Baby-Led Weaning (BLW): the Background on BLW

If you have ever Googled “Baby Led Weaning” (BLW) or done an Amazon search for books on the subject, chances are that the first items to appear are the blog and book by Dr. Gill Rapley. While Gill claims she didn’t “invent” the theory of BLW, she is the first to coin the phrase “Baby Led Weaning” and to conclude:

Infants as young as six months can begin to feed themselves both safely and effectively.

If this is true, why isn’t your pediatrician telling you to allow your infant to self-feed?

If this is untrue, why are so many parents leaning towards a more BLW approach to introducing solids?

Background on BLW

There are a lot of opinions these days on what is best for our children, especially babies. From vaccination schedules to car seat safety recommendations, we continue to learn more and more about what is supposed to offer the safest outcomes for our children. Such recommendations seem to be constantly changing, so much so that what was true for one kid may not even be true by the next. On the subject of introducing solids, this is just as evident.

From reducing the risk of allergies, to giving infants rice cereal, to when to start solids, there are a lot of areas parents are understandably unsure about what to do when it comes to feeding. As both a parent and health practitioner, these questions have left me cautious and curious too. That’s why the information I have researched and provided for these posts on BLW are intended to better inform the inquisitive parent as well as allied health practitioners who serve the pediatric population and their parents.

This post will provide the background on BLW.

I always recommend you discuss any diet- and health-related topics with your child’s pediatrician and/or dietitian prior to practicing any approach, especially one that’s more unconventional like BLW. My hope is that this post and those to follow (about BLW) will help guide your conversations with your child’s healthcare provider, giving you a better idea about what questions you want to ask.

Background on BLW

In 2003, Dr. Rapley completed her Masters work with a small group of infants. She evaluated whether six month old infants had the necessary motor skills to self-feed pieces of whole food. What she observed was that instead of spoon-feeding, parents could allow infants to “lead” their introduction to solids by feeding themselves. Naturally, this lead to the term “Baby Led Weaning.”

What is “Weaning?”

Be it with baby foods or infant finger foods, the process for what starting to feed infants looks like continues to be very loosely defined on a global scale.

To the World Health Organization (WHO), “weaning” typically includes the introduction of “complementary foods” when breastmilk is no longer nutritionally adequate to meet an infant’s needs. In the United Kingdom and many other European countries, the introduction of solids is often referred to as “weaning” and increasingly assumes a BLW approach. In the United States, “weaning” is often regarded as “starting solids” in the form of spoon-feeding purees. Possibly the most liberal and yet applicable definition for the term “weaning” comes from La Leche League International:

“Weaning is not the cessation of breastfeeding but rather the addition of new foods.”

What is BLW?

As a feeding approach

According to Dr. Rapley,

“BLW encompasses offering healthy foods, sharing family mealtimes, making sure only your baby puts food into her mouth, and trusting her to know whether to eat, what to eat, how much and how quickly – as well as offering her graspable foods from the outset and letting her pick them up with her hands.”

As a feeding approach, BLW is less about whether you spoon-feed or self-feed. Instead, BLW focuses on embracing trust and respect for one’s baby. Similar to Ellyn Satter’s approach to feeding known as the Division of Responsibility, a BLW approach emphasizes your child’s eating capabilities and not necessarily if and how much they actually eat.

As a feeding method

One of the reasons a clearer definition for how to implement BLW is needed, is so parents can understand what infants eating capabilities even are. This is critical in order to safely introduce solids using BLW and will be addressed in a subsequent post about the developmental cues required for safe BLW.

Furthermore, Dr. Raply believes a more concrete definition of BLW as a feeding method is needed to aid in future research. Research on BLW is currently limited, much in part because there is no strict definition for what it is. In order to draw conclusions about the health-related outcomes for infants who are raised using BLW feeding methods versus more conventional feeding methods (like spoon-feeding), a clear definition is crucial. Applications from existing research on BLW will be included in an upcoming post as well.

Now that we have the background on BLW behind us…

Future posts will aim to answer many of the other questions that exist around if and when to use BLW, the skills required for successful and safe self-feeding, and several best practice approaches for applying BLW (for anyone who may choose to consider it with their child(ren)).

I did not attempt to answer all of these questions and concerns in this single post because I believe more information is needed on this relatively unknown subject of BLW. As a parent who has considered BLW and implemented this approach with both of our children, I know the depth of questions I wanted answered prior to entertaining this approach. Furthermore as a registered dietitian nutritionist, I know many of the questions that even my colleagues are asking about the BLW approach.

That is why for both the parent and health professional, I hope that this and the subsequent posts on BLW will be beneficial for the babies you love and serve.