Baby Lead Weaning: To Spoon Feed or Not to Spoon Feed. That is The Question.
Baby lead weaning (BLW) is a concept that is gaining a lot of attention in the media. While it isn’t an entirely new concept it has certainly become popularized in the past years! But what exactly is it? Are there standards? Do health professionals recommend this approach and most importantly, is it a healthy concept for growing babies?
With BLW, infants bypass the whole spoon feeding stage. Right from the onset of complimentary feeding, babies are encouraged to feed themselves with their hands, preferably from the same foods being offered at the family meal. BLW is an approach that puts great trust in a baby’s instincts to feed itself and know its own hunger and fullness cues as well as how fast to eat and how much to eat.
“Baby-led weaning is firmly rooted in the overall normal development of infants and because of the normal developmental readiness at this age [6 months] of the gut, oral motor functions and immune system to extend the diet beyond breast milk but also because it is at about six months that infants naturally begin to want, and become able, to investigate their environment using their hands and their mouths.”
This approach also focuses on social developments and the normal meal time behaviors of people. Babies are offered the same foods as parents at meal time and sit at the table observing their parents and family members eating the same foods, enjoying them and also using cutlery and other utensils appropriately. “If spoon feeding is used, the opportunity for the exercise of autonomy by the infant is significantly reduced. However responsive the carer, spoon feeding can never be entirely baby-led because the baby is not in charge of what goes on the spoon. He is able to decide whether or not to accept it – a yes/no decision – but is prevented from choosing between options. ” The overall view is about more than nutrition. It focuses on the entire eating process, motor functions, nutrition, and social development. The child learns to feed itself appropriately and learns to listen to its own hunger and fullness cues appropriately.
Getting down to the nitty gritty of it, it sounds fantastic! Babies develop on their own and learn feeding cues appropriately. Picky eating is rampant these days in so many children, this could be a solution? But clearly there must be speculation regarding this diet as it is not yet widely suggested by health care professionals. So what are the down sides? It is a concern, due to previous studies on families using the BLW weaning approach, in comparison to the traditional spoon feeding approach, that parents using the BLW approach expose their infants to an increased risk of choking and inadequate iron and energy intakes.
Why are there increased risks with the BLW approach? It lies with the food choices and also the way foods are being offered to infants. Fruits and vegetables are easy peasy. They are great finger foods and easy to work with so they tend to be the first foods that parents offer their children. However, there is a reason that formulas and cereals were fortified with iron. At 6 months your infant’s iron stores from birth are waning and it is super important that they start to get foods high in iron at this stage. Also, even though the spoon feeding approach is being skipped entirely, it does not mean that infants should be offered all textures immediately. It’s important to remember that little babies have few teeth so raw fruits and veggies and other harder to chew foods should be put on the back burner. Essentially babies should be offered foods that are appropriate to their age and developmental level. Lastly, it is a concern that since babies are feeding themselves that foods end up everywhere and not much gets in their mouths. We’ve all seen those pics of adorable babies wearing more of their foods than seems could have ever gone into their bodies but you can rest assured that studies have found that energy intake is not significantly different between babies following the traditional spoon feeding approach and those following the BLW approach.
Well, we have narrowed down the pitfalls of the BLW approach. How do we get around them? A great study was completed in New Zealand (where all the great BLW research is happening) that showed the difference once again between 2 approaches. This one compared BLW to a modified BLW group constructed by the researchers. The researchers were all Registered Dietitians or part of the Nutrition and Dietetics Departments and they involved a Paediatrician and Paediatric Speech-Language therapist in the development of their resources. Parents in the BLW group were provided with no intervention, they could offer whichever foods they liked and report these foods back. The parents in the modified group were given education and resources about high-iron, high-energy foods as well as potential choking hazards. The results? Parents in the modified BLW group were more likely to offer high-iron, low-risk choking hazard foods, and again this study found that energy intakes between the 2 groups was not significantly different.
This Dietitian’s opinion? As a new and coming mom, I was super invested in the research behind this approach and it is certainly something I will try with my infant. Mom’s following the BLW approach are more likely to exclusively breast feed until 6 months (which is the recommendation in Canada right now), they are more likely to have an infant who feeds themselves all their food (78%) at meal times and more likely to have children who sit at the table and contribute effectively and behave appropriately at meal times and most importantly…you save time! No prepping foods separately for baby, they eat what you eat!
Foods that are of appropriate texture and high in iron include:
Tofu; ground meat or poultry; small (pea sized) pieces of tender meat or poultry; fish (de-boned and flaked); quartered meatball; pieces of egg; small beans (black beans, navy beans) or larger beans cut in half (kidney beans)
Food for thought…this approach is gaining momentum but it needs further research. All studies concluded that trials need to be completed on larger populations and this approach needs to be standardized to insure babies receive adequate iron intakes, energy intake and foods which are low-risk for choking hazards. Some other things to keep in mind: Babies should be able to sit up themselves, hold their heads up, and have good neck control before solids are offered and babies should never be left along while eating.
Moral of the story. If you are seriously considering taking this approach, make sure you talk to a Registered Dietitian about which foods to introduce first and keep your Health Care Practitioner up to date on your baby’s progress. Here are the articles I used for this research here, here and here. It’s important to be informed about your choices and at the end of the day you want to take whatever approach is going to be exciting and stress-free for you and your baby
Adrianna Smallwood, Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Expert