW. If I wasn’t a feeding therapist, I probably would have immediately jumped right onto this band wagon. I am drawn to the social aspect, ease, and natural-ness (is that a word – doesn’t matter I’m using it) to baby led weaning, but I’ve unfortunately seen some of the pitfalls in my practice. So you can be sure I’m going to cover that, too! I will mention that all of the specific feeding approaches I have been trained in over the years do not recommend it.
What is Baby Led Weaning (BLW)?
If you aren’t familiar with baby led weaning, the basic idea is that you give your baby soft table foods during family meals and allow them to learn to chew instead of using pureed baby foods as parents traditionally have done. BLW proponents argue that this supports oral motor development and proactively avoids picky eating in children. I think there is some truth to that, but certainly picky eating can still develop as children’s taste buds and behaviors evolve. In my opinion, there are a few major advantages and possible disadvantages with BLW:
Baby Led Weaning Pros
- Full on sensory experience that completely allows babies to explore their food and a variety of textures.
- Usually don’t have to prepare a separate meal* and baby has social benefit of watching you eat the same thing.
*Many of a family’s meals can also be pureed quickly right before everyone sits down to the table. Small blenders and quick choppers like the Magic Bullet work really well with this approach.
Baby Led Weaning Cons
- Minimal if any exposure to pureed foods, which baby needs to learn to manage as well.
- Babies can miss the window to learn how to chew and be exposed to food if parents wait too long (explained further below).
- If parents offer unsafe foods or foods in the wrong shape or size they could become a choking hazard.
I have to admit that there have been a few times that I have been, hmmm what’s the word I want to use, annoyed disappointed with BLW because parents have told me that they hadn’t started feeding their child food because they didn’t show an interest. Sometimes these babes were now 12 months old or more and had missed the ideal window to get their baby eating, which happens between 7-11 months. Often these babies had underlying oral motor or sensory issues that made accepting food more difficult, which is why they were likely avoiding it. If they had been traveling on the traditional path and began with safe foods such as dissolvable puffs, they may have noticed and sought help. Or, the child would have responded well to a food like puffs because it has a crunch to it, which is usually beneficial and thus successful for kids with oral motor and/or sensory processing difficulties. Instead the parents were just waiting for the day their child would start to show an interest in food, a day that didn’t come. Of course, these kids would eventually eat, but it was a much harder road this late in the game.
On the other side of the coin, going the traditional method can have it’s pitfalls, too. I think many parents, especially in America, tend to rely on pureed foods for too long. Parents are often scared of choking and gagging and keep waiting to introduce those table foods. In this case, the same scenario plays out where babies have missed an important window of easy learning and intuition. Of course, they can still learn these skills, but it is often more challenging. While neither of these situations is the norm, I think it is very important to be aware of these potential ways to unknowingly sabotage oral motor development.
When I first began to feed my oldest son five years ago, I combined some of the BLW principles with the traditional puree food route. I gave him big pieces of food to gnaw and mouth on during our meals, usually foods that he couldn’t get pieces off of or if he did, very tiny pieces. I let him get incredibly messy and self feed purees from a very young age. I fed him during our meals and pureed the food we were eating. My second child had underlying sensory issues, and although it was a lot more effort with some extra interventions, we followed a similar path as well. I plan to do the same for this tiny babe, too. If you would like more details on making your own baby food or how to transition your baby or toddler to table food click here and here.
What Should You Do?
As a feeding therapist, I think the best route is combing the two methods, as I just described. You can still give your child the large pieces of food and serve homemade baby food for a short while to make sure they are developing that skill and getting a wide variety of nutrients. Remember to be aware if your child is struggling with table foods whichever way you go, as this can be an indicator of difficulties with oral motor skills or sensory processing. Every child is different and certainly give them some time to figure it out, but if you are at the 10 month mark and table foods are still a challenge, talk to a doctor and/or seek out an evaluation from a feeding therapist.
If you decide to go the BLW route, make sure you educate yourself completely so that you can feel confident about safely giving foods to your child. Also, don’t be afraid to throw in some pureed foods here and there. Lastly, I ask that even if you love BLW, try not to judge parents that go the traditional route. Some babies aren’t capable of it, as I know quite well, and I’ve unfortunately seen some really harsh comments about baby food from BLW advocates on this blog and on social media. Please feel free to leave non-judgmental comments sharing your experiences, thoughts, or questions!