Meaning and foods to try

Baby-led weaning (BLW) is an approach to introducing solid foods. It encourages babies to feed themselves and encourages parents to minimize or eliminate the use of purees.

Caregivers can begin using this approach as soon as they introduce complementary foods alongside breastmilk or formula. Advocates say that BLW promotes self-regulation, motor skills, and a healthy relationship with food.

Research generally shows that BLW can be safe, though no single approach is guaranteed to work for every child or family. Read on to learn more about BLW.

BLW is an approach to introducing solid foods that centers the baby’s interests and needs, allowing them to choose what to eat.

Instead of spoonfeeding them purees, parents and caregivers give babies age-appropriate versions of the food that the rest of the family is eating, so they can eat with their hands. These foods often include finger foods such as bananas or small carrots.

This allows babies to begin participating in family meal times and reduces time pressure on parents and caregivers. As they eat, so can their baby.

British nurse Gill Rapley introduced the idea of BLW in the early 2000s. She argued that BLW fosters independence and adventurous, nutritious eating.

The nonprofit Ellyn Satter Institute also encourages a similar approach. It recommends that parents and caregivers are responsible for what, when, and how a child eats. However, the child should always be able to decide whether they want to eat a specific food, and if so, how much of it.

Major health organizations tend not to recommend specific feeding plans or approaches when it comes to introducing solid foods.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer general recommendations on introducing new foods slowly, starting with single-ingredient foods to make it easier to identify allergies.

Other doctors also have varied opinions on BLW. Some may worry about the risk of choking, especially when babies consume certain finger foods, such as apple pieces, that require more chewing. However, research so far suggests that BLW is not dangerous.

A 2018 study followed 1,151 parents with babies ages 4–12 months old, comparing those who followed BLW with babies who did not. The researchers found no significant association between weaning style and choking episodes.

However, babies whose caregivers used a traditional weaning approach were more likely to choke on finger foods and lumpy purees later on in the weaning process. This suggests BLW has a slight advantage in terms of safety, although more research is necessary to confirm this.

The CDC recommends starting solids when a baby is around 6 months old. However, for this to be safe, they must be able to:

  • sit up alone and without support
  • control their head and neck
  • swallow food rather than push it out of the mouth
  • bring their hands to their mouth
  • grasp small objects

A parent or caregiver should not give a baby solid foods if they cannot do the above or are younger than 4 months. They will be more likely to choke.

Some potential benefits of BLW include:

  • Independence and autonomy: BLW encourages babies to eat independently. Advocates say this helps children become more confident at mealtimes.
  • Self-regulation: By allowing babies to decide what and how much they eat, babies can learn self-regulation. This means they learn to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.
  • Motor skills: Handling food and learning to feed themselves may help babies practice fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
  • Convenience: BLW allows babies to eat at any time or place when the rest of the family does. It also means a parent or caregiver does not have to feed them manually.
  • Reduced pressure: When children control their own food intake, there may be less stress and conflict over food.
  • Adventurous eating: Proponents claim that BLW can reduce pickiness and promote more adventurous eating. However, no research has proven this claim.

Some drawbacks of BLW include:

  • Nutritional imbalances: Some studies have found that children whose parents use BLW are more likely to have nutritional imbalances or underweight. However, other studies have not reached the same conclusions.
  • Exposure to less nutritious foods: If babies eat what the rest of the family is eating, they may ingest more salt or sugar than they would from purees. However, families can address this by eating balanced meals or by creating and offering baby-appropriate versions of what they eat.
  • Choking risk: Some finger foods pose a choking risk. Most research shows no difference in choking rates between babies who feed themselves and those who do not. However, it is important to modify or avoid any foods that pose this risk.

The foods that parents and caregivers must avoid when introducing solid foods are the same, no matter what approach they use. According to the CDC, parents and caregivers should not feed a baby:

  • Honey: Before the age of 12 months, honey may expose a baby to botulism, a life threatening form of food poisoning.
  • Unpasteurized dairy: Heat treating or pasteurizing dairy kills bacteria, reducing the chance of food poisoning. Health experts do not recommend giving unpasteurized milk, yogurt, or cheese, but pasteurized alternatives are safe.
  • Cow’s milk: Do not give cow’s milk before babies are 12 months. It contains too many nutrients that are difficult for them to digest and process.
  • Caffeine: There is no safe level of caffeine for children under the age of 2 years.
  • High mercury fish: Mercury is toxic, and larger fish can accumulate it in their bodies. Babies should not eat bigeye tuna, king mackerel, marlin, shark, or swordfish.
  • Foods with added sugar: Added sugars offer no nutritional benefits. They can be present in fruit juices, baked goods, and flavored yogurts. Children under the age of 24 months should avoid them.
  • High sodium foods: This includes processed foods such as cured meats, canned soup, and instant dinners.

There is no particular order when introducing foods when following BLW. Instead, advocates recommend taking cues from the child’s interests and abilities.

That said, many health organizations recommend introducing one new food at a time, particularly if it is a common allergen, such as wheat or eggs.

To start with, a parent or caregiver can try introducing one new food that is similar to what the rest of the family is eating, after modifying it to be safe for babies. For example, if the rest of the household is eating a stew, a parent or caregiver could offer well-cooked baby carrots.

Finger foods work well, as they are easy to grip but small enough for a baby to insert into their mouth. However, they should not be so small that it is easy for them to accidentally swallow whole. Grapes pose a common risk for this.

Some ideas for BLW foods include:

  • whole soft fruits, such as banana
  • well-cooked vegetables, such as baby carrots
  • thin sticks of harder fruits or vegetables, such as apple or celery
  • soft or mashed pulses, such as lentils or chickpeas
  • pieces of soft, chewable cheeses
  • mashed versions of potential choking hazards, such as blueberries or grapes

As the baby tries new foods, parents and caregivers can start giving them different options. Again, it is best to introduce new options one at a time, so that if the baby has an allergic reaction, caregivers can identify the cause.

Each meal should have a source of protein, a vegetable, and a fruit or carbohydrate. For example, one meal might include mashed chickpeas, cooked carrots, and apple sticks.

Caregivers can allow the child to pick up the food themselves without trying to spoonfeed them. It is typical for the baby to occasionally spit food out and make some mess.

BLW is one of many approaches to transitioning to solid foods. Caregivers who wish to try it should know that research generally suggests it is safe. Supporters of this method also claim it has benefits, such as encouraging adventurous eating and self-regulation.

However, no studies have conclusively proven that BLW is superior to any other method. Like all weaning approaches, it has benefits and drawbacks.

Caregivers can discuss all nutrition concerns with a pediatrician. No matter what weaning approach a family takes, it is important to offer a wide variety of nutritious food to babies.