If you're ready to wean your baby onto solid food, but you're not sure where to begin, this is the post for you! It will answer all your questions about what Baby Led Weaning is, when you should begin, and how to do it!
My daughter has been eating solids for more than 7 months now, and she's doing really well (she will eat literally anything I give her, except celery, but I don't blame her for that one...) - so this seems like a good time to share everything I've learned about Baby Led Weaning. Starting with the main question on everyone's mind - what is Baby Led Weaning?!
My daughter is a great eater. I'm sure it's largely just good luck - no child of mine was ever going to be a food hater, were they? - but I do think it's also partly due to the way she was weaned. We did Baby Led Weaning (BLW), which means she's never eaten 'baby food' - no purees, no pouches, no jars, nothing like that. I've never mashed her food or stuck it in a blender. She's eaten real food since Day 1 (well, since she was 6 months old, so technically around Day 183, but you know what I mean).
Just like everything baby-related, there's a bit of a learning curve with Baby Led Weaning, but in my opinion, it's so worth it, and can actually be so much less effort than Traditional Weaning (TW). There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to raising a baby, so if you've decided to go with Traditional Weaning, that's totally fine - whatever works for your baby and your family. But if you're thinking of starting weaning soon, here's a beginners' guide to BLW - all the BLW basics you'll need!
This is a bit of a bumper post, so here's a handy little menu to help you jump to the sections you're most interested in (or just scroll down to read the whole thing!):
- What is Baby Led Weaning?
- What are the benefits of Baby Led Weaning?
- When can you start Baby Led Weaning?
- Won't the baby choke?
- What can a BLW baby eat?
- How should food be cut for a BLW baby?
- What foods should a BLW baby not be given?
- Does a BLW baby still drink milk?
- How many meals should a BLW baby be given each day?
- Do I have to stick to all the Baby Led Weaning rules?
What is Baby Led Weaning?
Baby Led Weaning simply means starting your baby straight away on 'real' solid food, rather than beginning with baby food and purees. There's no spoon-feeding in BLW - you just put the appropriate food in front of the baby, and let them explore.
At first, the baby probably won't know what to do, as they won't recognise the food as food (can you imagine not knowing what cheese is?! Poor babies!). This is why one of the main principles of BLW is that the baby eats their meals at the same time as you're eating yours - you all sit together at the table, so they can watch how you eat and learn from you. I definitely remember seeing my daughter moving her jaw up and down when she was in her highchair, long before she ever actually started chewing food, because that's what she'd seen us doing.
After a while of grabbing, throwing and smearing, the baby will start to explore the food with their mouth (this might take mere seconds, or whole weeks!). They probably won't actually eat anything at first, but even just licking and sucking means they're learning about flavours, textures, and the very concept of solid food. The baby's main source of nutrition until they're a whole year old is milk (breastmilk or formula, or both), so it doesn't matter if they're not actually consuming much solid food at first. They'll be getting a few nutrients even just from sucking!
Eventually they'll learn to bite off pieces of food (even if they have no teeth - those gums are hard!), chew, and swallow.
Puree-like foods (e.g. hummus, yogurt, soup) can be offered on a pre-loaded spoon - just load it up, hand it to the baby, and let them feed themselves. It won't be long before they get the hang of it - practice makes perfect! My girl went through a phase where she'd throw the spoon down like a mic drop after every successful mouthful, super proud of herself. Luckily she now just calmly hands it back to me to load up again!
What are the benefits of Baby Led Weaning?
Honestly, the main reason we chose to do BLW was because I'm lazy, and cheap. I couldn't be bothered to steam veg and make my own purees, and it seemed so wasteful to buy thousands of those tiny individual jars or pouches of baby food. But through my research, and my own experience, I've found loads of other benefits of Baby Led Weaning, including:
- It gives the baby more control over how much they're eating. Right from day 1, they can decide how much they eat (teaching self-regulation), rather than just being spoon-fed until the whole jar has gone. My girl always chooses to eat everything on her plate... but at least it's her choice!
- It also teaches decision making - the baby can look at all the food in front of them, and decide what they want to eat. As long as you're offering a good range of healthy foods (no baby's going to choose broccoli over cake), it's interesting to see their preferences develop. My daughter's going through a phase where she always eats her cucumber last (but she still eats it eventually!).
- It helps develop their gross and fine motor control - turning the food over in their hands, bringing it to their mouth, reaching out to grab a piece they've got their eye on, etc. It also helps with oral development, as they're being given more of a challenge than just sucking down purees.
- As mentioned, it's easier in a lot of ways! You don't need to prepare a special meal for the baby, just give them whatever you're eating (provided it's not a food you need to avoid, and provided it's cut correctly).
- It encourages the whole family to eat healthier meals.
The main drawback of BLW in my opinion is that it can be a bit messy at first - lots of food being thrown around! We just laid an old tablecloth under the highchair, and it was absolutely fine. I've only had to wipe hummus off the wall once - and it does help that we have a dog to clean up any bits I've missed! But I figure, all babies have to learn to feed themselves at some point, even babies who were fed with purees to begin with, so it seems like Traditional Weaning might just be delaying the inevitable?
When can you start Baby Led Weaning?
You can start BLW as soon as the baby is ready for solid foods - you don't need to use purees first (in fact, if you're planning on doing BLW, it's actually recommended to begin straight away rather than confusing the baby by giving purees first).
Historically babies have been given solid foods (usually purees) as early as 3 or 4 months, but current guidelines from organisations such as the NHS and WHO are that babies must be at least 6 months old before you offer solid foods. This is especially true with BLW, and the baby must also be able to sit up on their own, unsupported, as this means they have the strength to lean forward if needed when gagging (see below: won't the baby choke?). There's no rush to get started - if you feel your baby isn't quite ready, it's better to wait another few weeks, as offering solid foods too early may cause gut problems.
Don't forget that milk (breastmilk or formula, or both) should be the baby's primary source of nutrition until they're a year old, so whenever you start offering solids, make sure you keep up with milk feeds too.
Won't the baby choke?
Luckily, you don't need to experiment with your baby's safety, because the research has already been done for you: BLW babies are no more likely to choke than babies who start on purees, as long as no obvious choking hazards are offered, and food is cut appropriately. But it's always recommended that before you begin to wean your baby (using BLW or TW), you take an infant CPR course, just in case.
It's also really important to recognise the difference between gagging and choking.
Choking is when the airway is completely blocked by food. It is silent - there's no gasping for air, as no air is getting through. Choking requires intervention - this is when your infant CPR class would come in handy (I say 'would' rather than 'will', because hopefully most of us won't ever have to use it!).
Gagging, on the other hand, is not a bad thing - it's simply when food gets a little too far towards the back of the baby's mouth, and triggers their gag reflex. Sometimes it involves coughing (showing that the airway isn't blocked). A baby's gag reflex is much further forward in their mouth than an adult's, so it's triggered more easily - it moves further back as they become a toddler. Gagging can actually be a positive thing - the baby is learning how to move food around their mouth, how much food they can put in their mouth at one time, how far back they can allow the food to get... how can we expect them to learn these things if we never let them experiment?
You should not intervene if your baby is gagging. Keep calm, and let them figure it out - if you panic, the baby will panic, and that can cause them to choke. Never stick your fingers in a baby's mouth to grab at pieces of food, or you risk pushing the food even further back, which could cause choking.
What can a BLW baby eat?
In short, pretty much anything (apart from a few foods to avoid!).
There are no 'first foods' in Baby Led Weaning - you can jump straight into spag bol and sandwiches, if you like. But you might prefer to offer individual foods to begin with, as it can be easier for the baby to pick up one food at a time. You don't need to start with soft foods, but again, you may decide this is a good way to begin. My daughter's first meal was omelette, avocado and toast (she swallowed none of it, which was fine!).
There's no need to shy away from spicy or flavourful foods - your baby may love them! But you might want to take it easy with the spice to begin with, just to gauge their reaction - I once offered some jalapeño hummus that made her cry, and I felt terrible. She loves a slightly milder sweet chilli hummus though!
How should food be cut for a BLW baby?
A really important part of Baby Led Weaning is the way the food is cut. Babies can eat anything we eat (apart from a few things that you must avoid!), but you might need to adjust the way you cut your food just a little to make it more age-appropriate.
If your baby is new to solids, food should ideally be cut into pieces the size and shape of a finger (yours, not theirs!). This allows the baby to grab the item in their fist (they won't have developed their two-finger pincer grip yet), and gnaw at one end. They're then in control of exactly how much goes into their mouth. It's okay if they bite off a piece - that's when they'll get to practise moving food around their mouth, like mentioned above! They'll either eat it, or suck / chew it for a while and then spit it out.
You can still cut finger-shaped pieces of food, even if you're cooking up a full meal - you don't need to just offer individual pieces of food. If you're making veggie lasagne, for example, just cut the vegetables into fingers, and cut off strips of pasta for the baby when you serve it up. A few long pieces of garlic bread. Maybe some wedges of tomato or some cucumber sticks on the side. Mmmm, lasagne.
Once the baby has mastered chewing and swallowing (which can take months!), you can start cutting things into smaller, bitesize pieces if you want to. I have to cut my girl's food smaller now, as she's in a phase of sticking the whole thing in her mouth at once, and this helps to limit her a bit (though she usually just puts two pieces in at once instead!).
What foods should a BLW baby not be given?
A baby can be given any food from 6 months of age, with a few important caveats:
- no honey before 1 year old, even if it's been cooked (in rare cases it can lead to infant botulism)
- limit salt to less than 1g per day (or less than 2g per day after 1 year old), as their kidneys can't cope with too much. Beware of shop-bought processed foods, as they often contain a lot of salt.
- limit foods with added sugar - it serves no nutritional purpose, and can cause tooth decay
- no undercooked eggs, unless they're lion stamped (this is a vegetarian blog, but just in case any non-veggies are reading, I feel I should add that undercooked meat and fish is also a no-no!)
- no unpasteurised dairy products
- no obvious choking hazards - hard, round objects should be chopped before offering to a baby (e.g. you should cut grapes and cherry tomatoes into quarters lengthwise; chop whole nuts into small pieces), and you should only offer peanut butter as a spread rather than on a spoon, as it can be claggy.
Does a BLW baby still drink milk?
Yes, milk should be the baby's main source of nutrition until 1 year old (either breastmilk or formula). Milk should be offered before solid foods, with food playing more of a supporting role. After 1 year old, their main source of nutrition becomes food, so solid food should be offered before milk.
How many meals should a BLW baby be given each day?
By the time a baby is around 1 year old, they should be getting 3 meals a day, plus snacks. It's up to you how you get to that point - you can dive straight in with three meals a day from 6 months old, or gradually build up to it. There's no denying that BLW can be a bit messy, so a lot of people choose to begin offering solid foods just once a day, gradually increasing to 3 meals a day by 1 year old. We started on just 1 meal a day, but it was taking her quite a while to get the hang of it, so after a few weeks we moved up to 2 meals a day to give her more opportunities to practice. As soon as she got it, she was away.
Do I have to stick to all the Baby Led Weaning rules?
A BLW purist would say that you must follow all the BLW rules. But I don't think I've ever been a purist about anything in my life, so I say, do what works for you.
Some of the guidelines are there for safety reasons - waiting until the baby is at least 6 months old, cutting food correctly, etc. So I would definitely follow those. But there's wiggle room on some of the others.
For example, you're 'supposed' to eat your own meals alongside the baby. We do this for breakfast and lunch, so there are plenty of opportunities to watch us eat and learn from us, but I don't really want to eat my dinner at 5:30pm every day (especially since my husband often works late), so she eats dinner alone. I obviously sit with her, but I'm not eating at the same time. It's never been a problem for us. I imagine as she gets a bit older, we'll start eating dinner together.
I also don't think there's anything wrong with using the odd jar of baby food or pouch of puree if you're out and about and you just want something convenient to feed the baby that won't make a big mess. We actually never did this (I've cleaned the floors of many restaurants and pubs!), but I can totally understand the appeal.
So there it is! Congratulations if you made it this far. I know not everyone will be interested in Baby Led Weaning, but hopefully this post will be a useful reference for BLW beginners.
If you're interested in learning more about BLW, you can also check out my top tips for Baby Led Weaning!