We did what’s known as Baby-Led Weaning (BLW) with Freya, who’s now three. But what’s all the fuss about? And will you ever get that Bolognese stain out the curtains? Here’s what you need to know!
Gill Rapley, whose book ‘Baby-led Weaning Cookbook: Over 130 delicious recipes for the whole family to enjoy’, was like a bible to us, explains BLW like this;
“Parents are often asked “Are you doing BLW or are you spoon feeding?”. But the real question should be “Are you taking a baby-led approach to weaning or a conventional one?” This is because baby-led weaning (BLW) isn’t a feeding method, it’s a fundamental approach to babies and food. It’s about how you view your baby’s capabilities in relation to eating, not just whether or not you feed her with a spoon."
Baby-led weaning is not the same is finger foods - babies are offered proper meals from day one, and can eat exactly the same as the rest of the family.
It's really important to know that BLW is not the same is finger foods - babies are offered proper meals from day one, and can eat exactly the same as the rest of the family. I can’t lie – there were times when it was difficult to allow Freya to be fully in control of what she ate (or didn’t eat!), but following her appetite and trusting her to dictate her own intake felt like the right thing to do.
I just couldn’t get excited about pureeing things, and we spent a lot of time looking into BLW, not to mention ‘preparing’ the grandparents for what to expect - if you're going to do BLW then everyone needs to be on board. They were hesitant (to put it lightly!), but quickly gained confidence in the approach once they saw it in action. On the day she turned 6 months we put some salmon fishcakes and giant slices of tomato down in front of Freya, and watched as she tore them apart, shmooshed them and ultimately ate a decent amount.
For the first year on solids she ate exactly the same meal as us every night (most of which were from Gill’s book!), has developed some favourite flavour combos, loves to ‘dip’ anything, and we’ll never forget watching her wolf down a plate of baby eels on holiday when she was 10 months old much to the waiter’s amusement. Cutlery is introduced at the same stage (i.e. when they’re ready) as with any other child but they always use it to self-feed - you never shovel things into their mouth.
On the subject of choking (which a lot of people worry about with BLW) I found it really helpful to know that the NHS actually support the approach and in 2015 actually commissioned research into whether there was any increased risk of choking in BLW versus traditional weaning using purees.
The findings were really interesting; along with the very strong gag reflex that babies are born with because BLW children learn to always ‘chew then swallow’, as opposed to knocking back purees, it’s actually just as safe if not more so. Traditionally weaned babies need to learn to chew at a later stage, and effectively un-do what they’ve been used to (just swallowing straight away). It's also amazing what those little gums can chomp through (there's a good reason it's so painful when they catch your finger!).
There’s lots of books about it now but the Gill Rapley one was great as an introduction to baby-led weaning, explaining the philosophy (and research) behind it, and giving loads of recipes to try. Gill studied infant feeding and child development for many years, gaining a master's degree in 2005 and a PhD in 2015. She worked as a public health nurse for more than twenty years and has also been a midwife, lactation consultant, and breastfeeding counsellor so there’s not much she doesn’t know about the subject!
So - what do BLW babies actually eat? Well that one's easy - they can eat the same meals as you. You do need to be careful about salt content so home cooking is best (and often far cheaper than pouches or jars).
Breakfasts for Freya have always been porridge fingers with fruit and favourite winning dinners are paella, lamb/pork burgers (softer than beef mince), tagines and stews in the slow cooker with soft melty meat, roasted vegetables and thai green curry.
I often spent time on Sundays making loafs of banana bread or sweet potato scones (they're amazing!) for lunches and most meals can be batch cooked and frozen in portions for a quick go-to.
If you’re thinking about doing BLW here’s an idea of what you need to think about;
One of the main ideas behind Baby-led Weaning is that your baby eats the same food as you do from the outset. This encourages family mealtimes which is something I’ve loved with Freya particularly now we can have a proper chat over dinner. The best highchairs for BLW are those that have a detachable tray so babies can enjoy sitting with the family at the dinner table, and it’s easier to clean.
Sometimes finding a high chair can be a struggle (that’s one of the reasons we published an article all about baby friendly café’s in Perthshire!), so it’s a good idea to invest in a booster seat or portable chair to take out with you. These store easily under a buggy.
You can’t have enough of them. We’ve always used the full sleeved ones from JoJo Maman Bebe, which come in great designs and are really easy to clean and quick drying. In the early days BLW can be messy but the fun of the adventure more than compensates for the mess. My thinking is that you spend less time cleaning up a messy baby and wiping down a splash-mat than you do cooking separate food and pureeing/mashing.
A rubber toddler plate that sticks to their tray or the table is ideal for BLW. These are slip resistant and perfect for little fingers pushing food against the sides to pick it up.
For the first few months, BLW is all about using their hands. However, having lots of opportunity to practice their hand/eye coordination, babies quickly progress to cutlery. I think I introduced cutlery to Freya at around 11 months and there’s lots of designs with shorter, chunkier handles designed to make it easier for little ones to grip.
If the weather’s decent then picnic lunches are the dream with babies! It’s important to keep food chilled to keep nasty bacteria at bay so insulated lunch bags and bottles are a good investment.
If you're worried about mess then get yourself a wee splash mat – places like Dunelm Mill do lengths of oil cloth which you can have cut to size, or you can buy a cheap shower curtain which does the same job.
My over-riding piece of advice would be to ignore the mess and marvel in the adventure - it really is the most amazing experience watching your little baby pick up his/her first piece of food and enter a whole new world of tastes and texture.
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