Baby-led weaning (abbreviated BLW) is a method of introducing solid foods to your baby that helps them establish a healthy, life-long relationship with food. In this article, we’ll detail our top tips to help other parents interested in baby-led weaning.
Watching your baby develop helps you reflect on the things you don’t reflect on as an adult. A few examples:
- how difficult it must be to form and organize thoughts without the underlying structure of language;
- the crazy challenge of mastering thousands of tiny movements in your mouth while delicately exhaling air in order to form words;
- the death-defying act of placing chunks of food into your mouth, smushing it, then using dozens of tiny muscles to push those foreign substances down your throat rather than your airway.
Thank goodness for your default mode network (DMN)
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably had lots of practice being human and doing human things. In fact, you’ve had so much practice human-ing that your brain’s default mode network doesn’t even require you to consciously think about the things that were once mountainous challenges to your younger you.
You can walk, talk, and eat simultaneously (and take a selfie while doing it) with minimal mental effort. Instead, you can focus those precious mental resources on finding your lost keys. Or teaching your baby how to eat…
Things you might want to consider about your (and your baby’s) relationship with food…
Food is not a cheap transactional relationship to us; it’s a loving marriage. We’d no sooner go to a fast food restaurant than we would go to a strip club. That’s not to sound judgmental or snooty, it’s just to say that’s not the relationship we’re after with our food or with other human beings.
That’s because we’re intimately familiar with how the plants, animals, and fungi we eat grow and form. We know how the microbes in the soil and their plant hosts work together, night and day for months or years, dancing to the rhythm of the sun’s cycles to produce the calories that ultimately fuel us. We know the rich social lives and joy that other animals experience and don’t just view them as hunks of protein on a plate.
We’re aware and grateful for all of it. We love our food. And we understand that our relationship with our food can either make us sick or serve as the foundation of our health, depending on the relationship we form with it.
This is the type of food relationship we want to foster in Sebastian (our baby) as well…
Food relationships start in the womb
Technically, Sebastian’s relationship with food began in the womb. Susan ate a varied, seasonal diet throughout gestation, so Sebastian had exposure to myriad flavors and nutrients.
Interestingly, research has shown that flavors from the food mom eats are evident in the amniotic fluid the baby consumes, which then helps shape baby’s early flavor preferences postpartum. Flavors in breastmilk also shape baby’s food preferences.
These early exposures help tune the baby’s taste preferences to the cultural-specific foods they’ll encounter out of the womb, giving them a better chance of survival. This also explains why American babies might prefer the taste of slurpies and fried chicken to spicy lamb curry and lentil-kale soup.
Whether we intend to or not, moms and parents are programming/engineering their babies’ lifelong relationship with food from the womb forward. Since diet is highly predictive of health outcomes (morbidity and mortality), these are not decisions to be taken lightly.
Introducing baby-led weaning
*Note: Above video showing 9 month old Sebastian starting a baby-led weaning meal may not display if you run ad blocking software – sorry!
We knew the above information prior to having our baby, which is one of the reasons we fought so hard for breastfeeding. What we didn’t know: how should we introduce our baby to solid foods in a way that allows him to begin forming his own loving life-long relationship with food?
Thankfully, experts and other parents had already figured this out long before our baby came along: baby-led weaning (BLW). The “weaning” part is somewhat of a misnomer since the goal isn’t actually weaning the baby per se — nor do you reduce the frequency of breastfeeding sessions for the first few months…
When do you start BLW?
You initiate BLW around Month 6, or whenever your baby starts showing a strong interest in the foods you’re eating (you’ll know when it’s time!). Baby must also be able to hold up their head, grasp objects, and sit up on their own in order to safely start BLW.
Breastfeeding or bottle feeding still continues at the same baseline level, but baby starts getting additional calories from solid foods. With BLW, instead of spoon-feeding baby processed gruel, they’re given supervised access to an array of adult foods at each feeding — and only AFTER a breastfeeding session.
That last point is important: baby should have some breastmilk (or formula if they’re formula-fed) in their belly BEFORE they gets to experience solid foods. That way they’re not ravenous; they’re nice and relaxed.
Then they get to experience the full color, texture, smell, and flavor (which is 90% smell) of adult foods. Another very important detail for us: Sebastian also eats at the table with his parents, helping to set up the normalization of shared, social mealtimes.
When is baby weaned with BLW?
Every baby and family is a little different. Here’s what a typical BLW schedule might look like:
- 6-9 Months: 1-2 BLW meals per day; same breastfeeding or bottle feeding schedule;
- 9-12 Months: 2-3 BLW meals per day; breastfeeding or bottle feeding continues as baby/mom wants;
- 12+ Months: 3 BLW meals per day + snacks if/when needed; breastfeeding continues as baby/mom wants, but bottle feeding would probably stop at this point.
The WHO and other other medical organizations recommend that breastfeeding continue for two years or beyond, but baby should be getting the bulk of their calories from solid foods after 1 year.
Ten baby-led weaning (BLW) tips
We’ve learned a lot about BLW over the past three months. We wish we’d known a little more about the nuts & bolts of the process up front to save ourselves some time and headaches…
Thus, we’ve created a list of 10 tips and recommendations (including BLW meal ideas!) to help other parents interested in doing baby-led weaning with their babies. These BLW tips are not in any particular order; each is important in its own right:
1. Just because a particular food is a choking hazard doesn’t mean baby doesn’t get to eat it.
Obviously, there are foods that present a high risk of choking hazard that you do NOT introduce as-is during BLW. Examples: peanuts, grapes, nut butters, raw carrot sticks.
However, you can still introduce those high-risk foods in other forms to help make sure those early exposures potentially prevent food allergies or aversions down the road. For instance:
- we put home-grown grapes in Sebastian’s Boon pulp silicone feeder, which allows him to enjoy grapes, blackberries, and other dangerous fruits risk-free;
- he gets peanut butter and other nut butters mixed into his yogurt, kefir, or cottage cheese;
- we roast and puree root veggies like carrots and beets and hand him spoonfuls with his EzPz silicone spoon to put in his mouth.
2. Your baby will sometimes gag… and that’s ok!
As pediatric occupational therapist Nekole Amber details, a 6-9 month old baby has a secret weapon to help them during BLW: their anterior gag reflex.
Up until about 9 months, baby’s gag reflex is triggered in the first 2/3rds of their mouth. Older babies’ and adults’ gag reflex is triggered in the back 1/3rd of their mouth. That means your 6-9 month old baby is well-equipped to safely move potentially dangerous foods out of their mouths.
The downside: this also means parents should expect some gagging during mealtime when practicing BLW. Susan The Tyrant does NOT like this part of the experience, but we both understand it’s an essential part of learning to eat solid foods, and this time window is actually the safest time for baby to start practicing.
We can say that the frequency of gagging does decrease over time as baby gains more muscle control and experience eating solid foods.
*To help mitigate any anxiety and be better prepare for parenting you might also want to take infant CPR + infant choking classes.
3. Make water available – and make it “cool” to drink it.
Solid food obviously contains far less water than breastmilk or formula. That means water or other liquids are important to introduce during BLW as well, in order to prevent dehydration, constipation, etc.
Sebastian REALLY likes mimicking his parents and thinks we’re the coolest things ever (except for our cat and ducks). However, as much as he wants to drink water when we do, 6-9 month old Sebastian isn’t able to pick up a cup of water and drink it on his own.
So, at the end of a meal, one of us takes his EzPz silicone cup and pretends to take a sip of water. His eyes light up — especially when we put the cup to his mouth and let him be a cool water drinker like his parents.
Here again, he sometimes gags and coughs when practicing water drinking — after all, it’s a tricky skill to learn! But each sip of water, whether it successfully goes down the hatch or not, gets him closer to being a competent solo water drinker.
4. Repeat exposure to rejected foods (especially in different forms) will breed acceptance.
Sebastian gets to try new foods daily. The first bite of a new food always results in him making a weird face. Then he thinks about it for a few seconds, before either continuing to eat his new friend or tossing the offender on to the table or floor.
If he doesn’t like something, we don’t force him to eat it. However, we’re not aiming to raise a picky eater or a nutrient-deficient child.
To us, his rejection of a specific food simply means either:
a) he needs repeat exposure to it, or
b) (more likely) we just haven’t found the right preparation for the food to make it enjoyable for him.
Sebastian wouldn’t chew on a hunk of turmeric, but curried pumpkin soup with turmeric slightly sweetened with maple syrup gets a green light. Feeding him raw kale leaves is a no-go (and a choking hazard), but sauteed then blended kale, apples, and carrots is a hit.
*The same principle applies to adults by the way! There’s also really interesting research on repeat exposure + community cooking to help older kids who don’t initially like a particular food.
5. Baby prep – bibs, clothes, etc.
This tip is purely for the mental health benefits of the parent, not your baby. Baby-led weaning is M-E-S-S-Y and there’s going to be cleanup no matter what you do.
In preparing baby for a meal, here’s what we’ve found helpful:
a. Remove baby pants and socks because they’re going to get coated with food (it’s easy to wipe off baby skin though).
b. A short sleeve onesie/shirt is ideal unless your house is cold. If long sleeves, plan for a change of clothes after the meal.
c. Put a cloth bib on before you start.
d. Over the top of the cloth bib, strap on a Baby Bjorn bib. These bibs are worth their weight in gold! Not only do they drastically reduce baby messes, but they also catch chunks of food that baby accidentally drops, so they can go back on to the plate, thus reducing food waste.
6. Area prep – towels, place mats, etc.
Imagine putting food into a blender with no sides. That’s pretty much how the area around your baby (and your actual baby) will look when they’re done with a meal.
To help reduce mess and make cleanup easier, prep the area before a meal. We do the following:
- put a washable plastic placemat under baby’s plates and bowls;
- have damp towels on-the-ready BEFORE dining starts for major spills and to start cleaning hands and mouth as soon as mealtime is over.
- depending on your flooring (example: carpet or rugs), you may also want to put a large towel down on the floor under baby’s high chair.
Even with these measures in place, one parent is the designated “spotter” during each meal, catching food he drops or throws. Since Sebastian favors his right hand, that person is usually me (since my spot at the table is to his right). Ugh.
7. The right high chair makes a huge difference!
Having the right highchair makes a big difference in BLW. The Tyrant set off looking for a high chair that met the following criteria:
- adjustable to different ages (and foot and seat positions);
- adjusts to a full chair so it’s something we can use forever + quality materials and construction;
- easy to clean;
- slides right up to the dining table so baby can eat meals with us;
- ergonomically suited to all ages – especially for eating babies.
The Tripp Trapp high chair by Stokke turned out to be the perfect match and we LOVE it. So does baby. (Side note: it seems like all of the baby stuff we love is Scandinavian.)
8. When is baby done with a meal?
You know when you’re full and mealtime is over (ideally). But does a baby know?
Sebastian certainly knows when he’s done with a breastfeeding session, but we didn’t know how his internal “shut-off switch” would respond to solid foods. Would he eat himself sick or consume too many calories, we wondered?
Here’s what we’ve found:
- when he’s about 75% done, he starts making satisfied singing and cooing noises, and becomes more distracted (especially if the cat is on the prowl for fallen food);
- when he’s full, he’ll stop reaching for food or showing interest in taking a spoon full of food from us – then it’s time to transition to cleanup.
We never encourage or make him eat more than he wants or clean his plate. That’s not a healthy food relationship.
We hate food waste, so either we eat what’s left, the cat eats it, or we compost it to grow more food – depending on what the food is and what condition the food is in. (I have limits on how many times a piece of meat can be sucked on by a baby; our cat has lower quality standards.)
9. How to introduce meat during BLW.
Speaking of meat, how do you introduce meat to a baby? We should start by saying that we don’t eat much meat, but the meat we eat is high quality and humanely raised/pastured.
We also don’t eat any meat that’s high in mercury – which is especially important for baby. However, Sebastian loves fish like char and cod that are low in mercury. He also loves grass-finished steak, pastured pork, chicken, and duck eggs.
With meat, we either: a) cut it into 3-4″ strips that allow him to pick up, hold, and safely chew one end; or b) cut it into tiny pieces that allow him to pick up and safely swallow small handfuls.
Yes, meat is extremely beneficial for developing baby brains (especially highly bioavailable heme iron). We introduced meat right along with fruits, veggies, and starches when we first started BLW at around 6 months of age.
10. BLW meal examples…
Now you get the general idea about how BLW works. Below are some examples of baby-led weaning meals from our family. Sebastian has been eating these since around 6 months of age.
BLW Meal 1:
Side note: this was an early meal. a) We no longer use cloth placemats since they end up drenched in food. b) The spoon pictured at the top was one we were gifted; it didn’t work well because the handle was too thin and long. c) We no longer put small dishes within Sebastian’s reach.
BLW Meal 2:
BLW Meal 3:
BLW Meal 4:
BLW Meal 5:
BLW Meal 6:
BLW Meal 7:
We hope the information in this article gives you a better idea of what baby-led weaning is and whether it’s right for your family. May your baby develop a healthy, lifelong love of food!
Other parenting articles you’ll want to chew on:
- Our breastfeeding nightmare: overcoming a tongue-tie
- How to be a manly husband and father
- Doulas, lamaze classes, recommended pregnancy/birth books, and controlling pregnancy back pain