What is baby-led weaning?

Choosing a weaning style to suit you and your baby can feel daunting, and everyone seems to have an opinion. Registered dietitian and leading child nutritionist Frankie Phillips explains what baby-led weaning really means...

What is baby-led weaning?

Your baby’s first forays into solid food open up a whole new world of flavours and texture. But how do you decide what your baby’s first taste should be? Do you offer it to them on a little spoon or your fingertip, or do they just pick it up in their tiny hand and independently start to move it towards their mouth?

Thankfully, we’ve moved on from putting rusk in the bottle with milk, but choosing whether to opt for traditional or baby-led weaning still sparks heated debate among parents and health visitors.

What is baby-led weaning?Toddler messy eating

The term baby-led weaning was coined around 2003 by health visitor Gill Rapley. This relaxed and unstructured approach is based on baby being offered solid foods for him to feed himself, with no help from an adult. The foods would usually be soft pieces held in the hand, rather than being offered on a spoon. Essentially, manageable chunks of different family foods are put onto baby’s plate or a tray, baby can then feed herself how and what she wants. 

Some research has found that this approach is a good way of enabling babies to regulate their own food intake. Such so-called ‘responsive feeding’ might also help to improve eating patterns, relying on baby’s inate ability to respond to cues for hunger and satiety, in a similar way to on-demand milk feeding. This helps with self-regulation of food intake and healthier weight gain.

There have been some concerns about the nutritional adequacy of baby-led weaning, and some studies have suggested that growth may be affected adversely. Also, according to some research, babies who follow the baby-led weaning approach are more likely to be underweight and may be at increased risk of iron deficiency as they don’t usually eat breakfast cereals or red meat until later; these are rich in iron.

Weaning recipesTraditional weaning

In traditional weaning approaches, baby is offered a first taste of food on the tip of a spoon, or on a fingertip. The first foods tend to be cereal, such as baby rice mixed with his usual milk, or fruit or vegetable purée. These mashed or puréed foods can be single foods, such as parsnip purée, or a combination such as mashed banana and mango. Some research has shown that it’s important to ensure baby gets the real taste of food, even those that are bitter, and so it’s best to try not to ‘disguise’ flavours (for example, mixing apple purée into broccoli). Even if he turns his nose up at the first taste of a bitter vegetable, don’t give up – keep trying every few days and he’ll soon have plenty of foods in his repertoire.

This approach is more clearly controlled by the adult giving the food and has the advantage of being able to offer a wide range of foods as most foods can be puréed or mashed.

A bit of both?

The middle ground is what seems to be favoured by many, and is the advice given by the Department of Health with spoon feeding alongside self-feeding with finger foods offering an opportunity to grab and chew on foods such as ripe, soft avocado, banana or mini rice cakes.

Whether you choose baby-led weaning, traditional methods, or a combination of the two, it's meant to be a gradual process. Small pieces of soft food and one or two spoonfuls might be all your baby wants at first, and milk feeds are still really important to provide the main source of nutrition until baby is confidently eating a good range of family foods in sufficient amounts – typically by his first birthday. That’s why it’s called 'complementary feeding'.

Looking for inspiration? Try our weaning recipe collection, packed full of perfect purées and tasty finger foods. Not sure if your baby is ready for weaning? Find out how to spot the signs.

Dr Frankie Phillips is a registered dietitian and public health nutritionist specialising in infant and toddler nutrition with over 20 years' experience.
 

Have you got any questions about weaning? Or any tips to share? We would love to hear from you below...

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Comments (7)

dano420's picture

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siancj's picture

This is a poorly written biased article and Dr Phillips has clearly misunderstood the research (or more so an analysis of research) he refers to. If you actually read the article you will note he ignores the following points:
"Currently no large well-designed study has investigated the risk of failure to thrive in infants following BLW"
"Alternatively, because the infant following BLW is eating family foods there may be greater potential for a wider variety of iron-rich foods such as pieces of cooked beef, or liver, to be consumed. The bioavailability of iron in these foods is also much higher (~15.5%) than infant cereals (~3%) [113]"
"To date, no research has examined the food and nutrient intake of children following BLW to determine whether they are at increased risk of iron deficiency."

I'm not sure how Dr Phillips has come to his conclusion of:
"Also, according to some research, babies who follow the baby-led weaning approach are more likely to be underweight and may be at increased risk of iron deficiency as they don’t usually eat breakfast cereals or red meat until later; these are rich in iron."

As someone who has followed BLW from six months (there is no such thing as a "bit of both" by the way) then I can tell you that my child ate fortified cereals from six months and also red meat. Both of which they can pick up with their hands very easily. Oh and also iron rich vegetables and beans. Please explain to me how a parent who offers their child a healthy and balanced diet is putting their child at risk? Or even how offering purée means I can offer a wider variety of foods than BLW? That assumption really doesn't make sense.
Please also explain to me how my BLW child managed to jump back up to the 50th centile at seven months having dropped to the 25th at two months old following an operation (exclusively breastfed until six months). Is that a child that was failing meet her nutrient or energy requirements? She wasn't even one of the many BLW babies who take to solids instantly but was slow with her intake. Incidentally we have never had a gagging or choking incident either.

Anyway, this is my own anecdotal evidence of which there are many others. This is no replacement for solid scientific evidence of which the 'research' Dr Phillips refers to even says is lacking with regards to BLW. I would welcome any good research into both traditional and baby led weaning and I look forward to reading it. Until then, for me allowing a child to regulate their own complementary solids intake along breastfeeding feels intuitive and a natural progression from breastfeeding on demand.
I would hope in future the BBC finds someone with a more informed and objective ability to write articles.

MrsBlackkat's picture

What a shame this article is so biased & the author clearly doesn't understand BLW. True there are pros & cons of BLW but the cons are more the mess as most babies are introduced to meat (steak is often a 1st food) & cereal. Where are the pros & cons for traditional weaning? Surely not everyone who is following that route is giving a balanced nutritional diet. I'm also confused as how tw babies can be given a wider range of food then BLW babies. This is purely only the case if parents don't offer a variety of food which could be either weaning routes.

Also a mixed approach is another name for traditional weaning as it's spoon feeding purees with finger food added when parents feel there child is ready, that isn't the same as BLW which is completely child led. If you actually read the NHS link you've posted it states that 'if you use a spoon' how you can do it but it doesn't say that you have to spoon feed.

Unfortunately yet another muddled article where the author doesn't truly understand BLW

ukkidsnutrition's picture

Great article. Absolutely - I am now regularly being asked to review children due to their limited intake after following a strict baby led weaning schedule. Although some breakfast cereals are fortified with iron, this may not be sufficient to meet requirements. This is why the input from a qualified dietitian such as Dr Frankie Phillips raising awareness around some of the nutritional problems that can be linked with baby led weaning is important for the public. There are wonderful aspects of baby led weaning that parents can incorporate into their own weaning style but sometimes offering food using a spoon is essential. Then gradually encourage baby to self-feed using cutlery. After all, as adults do we not do 'a bit of both'? Do we not eat using spoons and other cutlery?

siancj's picture

I'd be interested to know how many BLW children in comparison to TW children are referred to you (though not sure exactly what your role is) and on what basis.

As mentioned before, BLW cannot be incorporated into a TW approach as that is not baby led. BLW is a philosophy on allowing the child to guide themselves and regulate their own intake of solids. If the child is offered a balanced and healthy diet alongside breastmilk or formula then how exactly is that child going to have nutritional problems?!? There will always be cases where self feeding is not appropriate for all children, for example those babies who do not have the motor skills to self feed due to developmental delays, but for the majority of babies BLW is an excellent way to introduce solids.

Oh and no, as an adult I really don't do "a bit of both". I feed myself entirely, be it with cutlery or with my hands. I think again you are under the misconception that BLW means no cutlery.

MrsBlackkat's picture

We adults don't do a bit of both as I don't know about you but I feed myself everything I eat, I'm not spoon fed by anyone!!

BLW isn't the absence of cutlery, in fact the opposite can be true. I followed the BLW route with my daughter & she was able to feed herself using a spoon from 8 months & a fork from 12 months, no need for me to feed her.

Mrsfoc's picture

What a big load of tosh BBC Good Food! Firstly 'a bit of both'? Traditional weaning incorporates finger foods just later down the line while starting with purées. A bit of both makes little to no sense, the question is essentially, do you mash/purée stuff or not. Secondly, red meat and cereals later on? Some pretty rubbish research going on if these studies support this because breakfast cereal is one of the first things many baby-led weaned babies try, along with red meat, often as part of a good Sunday roast, of which they'll try all bits at their own pace. The tone of this article feels biased towards traditional weaning and that's sad because an expert such as this should be giving impartial advice when the evidence doesn't strongly support the use of purée over just letting a baby dig in...

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