Nutrition – particularly when it comes to babies – is a contentious issue that spans decades. My mother believed in putting fortified cereal in my night bottle from the age of four months. She also put snacks on the other side of the room and had me worm my way across the room from the age of six months, but that is a story for another day. We weaned our eldest (now 16 and a healthy eater) on pureed vegetables from four months, but only introduced solids to our youngest at six months (and she is the pickiest eater alive).
The World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, The Association for Dietetics in South Africa and baby experts all offer advice backed by research and science, but the information is often contradictory. So, what’s the answer?
When I was pregnant with my first child, my mother gave me the most profound advice that has stuck – and I have tracked them out for every pregnant friend, colleague, or stranger in the street. She said: “Everybody thinks they are an expert on babies, and maybe they are. So, listen. Take it in. And only use what works for you. You know your child best.”
What is baby-led weaning?
Baby-led weaning (BLW) has gained popularity over the more traditional spoon-feeding approach in the last few years. This involves offering your baby (from around six months and when they have the developmental abilities) hand-held solid foods cut into slices or sticks. Not only does your baby get to choose what she would like to eat, but it encourages her to feed herself, too. The theory is that this helps to create a healthier relationship with food that will last a lifetime.
Recently, Dr Megan Pesch, Dr Sarah Shubeck and Dr Heather Burrows produced a paper entitled “Baby-led Weaning: Introducing Complementary Foods in Infancy”, published in Pediatrics. Their research has highlighted the theoretical advantages and disadvantages of BLW. The researchers were quick to point out that this approach is a misnomer, as it doesn’t involve weaning your baby from breastmilk or formula, but rather encourages the addition of solid foods to your baby’s diet. “It’s often perceived as a significant deviation from traditional methods of introducing complementary foods and is in contrast to American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations of parent-initiated spoon-feeding of puréed foods,” say the researchers.
The concept of BLW first surfaced on online forums around 2001, and is attributed to Dr Gill Rapley, a British author of Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby Love Good Food. It has since been heralded as a more natural, healthier and fuss-free way of introducing solids to your baby’s diet.
While parents hold the overall control of what is on their baby’s plate, autonomy is given to your baby. She chooses her foods, and directs it to her mouth, feeding herself. Babies are encouraged to explore the options in front of them, with less emphasis on how much they are ingesting. “This low-pressure approach is hypothesised to allow an infant to develop a “healthy” relationship with food, growing his/her autonomy, and allowing the infant to self-regulate eating. Infants are in full control of their eating and set the pace of their meal, deciding when they are done,” say the researchers.
What is spoon-feeding?
Spoon-feeding traditionally looks at introducing one puréed or mashed food at time and tends to focus on having your baby finish a predetermined amount of food in each sitting. Current American Academy of Pediatric guidelines (which are much like the guidelines promoted in South Africa), recommend introducing iron fortified cereals between four to six months, followed by individual mashed foods one at a time, before building up towards more flavours and taste combinations.
Benefits of baby-led weaning
- Research shows your baby’s later food preferences are believed to be influenced by her exposure to food. As BLW skips the puréed food stage, it’s believed to promote a better acceptance of different food textures and a greater variety of foods from a younger age. Anecdotal studies have found those on the BLW method tend to favour carbohydrates, while those spoon-fed seem to favour sweeter foods. However, randomised controlled trials have found no difference in the macronutrient intake between the two.
- Another benefit of BLW is your baby gets to be part of the family meal from the time she takes in her first solid, as “infants are provided with finger-food portions of the family’s prepared meals rather than puréed foods or “baby foods”, allowing for shared meal experiences.
Disadvantages of baby-led weaning
The disadvantages of BLW include increasing the risk of choking, growth faltering and anaemia. However, these risks can be mitigated through the types of foods you offer and ensuring your baby maintains her milk and nutrient intake.
A joint study, conducted by the Department of Public Health, Policy and Social Sciences, Swansea University, Wales and the Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Liverpool, published in March, looked at the differences in parental feeding styles. The researchers looked at four categories: BLW, mostly BLW with occasional spoon feeding, mostly spoon feeding with the occasional finger foods and just spoon feeding. Parents were asked about their feeding strategies and eating behaviour of their toddlers, including fussiness and food enjoyment.
The research found babies may be less picky about their food if they follow BLW, but this difference is minimal. As the researchers commented: “The way a baby is introduced to solids will make very little difference to how fussy they will become or how much they will enjoy food. It’s important to remember how children eat depends on a lot of factors, including their genetic background, their past experiences with food and their interaction with their parents.” The researchers added: “The most important thing parents can do is to try their best and introduce solids in a way that is more appropriate for their family, rather than stressing about a specific method, as research suggests might make only a very small difference.’
Tips for BLW
According to the Baby-led Introduction to Solids (BLISS) study:
- Make sure your baby is developmentally ready. This is usually around the six-month mark. However, babies develop at their own pace. Necessary developmental abilities include being able to sit unsupported; having good head control, having grasping abilities and being able to direct an object into their mouth.
- Avoid high-risk choking foods, such as hard, round foods, like whole cherry tomatoes or grapes, popcorn, nuts, sausages or raw apple slices.
- Always supervise your baby while eating.
- Make sure your baby is sitting in an upright, supported position, such as in a high-chair.
- First foods should still ideally be soft and easily “mushed” in the mouth (particularly if your baby has little to no teeth). Ideally food should be cut into sticks that make it easier to direct into the mouth.
- Make sure your baby has a wide variety of foods on offer at each meal. These should ideally include one high-energy food and one high-iron food. Try to offer three to four different foods at each meal.
Kim Bell is a wife, mother of two teenagers and a lover of research and the way words flow and meld together. She has been in the media industry for over 20 years, and yet still learns more about life from her children everyday.