When I start talking about baby-led weaning with many parents, I often see a look of anxiety. While I follow up this look with more information to ease the uncertainty, I absolutely understand that BLW simply isn’t right for everyone! Here are some of the reasons that parents might not choose BLW, and how you can still help your baby meet their nutrition needs with purees while still respecting your baby and fostering their independence.
Most healthy babies can succeed with BLW to introduce solid foods. But, there are some circumstances when BLW just isn’t the right path. There’s nothing at all wrong with choosing purees, it’s simply a different method!
Baby isn’t ready for solids
Neither BLW nor puree feeding is appropriate for babies who are not yet ready to start solid foods. Generally, these are the signs that your baby is ready for starting solid foods:
- Sits up independently with minimal help (a protective factor against choking)
- Picks up toys and brings them to their mouth with precision
- Interested in food
- Around 6 months of age (give or take a couple of weeks, but meeting the other signs of readiness). If your baby is born at less than 36 weeks gestation, use adjusted age.
- Loss of tongue-thrust reflex (they lose the reflex to spit out anything foreign)
Many health organizations (including the WHO, UNICEF, Health Canada, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council) now recommend that babies be exclusively breastfed until around 6 months of age. Research is conflicting about introduction between 4-6 months with some studies finding lower incidence of food allergies and others finding no difference. However, waiting till 6 months does also present physiological and developmental benefits in terms of feeding ability – plus, at 4 months babies may or may not be all that interested in food yet anyway!
If your baby hasn’t started showing these signs of readiness by about 6 1/2 – 7 months, it’s time to talk to your health care practitioner, as delaying solids has it’s own concerns.
Medical and genetic conditions
There are some medical conditions that may mean that BLW is not appropriate for your baby. Babies with severe tongue or lip ties may not be able to open their mouths or protrude their tongues enough to independently take in foods, and need more individualized help and feeding assistance. Babies with a cleft lip or palette also may have difficulty with BLW. Babies with developmental delays or physiological concerns who are not able to participate fully in the feeding experience (such as motor delays with picking up objects or bringing them to the mouth, history of swallowing difficulties, inability to control tongue movements or manage baby’s own saliva, or poor muscle tone preventing sitting upright) may not be a good fit for BLW.
This does not mean that your baby isn’t going to be able to get adequate nutrition to meet their needs – it just means that you may need to introduce solids in a different way! Speaking with your doctor, a dietitian, an occupational therapist, a speech-language pathologist, and other health care professionals may be needed to help create a plan that works best for you and your family.
Parents are afraid or anxious
This is by far the #1 reason that I hear from parents who decide BLW isn’t right for them – there is very real fear of choking. Parents’ anxiety can become so elevated that they simply cannot continue. Parents may be very scared of choking risk with baby led weaning, however BLW teaches babies the skills to prevent choking, and allows them to be in full control of their bites and pace of feeding, which can also prevent choking. In fact, a recent study found that BLW babies were at no greater choking risk than traditionally (puree) fed babies! Choking can happen to anyone, even adults, and it can happen with any food (even purees). As parents, it’s our job to provide a feeding environment that is safe, and we can take preventative steps to reduce the risk of choking. Gagging, however, is completely normal, and even happens with puree-fed babies as they learn to swallow. It’s a great idea to take an infant CPR course before starting solid foods, regardless of whether you are going with BLW or purees, to ensure that you feel comfortable with what to do if something did happen.
That said, some parents simply cannot get past the fear. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! Again, BLW isn’t the be-all-end-all of infant feeding, and it isn’t right for everyone! If your fear is getting in the way of your baby’s enjoyable eating experience, perhaps BLW isn’t right for your family.
So now what?
If you’ve determined that BLW simply isn’t the right path for you, don’t fret. Your baby will not suffer – most of us adults were fed purees, and we turned out ok! BLW does present many benefits and researchers believe there may be more benefits that we have yet to discover (including possible reduction in obesity risk), but we can still offer purees and traditional “baby foods” in a way that respects baby’s autonomy.
When I teach my workshops, I let parents know that they can apply the basic principles of BLW to spoon feeding as well, and the nutrition guidelines that I teach (important nutrients, meal planning to optimize nutritional value, food safety, introducing allergen foods, etc) are the same regardless of the method of feeding.
I encourage parents to still take a “baby led” approach to spoon feeding. That is, respecting baby’s needs and their hunger cues by not trying to force them to eat a certain quantity of food, providing a variety of flavours, and when possible, allowing baby to participate in mealtime by touching, squishing and sniffing, perhaps let them try to guide the spoon to their own mouth (some babies can manage to self-feed purees when the spoon is pre-loaded). When baby is no longer interested, turning their head away, not paying attention anymore, not opening their mouth eagerly for another mouthful, or getting fussy, mealtime can end. These are all cues to tell you that they have had enough and are ready to move on with their day. Even if they did not eat as much as you wanted them to (for example, didn’t finish the jar that you opened), taking this “baby led” approach honours baby’s hunger and satiety cues, and allows them some control over the feeding experience even if they aren’t self-feeding.