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 you have found all sorts of references.

Almost five years ago when I first looked into BLW when starting it with our now oldest child, the first items to come up in a search were both the original 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 that infants as young as six months can begin to feed themselves both safely and effectively.

If this is true, why aren't more pediatricians telling us as parents to allow our infants to self-feed?

If this is untrue, why are so many parents still trying BLW?

Nowadays, BLW is becoming much more mainstream. What was first a common infant feeding trend in Europe has spread to North America, gaining interest in the U.S. and even remarks in Canada’s latest statement on Infant Nutrition. As someone who has practiced this approach to introducing solids with all three children now, I am much more comfortable and familiar with it than I was when we first found ourselves struggling with purees in our firstborn. I recognize that even with its growing popularity, majority of parents are still either uncomfortable and/or unfamiliar with BLW.

That’s what this post will review some of the background on BLW as an increasingly common approach to infant feeding.

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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 be true by the time we need to make such a decision with the next. On the subject of introducing solids, this is just as evident.

From reducing the risk of allergies to when to start solids, there are a lot of areas parents are understandably unsure about what to do when it comes to infant 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 in sharing this post is that it will help guide the conversations with your child’s healthcare provider, giving you a better idea about what questions you may want to ask or topics you may wish to discuss in more depth.

The 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. 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.”

Dietitians Leslie Schilling and Wendy Jo Peterson go on to say in their book, Born to Eat (affiliate link), that weaning is best defined as,

The process of an infant moving from a sole diet of breastmilk or formula to the incorporation of solid foods for pleasure, nourishment, growth, and development.

This process of “weaning” can include the addition or incorporation of new, solid foods using a spoon-feeding approach (using parent-led feeding of purees) or a baby-led, self-feeding approach, like BLW.

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, the description above helps to share our understanding that BLW is less about what actual food is offered but more so the manner in which our infants are introduced to solids. Consistent with Ellyn Satter’s approach to feeding, known as the Division of Responsibility, a BLW approach emphasizes a child’s eating capabilities in a way that allows infants to determine their readiness to explore food, initiate bringing it to their mouths, and ultimately discovering how to eat and the amount they take in.

Often after learning about the Division of Responsibility in feeding and recommended food parenting practices, families who might have spoon-fed one child decide they want to “do things differently” when introducing solids with subsequent children. Using a BLW approach often helps such families set up a feeding foundation that supports the Division of Responsibility.

Some of the differences we see between a parent-led and baby-led feeding approach include the following (as outlined by Dietitian Mom, Jessica Coll, from the International Infant Nutrition Network of Registered Dietitians):

A Traditional Parent-Led, Spoon-Feeding Experience:

  • Baby has little to no opportunity to touch the foods

  • Foods offered are usually different from the rest of the family

  • Baby often eats separately from the family

  • Foods offered are uniform in texture and shape while offering limited flavors and colors

  • Parents decide when feeding begins, the pace of feeding, and when the baby is finished

A Traditional Baby-led, Self-Feeding Experience:

  • Baby explores each food and when ready, brings it to mouth

  • Baby eats the same foods as the rest of the family (with occasional modifications merited)

  • Baby often eats at the same time as the family/during the family meal

  • Foods offered are unique in their textures, tastes, colors, and shapes

  • Baby decides when to bring a food to their mouth, the pace in which they eat, and when they feel satisfied

What is BLW as a feeding method?

From a practical perspective, many families adapt BLW to fit their family and overall lifestyle. Particularly when infants are in a more traditional daycare or fed by caregivers who are less familiar and/or comfortable with this feeding method, families may find themselves seeking a “hybrid approach” to make BLW better fit their unique family dynamics. Instead of offering predominantly finger-like pieces of soft foods for an infant to self-feed, some families may also incorporate purees or smoother textures that could be offered by spoon as well when solids are introduced. This can be done while still maintaining a BLW feeding approach (i.e. the baby self-feeds such spoons), even if the methods themselves may vary from family to family (i.e. being foods that align more closely to purees, such as mashed avocado, roasted and mashed sweet potato, hummus, or yogurt).

However, as Dr. Gill Rapley shares in this download, “doing a little bit of both” is tricky. She goes on to share,

BLW is about more than just offering your baby food to pick up – it’s about trusting him to know what he needs. If you’re topping him up with a spoon after he’s had a go with his hands, then you’re not really doing that. The bottom line is that trusting your baby and not quite trusting him are simply not compatible. So, while doing some self-feeding and some spoon feeding may work for you, it’s not BLW.

Here is where families can quickly feel offended or come off a bit offensive to others in the area of initiating BLW.

As dietitian moms Leslie Schilling and Wendy Jo Peterson share in, Born to Eat (affiliate link),

We aren’t saying that people who’ve used baby food did something wrong. We’re saying there’s another way.

This is important to highlight when comparing, contrasting, and considering all the many variations of hybrid feeding approaches for introducing solids to infants. That’s because from an evidenced-based perspective, BLW as a feeding approach and the methods it utilizes “by the book” are intended to be more clearly defined in order to help families to understand and both safely and successfully apply this feeding method within their family. Additionally, BLW requires consistency in its feeding methods in order to be compared to more traditional methods of parent-led, puree-based, spoon-feeding methods. This allows researchers to define BLW as a feeding method for the sake of developing evidenced-based recommendations for infant feeding best practices. Such feeding methods (often shared by BLW “purists” in Facebook groups on the subject) provide clear, concrete definitions for what is and is not BLW.

Professionally, I value the clarity these definitions for BLW provide for future research and when developing best practices in the public health setting. That said, I personally recognize that these guidelines often act as guideposts (but not necessarily strict guidelines) for parents who desire to adopt safe BLW feeding practices. As with any adaptation from what is outlined as evidenced-based, I know as a parent I am implementing my own discretion and discernment with what my family considers “best practice” (even if/when the research has not or does not define or defend it that way). Particularly when it comes to safe feeding and choking prevention, this is an area parents need to use caution with if/when coming up with their own “modified” BLW approach versus the methods that have been more heavily studied as safe.

For further review on the Definition of Baby Led Weaning, “doing a bit of both,” and why these definitions matter according to Dr. Gill Rapley herself, I encourage you to visit this download.

Why is BLW Becoming so Popular?

Many parents I speak to and work with share how they did not do BLW with their first child but with subsequent children have decided to adopt this approach. Often times, this stems from families being less familiar with this approach their first/second/third go around, a history of being uncomfortable with BLW, a fear of choking with BLW, a misunderstanfing of how to safely do BLW, or a combination of these factors. Additionally, when I usually hear from parents on BLW, is when they find themselves with a picky eater and begin to trace back all the aspects of feeding they might be able to “do differently” in hopes of a different result in future feeding relationships.

Although every family’s motivations are different, some reasons parents may opt to use a BLW feeding approach instead of traditional, spoon-feeding, include those addressed by Jessica Coll in her course on BLW:

  • Feeding is instinctual. Babies know how to feed themselves

  • Baby’s get to control their appetite. Parents trust babies to eat enough but not too much.

  • BLW fosters skill developmental. Babies have the opportunity to develop feeding skills at their own pace

  • BLW promotes discovery. Babies are able to use their five senses for a more stimulating, sensory experience.

  • BLW boosts nutritional value. It allows pieces of nutrient dense, whole foods.

  • BLW is often less work. Babies eat the same foods as the rest of the whole family.

  • BLW promotes a pleasant atmosphere. Babies get to enjoy eating or exploring their food alongside their family members.

Beyond some of these benefits being motivating factors for BLW, Born to Eat (affiliate link) goes on to highlight the importance that,

At first, some of the benefits seem superficial: less time in the kitchen, not spending money on commercial baby food products, or having a less selective, or picky, eater. However, self-fed babies stand to have even greater benefits when it comes to health and wellness. Having a child who is confident in trying new foods and textures or who is more in tune to hunger and fullness cues means that child is less likely to overeat. We believe this feeding method supports the self-regulating eater by allowing the development of body trust with responsive feeding. Because of this, there is the potential for fewer body and weight concerns in the future…

Each of these benefits is explained in more detailed throughout the Born to Eat (affiliate link) book.

An important consideration here, however, is how many dietitian moms like myself, authors Leslie Schilling and Wendy Jo Peterson (from Born to Eat affiliate link), and Jessica Coll, to name a few, are continuing to see both the short- and long-term benefits that a BLW feeding approach and method fosters. As part of an International Infant Nutrition Network of Registered Dietitians, I get to work with other dietitian moms to help disseminate the evidenced-based benefits of BLW to the public and parents, like you.

If you would like to know more about this network, the resources available through it and BLW experts like Jessica Coll, click the banner image below to find out more about an online-based BLW workshop with access to Jessica herself to answer any questions that you have on BLW.

More Info on BLW to Come…

Future posts will aim to answer many of the other questions that exist around if and how to prevent choking with BLW, the skills required for successful and safe self-feeding, and several best practice approaches for initiating BLW including the best first foods and foods to best avoid.

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