“Until They Are One, Food Is for Fun!”

Published on: April 07, 2012

If you have a child approaching weaning age, you may be interested in baby-led weaning. Ann Patrick explains what it is, its benefits, and how to get started. Words and photo by Ann Patrick  

What is baby-led weaning?

Baby-led weaning quite simply means you let your baby self-feed — from the moment you start weaning. No purees, no spoon-feeding, no separate meals. You just give baby finger foods, or food pre-loaded onto a spoon and let her get on with it. This approach is based on research by Gill Rapley, a British midwife and expert on infant feeding and nutrition, and whilst the term is new, the concept, in many ways, is not. Before electricity and blenders, and in many parts of the world still, babies were and are not fed smooth purees. They have the same as the rest of the family, perhaps mushed up a bit or pre-chewed, in the case of meat or tougher foods.
…milk…should [still] be the main form of nutrition until one year of age.
And many parents find they end up letting their babies self-feed anyway, particularly in the case of second and subsequent children: babies often want to copy older siblings and letting them self-feed can avoid many a battle — and saves precious time.

Why wean this way?

With many aspects of our children’s development, we trust them to get it right, with just a little guidance from us (e.g., sitting up, walking, learning to use the potty). Why not with food? We can provide balanced, nutritious meals that we enjoy and allow baby to learn to chew, swallow and enjoy what they want. Baby can sit at the table with mum and dad, learning the social aspects of eating, whilst mum and dad can relax too. No need to prepare special meals or spend time and effort blending — just omit the salt, avoid a few specific ‘no-no’ foods for infants and away you go.

When do we start?

Current UK guidelines, in line with World Health Organization recommendations, are to start weaning at around six months, an age when most full-term babies are able to sit independently, grasp hold of objects and guide them to their mouths.
You just give baby finger foods, or food pre-loaded onto a spoon and let her get on with it.
Purees are no longer necessary at this age: indeed the reason purees became popular was due to previous recommendations and encouragement of earlier weaning (from around 4 months), when most babies are physically not ready to self-feed. Moreover, milk — whether breast or formula — should be the main form of nutrition until one year of age. Besides providing nearly all the nutrients a baby needs (particularly in the case of breast milk), milk is far more calorie-rich than most foods.

What are the benefits?

Aside from the social benefits of mealtimes, babies who self-feed learn to chew more quickly and to ‘deal with’ whole pieces of food. Purees can be sucked in and swallowed, leading to possible problems: older babies can be fussier and may reject food when lumps are introduced. With baby-led wearning, baby is in control: she can regulate how much she needs (no risk of over-feeding) and learn to enjoy being independent. Babies weaned this way are also given plenty of opportunities to play (thus avoiding many mealtime battles) and develop fine motor skills, such as the pincer grip. Finally, it is simpler, cheaper and, arguably, healthier for the whole family: no special equipment is needed (indeed, the no.1 highchair of choice for baby-led weaners is the cheap-and-cheerful Ikea Antelop: easy to clean and can be pushed right up against the family dining table), and parents ensure they are also eating a balanced, healthy and salt-restricted diet.

Are there any risks?

Many people are concerned that babies will choke if self-feeding. However, this risk has been shown to be minimal and may even be less likely in babies who self-feed. Choking should not be confused with gagging, something that most babies experience and which is part and parcel of learning to eat. Young babies’ gag reflex is triggered very easily as it is very far forward in the mouth. This means that it is triggered well before the food (or drink, or any other object!) being consumed nears the airway.
With baby-led wearning, baby is in control: she can regulate how much she needs…and learn to enjoy being independent.
As with any new skill, after baby has gagged, they learn next time to deal with the food differently (i.e., chew it more) before it triggers this gag reflex. As babies grow, the gag reflex moves back in the mouth, meaning that in older babies, it is a lot closer to the airway, so it is not such a useful ‘early warning’ sign. Provided your baby is sitting upright (one reason it is not recommended to start baby-led weaning until baby can sit up unaided), any gagging should push the food forward in the mouth and prevent real choking. Real choking, on the other hand, is very rare and usually silent, as the airway is completely blocked. It is more likely to occur if someone else has put food directly into the baby’s mouth, or if the baby is reclining.

Keen to give it a try?

Bear in mind these things and you can’t really go far wrong. A highchair/booster that is easy to clean and can be used up at the family dining table is useful, coverall bibs for when you want to keep clothes clean (although here in Bangkok, temperatures mean you can just strip baby down to her nappy!), and perhaps something under the table/chair to help with cleaning up (dogs are very useful in this situation) and you’re ready. Offer your baby pieces of food that are easy for chubby fists to grasp and let her at it! Some ideal first foods to try:
  • Any vegetable in a ‘stick’ form; steam harder ones (e.g. carrot) slightly
  • Cucumber sticks, kept cooled in the fridge, are great, especially when baby is teething
  • Strips of freshly cooked meat, warm or cold (a six-month-old baby may not be able to swallow a piece of beef, but by sucking and chewing, most of the iron-rich nutrients will be extracted)
  •  ‘Sticks’ of fruit (as with carrot, it’s best to steam apple slightly, or give a whole apple which can be gnawed on)
  • Sticks of firm cheese (cheddar, gouda)
  • Breadsticks or rice-cakes, alone or with homemade (to avoid excess salt/sugar) spreads and dips
  • Thick porridge that can be cooled and cut into fairly solid strips
  • Homemade fishfingers, burgers, riceballs (use sticky rice)
  • Chunky pasta shapes
Avoid whole nuts or grapes, chunky slices of apple (pieces can break off and cause a choking risk), and honey (if baby is under one year of age) and, if allergies run in the family, known allergens.

For more information

  • The comprehensive website www.babyledweaning.com has more information about starting off and also hosts a useful forum for parents with questions.
  • ‘The’ book to read is “Baby-led Weaning: Helping your baby to love good food”, by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett, published in 2008, by Vermilion.
  • Gill Rapley’s own website (www.rapleyweaning.com) has some more information, as well as links to information in Dutch, Spanish & Italian.

About the Author

Ann arrived in Bangkok with her family in 2010. She holds a Masters in Interpreting and Translating (German and Russian). A Scottish lass at heart, Ann loves photography and learning new languages.
The views expressed in the articles in this magazine are not necessarily those of BAMBI committee members and we assume no responsibility for them or their effects. BAMBI News welcomes volunteer contributors to our magazine. Please contact editor@bambiweb.org.