Our quadruplets Charlie, Claire, Henry and Dillon have been eating solid foods for just over a month now. While we started their big sis Molly on spoon fed purees, this second time around we decided to try baby led weaning (...and by "we", I mean "me", as the quadfather is not remotely interested in the minutiae of introducing solid foods :)
Baby Led Weaning (BLW) bypasses early spoon-feeding of pureed foods in exchange for later introduction of solid and semi-solid finger foods. BLW relies on the infant's instinctual cues to feed himself and to self-direct solid, age-appropriate food intake. It may sound unusual or perhaps even complicated, but BLW is basically just the thing lazy second-time parents do when they realize an age-appropriate baby can eat on his own, and that force-feeding bland baby food purees serves pretty much no purpose.
The term "baby led weaning" was coined by UK authors and researchers Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett. While long popular in Europe, the concept has been gaining traction in the US, due in part to a widely-read book Rapley and Murkett wrote called Baby Led Weaning. (Also see the New York Times Motherload Blog post on the topic and Slate.com's snarky rebuttal "Your Kale Eating Baby Does Not Impress Me").
What Exactly is Weaning?
Whereas the term "weaning" in the UK and Europe refers to gradual introduction of foods that eventually replace breast milk or formula, here in the US it sometimes can be confused with the motion of moving the baby off of breastmilk or formula in favor of solid food. BLW operates under the assumption that babies are still receiving the majority of calories from breastmilk or infant formula, but are learning how to eat solid foods simultaneously.
In the US, a growing number of parents are adopting BLW as a more natural way to introduce foods that allows children to regulate intake and that fosters a greater sense of independence in eating. As Rapley and Murkett so eloquently put it in their book, "It's not that there's anything wrong with spoon-feeding, it's just not necessary."
For BLW, you wait a bit later to introduce solid foods, but when you do, the baby basically takes care of feeding himself...with obvious oversight by nearby caregivers or parents. As a dietitian and nutrition educator, I was remotely aware of the benefits of BLW, but as a quadruplet mom with four new mouths that needed to learn how to eat, this approach has turned out to make nothing but sense for our family.
How Do You Know Your Baby is Ready to Start Baby Led Weaning?
Our quadruplets were born after 34 weeks gestation, so they were 6 weeks premature. At about 6 months, a full term baby is usually sitting up and developmentally displaying signs of readiness to eat. We wanted all of our babies to start together (again...I'm lazy) ... so by the time they were 8 1/2 months (7 months adjusted) everyone was literally chomping at the bit. The signs of readiness for introducing solids via BLW that we looked for included:
- Ability to sit up with little or minimal support
- Bringing toys and other objects to their mouth
- Chomping and gnawing like crazy when said object hits that little mouth
When we commenced our Baby Led Weaning workshop with the quadruplets, we set up a four-baby feeding table in our formerly stylish breakfast nook room (thank you DayCareFurnitureDirect.com toddler tables and goodbye Saarinen tulip table). To minimize mess, I bought a few cheap plastic picnic table tablecloths, cut them in half, and lay them under the impending catastrophe. We cover the babies head-to-toe in bibs (....currently in love with Bumkins waterproof bibs and smocks) and then let them go to town on the food with their hands.
In my professional life as a dietitian and nutrition consultant, I am a nutrition spokesperson for the California Avocado Commission. With a big batch of locally grown avocados on hand, naturally, the first food we introduced was avocado! Avocado is a great first baby food: it's the perfect texture, full of good fats and a nutrient dense source of calories. Plus avocados come packaged along with recent research supporting their role in introductory and complementary and alternative feeding.
When we started our social experiment in group feeding, 3 of the 4 quadruplets were definitely ready to eat - but our son Henry wanted nothing to do with it.
For their first foray into food, Charlie, Claire and Dillon went hog wild and scooped the avocado slices and sweet potatoes right up in to their mouth. Henry sat there staring at them like they were crazy, wouldn't take any foods from us and eventually just put his head down on our feeding table in a sign of utter defiance.
We were surprised to learn that contrary to popular belief, kids don't need teeth to start eating solids; however, it does bear mentioning that Charlie, Claire and Dillon each had 2 lower teeth when they started eating but Henry did not at that time. It took Henry about a week to get the hang of it but he eventually joined the game (even still without as many teeth) - and he has quickly caught up to and now enjoys almost exactly the same foods his siblings do, although in smaller amounts.
What's great about Baby Led Weaning is that there is no prescribed order of foods to introduce. Since you wait until the baby is about 6 months old to start offering food, they are developmentally better equipped to deal with most nutrient components, potential allergens and a variety of textures.
Another advantage is that BLW is significantly more affordable than buying overpriced, watered-down packaged baby foods. We prepare slightly modified version of the foods the rest of the family is eating, make sure the foods we offer are soft enough and are presented in the right sizes for their tiny fists, and then we watch these little munchkins work their magic.
What Foods Should You Star Baby Led Weaning With?
In no order other than the order of things I had on hand at the time, here are the first foods that the quads ate with BLW:
- Sweet potato
- Butternut squash
- Meatloaf (leftovers...they loved it!)
- Chicken legs (...hilarious)
- Scrambled egg yolk
- Quinoa black bean veggie patties
For Halloween we had a great time trying - and dressing like - roasted pumpkin at our feeding table...check out how excited the babies were in this video:
Our temporary pumpkin patch...
We have received loads of questions, comments and (occasionally incorrect and unsolicited) advice about BLW vs. spoon-feeding. The benefit of waiting until your baby is 6+ months to introduce solids via BLW vs. earlier introduction of purees at 4-6 months is predicated on developmental readiness. Waiting until 8 1/2 months (7 months adjusted age) meant our babies were more physiologically equipped to direct their own self-feeding, they displayed a greater interest in food and they were more prepared to chew and deal with the inevitable process of gagging on some foods. Gagging is tough to watch at first, but it is a totally normal and necessary step in learning how to eat and handle textures (check out Charlie with a little gag episode in this video...and Molly trying, kind of, to help him out):
If you are on the fence about BLW, here are a few quick advantages we have found to this approach with our quadruplets:
- BLW is natural, safe, easy and definitely nothing new - very few cultures outside of the US put so much emphasis on pureeing foods and spoon-feeding them, only to try to then make the baby an independent eater a few months later. Why not just start introducing food to a baby where you want her to eventually end up...feeding herself?
- Skills...skills...skills - Babies use food as an important way to develop skills like chewing, dexterity and hand-eye coordination. It has been amazing to watch the transformation of our quadruplets from grasping big hunks of foods with their chunky palms one week and then utilizing a pretty impressive pincer grasp for smaller pieces a few weeks later (...but they still can't figure out how to pick up peas!)
- Independent babies who aren't learning to overeat - Self-feeding encourages independence and self-regulation of food intake. How do I as a parent know EXACTLY how much bland baby food to push into my baby with a spoon? I don't! I would rather he feeds himself, at his own pace, and eventually learns to self-regulate and respond to his God-given hunger and satiety cues. There's even emerging evidence to suggest self-feeding may help protect against overweight and obesity later in life.
Why Doesn't Everyone Do Baby Led Weaning
The more we experimented with BLW, the more sense it seemed to make. So much sense, actually, that I began to wonder, "Why doesn't everyone do this?" Opponents of BLW (i.e., diehard proponents of spoon feeding pureed foods) argue the following:
- There is a greater chance of choking with BLW - (...but actually there's not - an important study recently published in the journal Pediatrics found that babies given food via BLW vs. spoon-feeding had no greater incidence of choking). Waiting until 6+ as opposed to 4-6 months to introduce food almost always means your baby has an evolved ability to chew and successfully handle a variety of textures.
- There's a greater chance of nutrient gaps - (....but actually there's not - sure, you have to be proactive in including iron-rich foods such as meat, fish and poultry, eggs, legumes and perhaps even dark green leafy vegetables - but no studies have shown statistically significant nutrient intake deficits in BLW babies vs. spoon-feeders and in fact, than spoon feeding).
- Big babies need solid foods earlier - (...not true - infant weight has no bearing on developmental readiness for food). Early introduction of solids won't make your babies sleep through the night and may increase likelihood of food allergy. In fact, early introduction of food leads to inadequate breastmilk or formula intake, whereas waiting later to introduce real food is now linked with better ability to chew and digest foods and less food allergy risk.
- Baby led weaning results in food waste - (...except it doesn't if you're conscious about recycling food). Our "recycling program" goes like this: baby tries to eat food, baby drops food on clean mat under the table, two-year old who loves helping out picks up large pieces (with her clean hands I might add :) and we offer said food back to the babies...within reason.
We are by no means anti-spoon in our household. At about 10 months now (8 1/2 months adjusted), the quadruplets play around with spoons, albeit quite ineffectively. They try to scoop up whole milk yogurt, stab globs of oatmeal, and pretty much splatter anything that resembles soup.
What Safety Precautions Should You Take with Baby Led Weaning?
Whether you are feeding 1 or 4 kids for the first few times, safety will (and should!) be at the forefront of your mind. A few quick tips to keep in mind for ensuring a safe eating environment for all babies:
- Your baby needs to be sitting upright - leaning back promotes choking, so don't do it. We actually had a high chair for our older daughter Molly that reclined so the baby could sleep in it. Why would you ever need that (...and why did I buy it)??!!
- Avoid foods no kid under 1 should eat no matter how he or she is introduced to solids - no peanut butter, grapes, popcorn, hard candy (duh), hard apples or pears, hot dogs or carrots cut in coin shapes (cooked matchsticks are ok), honey (in all forms - botulism risk), raw bran (too filling with the fiber), or albacore tuna (mercury risk but chunk light is ok). Beyond that, within reason - it's pretty much within BLW range! That's the beauty of BLW, there's almost no wrong way to do it once you get the hang of it.
- Never leave your baby unattended while eating ...even though it can take 20-30 minutes for a BLW meal to play itself out and you have other stuff to do!
What Do I Need to Get Started with Baby Led Weaning?
Some quick tips we found helpful for starting BLW:
- Batch cook - you're not (and should not be) a short order cook. Making BLW appropriate foods is a no-brainer, even if you're a bad cook. Make modified version of the foods the rest of the family is eating, avoiding extra or excess salt or sugar and unhealthy additions of fat. Thankfully, child-feeding experts continue to emphasize that it's not so much WHAT you feed that matters, but rather HOW you feed. Eat together as a family, even if your food choices aren't perfect.
- Roasting vegetables is a tasty time-saver - I don't know about you, but I find boiled veggies to be so super boring. Roasting veggies, especially roots and tubers gives a rich flavor that our babies just devour. Sure, I bathe them in olive oil before offering to the oven, but healthy fats are important for brain development - and it sure beats a boiled carrot!
- Don't feed your babies when they're starving - our quadruplets live and die by their schedule (ok...I do), but we tweaked it so their solid food feedings (2X/day now at almost 10 months) fall about halfway between their 3 daily bottle feedings. If your baby is famished, he or she likely won't feed well. Keep in mind that formula or breastmilk will remain their primary source of nutrients until after 1 year of age.
- Get over the gagging - gagging is NOT the same as choking and it's a normal part of learning to eat. I'm not sure everyone else would agree, but I think it is absolutely amazing to watch your kid learn to handle food. It can be scary though too... but if your baby is 6 months of age or older you have to trust she will be able to manage and manipulate the age-appropriate foods and textures you are introducing.
- Offer a variety, but not too much - there's no consensus on whether babies get "bored" with the same types of foods - but with 4 kiddos learning to eat once, we found it definitely helps to have a little variety in the offerings placed in front of them. Some of our babies eat everything, some eat half, occasionally 1 or more will eat none. You don't want to overwhelm your baby with too many offerings, but give her some variety and let her choose what she eats, how much, and when she is done.
- Food sizing (at first) = fist-plus - at the beginning of our BLW adventures we unknowingly were giving our kids soft pieces of food that were too small to eat. We only realized this when they would eventually and unsuccessfully get so frustrated gnawing on their hand that was hiding the food. A good rule-of-thumb for BLW is to make matchsticks or thick hunks of food that are at least 2 inches long. Half can go in their chubby fists and half can poke out above so there's something to gum on to.
- Wait a few feedings between new foods - it makes sense to introduce new foods one at a time. If one food is going to result in an intolerance or perhaps even cause an allergic reaction, it helps to limit the number of new foods you have to rule out as the culprit. We usually only introduce a new food at every other feeding. There's a significant change in stool texture, consistency and content even with tiny amounts of solid foods - so just be prepared for that too.
The Number One Tip for Baby Led Weaning Success
The single most important thing we have learned in our short time with Baby Led Weaning is that it doesn't make sense to stress. Learning to eat is - and should be - fun. Kids learn by playing and it's ok - and even recommended - that your babies play with their food.
Child feeding experts agree that you may have to introduce a particular food to a kid 10-20 times before they accept it. If they don't take to a food the first time it's offered, try and try and try again. As parents and caregivers, we have an obligation to provide our kids with wholesome foods, in their natural and identifiable forms, and in age-appropriate portions.
The more chances you give your kid to succeed in and self-direct his eating, the better he will do. And this eventually means less work that's left for you....
...even if you don't have these adorable helpers to empty your dishwasher after dinner.