Baby Led Weaning: A Developmental Perspective

blw

One of the things I like best about teaching courses on feeding to parents and professionals around the United States is learning what new trends are evolving around family mealtimes. Over the past year,  one of the common questions I’m asked is, “What about Baby Led Weaning?”

Baby Led Weaning (BLW) is a term coined by Ms. Gill Rapley, co-author of “Baby-led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods.”  Rapley graciously chatted with me about her philosophy and explained that although she did not invent BLW, she found the method to be successful in her work as a former health visitor and midwife in the United Kingdom and continues to study the topic today while earning her PhD.

In a nutshell, BLW centers on the philosophy that babies are developmentally capable of reaching for food and putting it in their mouths at about 6 months of age. As stated on the BLW website “You just hand them the food in a suitably-sized piece and if they like it they eat it and if they don’t they won’t.”  Please note that the word “wean” is not referring to weaning from breast or bottle, but instead refers to a term commonly used in the United Kingdom for adding complementary foods to the baby’s current diet of breast milk or formula.  According to the BLW website, ideas for first foods include “chip size” steamed vegetables such as a broccoli spear with the stem as a handle, roasted potato wedges, meat in large enough pieces for the baby to grasp and chew, rice cakes, cucumber, celery and dried apricots.

As a SLP who focuses on pediatric feeding, I view feeding as a developmental process.  Whether I’m working with a child experiencing delays in development or offering advice to a parent whose child is meeting milestones with ease, I always ask myself “How can I respect and support this family’s mealtime culture while guiding this child safely through the developmental course of learning to eat?”  Thus, for families who are interested in following the BLW method, whether their child is in feeding therapy or not, I try to support their wishes if the child is capable,  while offering the following BLW points to consider:

BLW encourages parents to eat with their children, since everyone is eating the same food. 

In today’s busy culture, it feels easier to many parents to feed the baby prior to the adult or family meal, and in BLW the thought is that jarred purees contribute to this habit and it’s important to include baby at the table at an early age.  Even in feeding therapy,  the ultimate goal is for families to be able to gather around the table at mealtimes with everyone enjoying the same foods.  Plus, Columbia University reports that consistent family dinners are an integral and valuable part of raising children.

BLW emphasizes that babies must be the ones to put the food in their mouths.

Feeding therapists encourage self-feeding  for all kids because it allows them to get messy.  Babies are programmed to explore the world with all of their senses, especially their hands and mouths, and often the two together!  BLW notes that the time to begin self-feeding is at 6 months when baby can sit upright on his/her own. I explain to parents that first, every child must have the gross motor stability to support fine motor skills, including reaching and raking for food and controlling their grasp to bring the food to the mouth to be chewed.  For children who have this capability, I feel comfortable with large pieces of food that will not snap off (or allow a solid chunk to fall into the mouth) in addition to short spoons and chewable toys for practicing the skills that will eventually lead to self-feeding.

BLW follows the baby’s cues rather than the parent controlling the feeding via the spoon.

I explain that whether presenting food to your child by placing it on the high chair tray in front of them, directly on a spoon or even mouth to mouth as done in some cultures, reading baby’s cues for readiness is crucial.  Like a beautiful, flowing conversation, feeding children is a reciprocal experience.

According to the BLW blog, BLW introduces chip-size foods (rather than purees or mashed foods) so that baby learns to chew first and then spit out if unable to swallow, noting that with purees on a spoon, babies learn to swallow first and then chew.

From a developmental perspective,  this doesn’t quite fit with my understanding of how infant reflexes integrate  and babies acquire oral motor skills. Babies can begin the process of BOTH spoon and finger feeding between the ages of 5 and 6 months using both purees and soft, safe foods.  Why?  Because this is when babies acquire better lip control and movement as they suck the puree off of a parent’s finger, their own hands or a spoon.  As noted in Diane Bahr’s book “Nobody Ever Told Me (or My Mother) That!” this is when babies use their rhythmic bite reflex to bite off soft pieces of safe, soft or meltable foods that they can hold in their tiny fists or when presented by a parent to their open mouths. If the food is placed onto the gums where we will one day see molars, a rotary chew pattern will begin to emerge over time, thanks to reflexive patterns that soon become purposeful movements.  It’s a developmental process and BOTH purees and finger feeding facilitate the progression of skills. It makes sense to me to transition gradually from thinner  liquids (breast milk/formula) to thicker (thus, a smooth puree) to consistently mashed or chopped  while introducing soft meltables over time.  Keep in mind that I also encounter families who are moving too slowly through graduation of textures, as noted in this article by Bahr.  But, jumping straight to only large pieces of foods to be chewed and then either swallowed or spit out feels like skipping crucial steps in the developmental process.  “Feels like” is the key phrase here: We need research to determine if children who follow this model eventually acquire skills traditionally learned prior to chewing chunks of food as listed in this article found in ASHA Perspectives.  Unlike my previous post on sippy cups, where therapists have raised concerns based on their professional experience over several years and observation of prolonged sippy cup use,  consistent BLW practices are a relatively new phenomenon in the United States.  So, when any parent asks “What about Baby Led Weaning?” I try to integrate my own practitioner expertise and knowledge of feeding development while honoring the family’s preferences and mealtime culture.  Still,  my biggest concern for any 6 month old child is choking.

BLW encourages parents to become comfortable with gagging episodes and understand the difference between gagging and choking. 

Gagging versus choking are two different experiences.  Typically, an infant’s gag reflex is triggered when the back three quarters of the tongue is stimulated, but by the time a child reaches  9 months of age, the reflex covers less area, lying on the back third of the tongue. Eventually, the gag reflex shifts posteriorly even more as the child learns to tolerate the stimulation. Gagging is nature’s way of protecting the airway, where true choking occurs.  Choking happens when food (or other substances) obstruct the airway and thus, often has no sound or intermittent, odd sounds.  Other signs of choking include but are not limited to: gasping for breath, turning blue around the lips and beneath the eyes and/or staring with an open mouth while drooling.

Gagging is an uncomfortable sensation where the soft palate suddenly elevates, the jaw thrusts forward and down, and the back of the tongue lifts up and forward.  It is not unusual for a child to vomit after gagging.  In between the gags, the child is still able to breathe, cry and make vocal noises.  The occasional gag is an important built-in safety mechanism, but frequent gags and/or vomiting can lead to an aversion to food.

In summary, when asked for advice from any family that would like to follow Baby Led Weaning principles, I stress the importance of reading baby’s cues and monitoring them closely for safe feeding while supporting them through the developmental process of learning to eat, no matter what age.  This includes proper positioning in the feeding chair for optimal stability and presenting only manageable pieces of safe, meltable and/or solid foods that do not pose a choking hazard.  For children in feeding therapy, incorporating some aspects of BLW is dependent on that child’s individual delays or challenges and where they are in the developmental process, regardless of chronological age.  My primary concern for any child is safety – be aware and be informed, while respecting each family’s mealtime culture.

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating.  She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food!  Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is  offered for ASHA CEUs and includes both her book and CD for each attendee.  She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.