"When can you start BLW?" is not a question to take lightly. Unlike the more forgiving nature of offering soft, smooth purees by spoon, the BLW approach requires developmental readiness to promote safe and successful feeding experiences. Be sure you know if and when is a safe time to try it. This post will address that.
When our first daughter demanded the opportunity to self-feed solids from the start, an old colleague of mine from the UK began talking to me about her being a “perfect candidate for baby-led weaning (BLW).” As a rule follower, I somewhat pushed this suggestion aside at first. I wanted to keep on course with introducing our infant to purees and what appeared to be a more age-appropriate progression of textures. I followed charts like those in Fearless Feeding religiously and found peace in their being a pattern in which to offer introductory foods.
I continued with purees and the standard progression for introducing solids until our daughter went on a strike, around nine months. With a freezer full on homemade baby food, she refused anything of a soft/pureed texture. With some input from my colleague and the resource she pointed us to, we transitioned into a BLW approach. This was a much different experience to do at nine months however, compared to us practicing BLW from the start this second time around.
When starting solids recently with our younger daughter, I was both more aware and less overwhelmed with all of the emerging information available. I had been exposed to traditional spoon-feeding methods as well as the increasingly popular approach of BLW. This allowed me to make an informed and educated decision for when and how to introduce our daughter to food. Paired with her personality and how she responded when introduced to solids, I was able to evaluate if BLW was the best approach for her (which it does appear to be).
Speaking to other parents who are riding in boats of uncertainty on how to start solids though, I can relate to how I felt when doing it with our first. With infants appearing to have zero self-feeding skills beyond the breast or bottle, the idea of “self-feeding” seems a bit scary. Offering “finger-like foods” to a young child, especially one only six months of age, also may feel very counter-culture to many of us. Being informed about how this actually “works” with an infant’s age and stage however, can set families up for successful feeding from the start.
The key lies in developmental readiness for receiving solids in this manner.
This post will answer the question, "When can you start BLW."
Exclusive Breastfeeding to Six Months
While there is much debate on when the best time to start solids is, BLW posits that infants be exclusively breastfed to six months. While some families may be offering bottles of breastmilk or formula (instead of or in addition to nursing), nursing is considered to most ideal way to feed during the “preparation phase for self-feeding” (anything prior to six months of age). Beyond the nutritional advantages of breastmilk over formula, a comprehensive study on BLW suggests that,
“A breastfed infant is better able to self-regulate their intake by feeding for as long and as often as they need, in contrast to a bottle fed infant who is offered a set amount of milk predetermined by the caregiver, and is therefore a more passive participant.”
Self-regulation of intake by the infant is a core tenet to BLW. While it can be established after solids are introduced, BLW considers it ideal to establish this approach to feeding and eating as early as possible, for both parent and child.
Self-Feeding from Six Months
Paramount to BLW, parents are to wait until six months of age, when an infant usually shows the developmental cues of readiness necessary to begin self-feeding. Such gross, oral, and fine motor skills usually present at around six months of age. If an infant is not six months of age nor shows the developmental cues required for BLW, the only safe feeding option is the conventional method of spoon-feeding purées. The following addresses some of the skills required and how they specifically related to the BLW feeding approach.
Developmental Cues Required for BLW
As any parent has witnessed, there are considerable differences in an infant’s development between four and six months of age. Advocates of BLW propose that an infant at six months of age is developmentally more advanced and therefore does not require purées nor to be spoon-fed by someone else. Instead, infants show the following gross, fine, and oral motor skills necessary for successful and safe self-feeding.
A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (now known as Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) found that the gross motor skills required for self-feeding are postural stability (the ability to sit with little or no help) and to reach for and grasp objects. Self-sitting is considered necessary for successful BLW because the ability to sit with little or no support allows the infant to use their arms to reach for food, rather than for balance. Research also concludes that at the time self-sitting abilities emerge (around 5 months), infants also start to develop coordinated use of their hands in object manipulation and exploration
Due to the way foods are offered with BLW, adequate development of fine motor skills are key. Infants need to be able to grasp “finger-like” pieces of food and bring them to their mouth for self-feeding. There has been some concern that infants using BLW may not have adequate energy intake, or rather the physical stamina necessary to eat enough calories. There is little research that has investigated the risk of failure to thrive in infants following BLW. Infants at greatest risk of failure to thrive are thought to be those whose self-feeding skills are under-developed and thus, cannot accomplish an adequate intake with self-feeding. If an infant appears to lack the stamina to self-feed for adequate growth, parents should consider speaking with their health practitioner and/or a pediatric dietitian. Monitoring for nutritional adequacy of the supplemental diet and charting overall growth trends can help identify any issues early and prevent actual problems from presenting.
Additionally, parents can help their infant develop fine motor skills for self-feeding with simple adaptations to the foods offered. Some ideas for modifications include cutting foods using tools that improve an infant’s ability to grasp it or to offer some skin on more slippery foods, such as bananas, pears, and peaches.
As an infant is able to grasp food and coordinate the movements necessary to make it into their mouths, they also must be able to safely “chew” and swallow such foods. As it relates to choking, this is likely the greatest concern and complaint about BLW. To many parents surprise, even infants with no teeth are able to adequately gum through soft foods, such as those suggested with BLW. The motion is described by one source as, “a munching type of oral-motor activity, using up-and-down movements of the jaw to break up food.” In infants as young as six months, this motion is considered adequate to breakdown soft foods.
As an infant develops, their tongue develops the lateral mobility necessary to move food around in the mouth, take food to the back of their mouth, and swallow. As teeth emerge, infants are able to tolerate even more texture and firmness, further expanding their options for safe finger foods. With BLW, infants may develop the skills necessary for self-feeding better than those who are fed strictly purees. The reason is because BLW puts evolving oral motor skills to use with a variety of textures. Conversely, waiting too long to introduce infants to texture (considered after 9 months by most research) may increase the likelihood for feeding difficulties and fussy eating.
When Can You Start BLW
The bottom line with BLW is not to start self-feeding until six months. Prior to then, your baby may not be developmentally ready to handle the finger foods they are offered. In order to set your baby up for successful and safe feeding, such fine, oral, and gross motor skills are necessary prerequisites.
To further ensure a safe feeding environment, there are several other considerations that are key to establish in kitchens practicing BLW. Sign up here to see the next post on BLW: Safe Feeding Practices to Prevent Choking.