Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bullshitometer: Baby led weaning/Gill Rapley

Baby led weaning, a term invented by British health visitor Gill Rapley, may not be "breastfeeding" as such, but it's so popular on breastfeeding-centered boards and blogs that it's worth a little scrutiny. Confusingly for North Americans, BLW is not about weaning from the breast; rather, it refers to a method of solid food introduction which consists (roughly) of forgoing the traditional spoonfeeding of purees, and instead giving the baby large-ish pieces of table food to self-feed... or chuck on the floor if they are so disposed, the idea being that this is about "following the baby's lead" in terms of what and how much solid food they eat. BLWers usually wait at least six months--sometimes later--before starting solids, and BLW is typically characterized by a much slower shift towards solids than the spoonfeeding approach, with babies not infrequently getting little in the way of solids until they approach a year old.

Because BLW has become quite fashionable, everyone seems to have started using the term and you will often hear people using it to describe what is more traditionally called "finger foods" ("We're doing some purees with a spoon, and also some BLW"). However, people who take BLW Very Very Seriously--I'm going to refer to them as the BLW purists--scoff at such approaches, saying that you can't do BLW by halves. The whole philosophy of bona fide BLW, you see, is based on the idea that babies should be entirely in charge of the feeding process; once you start doing any spoonfeeding, the whole weaning process becomes... like... not BLW. In this respect, the purists actually go even further than Rapley herself, who admits that a bit of spoonfeeding may be okay if you really have to. Gill Rapley's philosophy of BLW is set out in her book;  however, aficionados tend to say that this weaning method is as old as time itself ("What do you think people did before blenders?") and that by contrast, puree-based spoonfeeding is a new invention, necessitated by the invention of infant formula and pushed on parents by the babyfood industry, which has a vested interest in getting parents to give solids more and earlier than is natural for babies.

Finger foods are not the subject of this Bulshitometer post--everyone does finger foods and all pediatricians recommend them, including my parents' 1970-something Dr Spock book if I remember rightly. What I am scrutinizing is BLW as per the second definition, and the claims that have been made for it by Gill Rapley and her fans--namely, that there is a particular virtue in avoiding pureed/mashed foods and spoonfeeding, and that forgoing these things will lead to children with better eating habits, that parent-led feeding will make children more prone to obesity or pickiness, that children allowed to self-feed everything will gain better motor skills and instinctively avoid things they are allergic to, that pureed foods cause constipation, and that BLW is the "natural" way and represents the biological and historical norm for human babies.

Better eaters
Less obesity! Better eating habits! Children who eat vegetables without complaining! Rapley could hardly have come up with a more appealing laundry list of points with which to entice 21st century parents engaged in that very modern pursuit of worrying about food. Based on her 20-odd years as a health visitor, "Rapley believes that babies allowed to feed themselves tend to become less picky, develop better hand control more quickly and to avoid foods to which they are later found to be intolerant."

I'm sure she does believe all this. Similarly, people in the 17th century apparently believed that bloodletting cured all manner of ills and that fever could be cured by taking live pigeons to bed with you. All together now: "The plural of anecdote is not evidence."

Considering the fervor that BLW inspires in some of its devotees, it's striking how little evidence there is to support its claims--"little" as in basically "none." Rapley's book's claim that BLW will result in less picky eaters rests upon a single experiment conducted before WWII--a trial for which almost no data was ever presented and which can never be replicated for ethical reasons. Rapley also includes a study she conducted among a small group of babies which proved, not very excitingly, that if you present babies with a variety of table foods, by nine months they will be... eating a variety of table foods. So yes, if you want to skip the purees and go slower on solids, it's probably fine. But none of this provides any evidence for Rapley's other claims of less picky eaters or magic allergy avoidance.

The other "evidence" provided by the book consists largely of proud parents saying things like "I'm doing BLW with my nine-month-old and she's eating broccoli! See? BLW totes works!" No. Your child is eating green veggies with gusto because she is a baby. Come back when she's two and we'll talk. Two is generally when the food fussies kick in, probably for evolutionary reasons related to the fact that toddlers in neolithic societies were at real risk of being poisoned by unknown plants found in their environment. The BLW site's toddler forum is full of parents moaning that their two- and three-year-olds have suddenly started rejecting foods they used to eat with relish.

Other parents compare the fact that their BLW-ed younger child is a better eater than their traditionally weaned older child--a comparison which, on the individual level, tells us precisely nothing, given that in any pair of siblings, even those weaned in exactly the same way, one will typically be a better eater than the other simply because genes play a powerful role in our eating preferences.This is Bad Science 101--seriously, I could use exactly the same approach to "prove" the efficacy of homeopathy (or the live pigeon treatment, for that matter).

I mean, I do get that obesity and the dreaded "kiddie food" culture of bland junk foods are worries for parents; but these are problems that have become acute only in the last half-century, so it seems a bit odd to blame them on parent-led feeding of mashed foods, which has gone on for millennia (see below). Cross-culturally too, it's hard to see any patterns; as one poster notes here (with thinly disguised annoyance), French babies get bland mush on a spoon and cereal in their formula bottles, and still seem to end up better eaters than British and American children. So do Japanese kids, for that manner, in spite of their parents Doin It Rong in terms of first foods (spoon-fed gluey rice porridge, since you asked).

Better motor skills
Manipulating finger foods doubtless is indeed a way for babies to practice their fine motor skills, but in Rapley's claims that BLW results in better motor skills, I detect the whiff of a burning straw man; I don't think many people actually do wean babies on nothing but spoonfed mushes. Most parents have always given finger foods in addition to spoonfeeding, and it's hard to see how the benefits of finger food practice get magically erased as soon as you give the kid a bit of mashed potato on a spoon. As for the vague parental claims that their BLWed babies have better motor skills, see above comments about anecdotes vs evidence.

Purees cause constipation
There is no reason why pureed foods should cause constipation any more than non-pureed foods. A quick visit to Ask the Dietitian confirms that pureeing or even blenderizing foods leaves their fiber intact--although anyone who regularly consumes fruit smoothies can testify to their, ahem, bowel loosening effect without the need to go online. Perhaps Rapley is confusing pureeing with juicing, a very different process? Constipation is a common temporary effect of solids-introduction as the baby's gut tries to get used to new foods; if it is less noticeable with BLW, a simpler explanation is that if you are hardcore about the baby only eating what he/she can self-feed, it will probably take a while before they actually eat enough to have any effect on the digestive tract.

BLW is popularly considered to be more "natural" than feeding purees or mashes. Now..... trying to define what is "natural" for human beings is always a bit of a philosophical headache. However, it's not clear on what grounds BLW qualifies.

The whole "What Would Cavemama Do" approach to childrearing gets a bit daft, but for the sake of arguing.... Rapley's book states that prior to the 20th century, most babies didn't start solids till they were "eight or nine months old" (she gives no source for this alleged fact). It's surprisingly hard to find proper sources on solids introduction in pre-industrialized societies; from those which can be found, what kind of picture emerges? Well.... surprisingly, lots of mush, lots of parent-led feeding, and lots of starch, to be honest (see here, here, here and here, for example... if you don't want to wade through the last one, there is a summary here). Feeding babies foods that have been mashed in some way--between two rocks, your fingers or even your own jaws--has a long history, and no, you don't need a spoon or a blender (slummy mummies like me could have told you that already, though).

Do babies in "traditional" societies also self-feed? Probably: the casual nature of such culinary encounters is such that they probably aren't going to make it into an anthropologist's report, but given how grabby older babies are it would be surprising if this didn't happen. In other words, throughout human history, most babies most likely have received a mixture of parent-fed mushy things and larger pieces for self-feeding.... which, funnily enough, is pretty much what most parents in industrialized societies also end up doing.

What I can say is that I could not, in all my researches, come across any "traditional" societies that do solids-introduction the way Gill Rapley sets out (no parent-led feeding, baby only eats what baby self-feeds, blah blah). Not one. To be honest, I'm not even sure how Rapley-esque weaning would really work in a traditional society. For a start, I can't see women in a food-poor environment being cool with a baby throwing good food all over the floor in the name of play and exploration. They don't really do the whole "child-centered" thing in traditional societies.

Curiously, Rapley also mentions pre-chewing in her book, and says that she thinks it is fine; she does not, however, clarify how this differs from spoon-feeding (on which she blames for everything from gagging to pickiness to overeating).

Rapley's devotees insist that BLW is the most convenient way of giving solids. I am not sure I agree. I think the most convenient way, for most people, is to do some finger foods and some parent-led feeding, depending on the food, the situation and what seems to suit you and your child best (unless you end up with one of those kids who simply refuses to be spoonfed at all). After all, traditional weaning has always included finger foods; Rapley's innovation is largely to say that pureeing and spoonfeeding should be ruled out. Ruling stuff out rarely makes the whole childrearing thing easier.

For example, giving baby an apple chunk/loaded spoon to nibble at (so you can eat your dinner) is one of the first things you learn in Mum School... it makes sense, especially, in the evening, since both baby and clothes will soon be going in the wash anyway. But when you are in a restaurant, it may not be very convenient (or polite) to basically allow your child to throw food everywhere--make no mistake, self-feeding is messy, and while you don't have to spend time mashing or feeding, you will probably spend about as much time cleaning up, changing clothes and getting food out of the kid's hair. One hears of hardcore BLWers carting splash mats and portable highchairs around with them, leaving honking tips for waiters to make up for the blizzard of mess, or sticking to "child-friendly" restaurants, rather than subject young Sparkleigh to the dreaded sp00nfeeding of d00m. One has to ask, would it not be easier to just sit Junior on your lap and offer them something mushed up on a spoon or finger?

Similarly, if you have to get to the doctor's at 2pm, it makes more sense to quickly and neatly spoon kiddo a bit of food, and then DONE. Rather than hang around waiting while the child thoughtfully pushes avocado chunks around on a food tray, then change clothes and wipe down the floor/bumbo/baby, and then have to stop on the way to nurse again, because the kid didn't actually get more a mouthful of food inside them.

Because that is the other thing about true, purist BLW; if your baby really does only eat what he or she is able to self-feed, most likely he or she will take to solids as a pretty slow pace--in some cases very slow (on crunchy forums one is constantly reading about children who are 12, 15, 18 months old and still almost completely breastfed). This may or may not suit your agenda. I can see it being convenient, maybe, for a SAHM who loves breastfeeding. But if you are working, you will have to pump (and sterilize and set up pumps, and store and defrost) more milk... unless you are happy to give formula as well. And I strongly suspect that nightweaning, and moving away from nursing to sleep and constant comfort feeding are psychologically easier to see through if you are seeing your baby put away a certain consistent amount of solids every day, so that you are not constantly fighting the voice in the back of your head that says "But what if she's still HUNGRY??"

Then there is the conundrum of what to do with foods that beg to be spoonfed (preloading spoons for the baby to self-feed with doesn't always work). As one poster here put it, "If we're eating pasta or noodles or a roast dinner DD eats with her hands. If it's soup or yoghurt or mash I use a spoon. Common sense. A friend went to such great lengths to avoid a spoon it was comedy. Chunks of pear dipped in yoghurt (which got chucked on the floor), toast dipped in porridge, yum! It's just a spoon FFS!" Some BLW purists apparently try to facilitate self-feeding by circumcising bananas with scissors (Freud'd have a field day with that one), lovingly rolling slippery foods in crushed cheerios, or snipping them up with crinkle cutters.  All good fun, no doubt, but it's unclear how any of this is actually less work than just offering said food on a spoon. Anyway, I'm pretty sure cavemama didn't have crinkle-cutters.

Finally, I LOLed at Rapley's suggestion that parents should get round the whole salt issue by simply not using any salt in their own cooking. Are there parents who actually do this... for everything they cook? Remind me never to eat at their houses. A stir-fry, a curry, a pasta sauce simply will not taste as tasty without a certain minimal amount of salt. I like eating tasty food. Sorry.

The nutrition thing
Many babies take to self-feeding early and easily--indeed, these babies often reject spoon-feeding altogether and clearly it makes sense to just let them get on with it. But other babies, particularly those whose motor skills are slower to develop, will not be able to self-feed useful amounts of food until they are much older than six months; if you really do have this strict rule about Baby Must Only Eat What Baby Puts In Own Mouth, it could be a really long time before they are able to actually eat more than minuscule amounts of food (as evidenced by all those non-eating older babies and toddlers on BLW forums). However, as I discuss here, once babies get much past six months they do start to need more nutrients than they can realistically need from breastmilk. The "food before one is just for fun" thing is one aspect of BLW that I just can't agree with. The Maternal and Child Nutrition Journal has expressed similar views, by the way--suggesting that while many babies will do OK with self-feeding alone, some could be put at risk of micronutrient deficiency if their parents are hardcore about not doing any spoon-feeding. I personally feel that offering foods in different ways and being flexible is probably the best approach.

Bullshitometer verdict
I have a confession: I actually really, really like most of the ideas found in BLW. I like the idea of giving children table foods where possible, including spicy and unusual things; I agree that babies can generally start finger foods as early as six months; I particularly like the idea of using BLW as a motivation for improving the food that the family eats as a whole. I just think it's a shame that Rapley had to spoil some sensible ideas with silly claims about purees being constipating and parent-led weaning causing bad eating habits, none of which is backed up by any data.

I think BLW was in some ways a necessary corrective to bossy Gina Ford types lecturing people about introducing the "right" foods in the "right order" and the "right amounts," and baby food manufacturers going on about "stages," causing parents whose babies didn't respond well to this to feel a lot of stress. But it's not much of an improvement if we just exchange that for all the self-conscious agonizing seen among many posters on BLW boards (debating about whether using a mesh feeder is "real" BLW weaning, whether we are "allowed" to hold food up to their mouths or is that helping them too much, blah blah), with parents fretting that if they break any of the "rules" their children will end up obese, terrible eaters or what have you.

I hereby propose the Breastfeeding Without Bullshit Patented Bone Idle Can't Be Bothered Weaning Method, which consists of trying out lots of things (finger foods, cereal, puree, finger feeding, mesh feeder, feeding them with a spoon, handing them loaded spoons, giving them pieces to self-feed, holding up bits for them to take a bit out, whatever) and doing what you and your child enjoy most and find the least hassle. Because at the end of the day it isn't going to make any long-term difference anyway.

Finally: if any mother, online or in real life, spends her time banging on to other mothers about how her proposed weaning "system" (BLW, gourmet-meals-in-an-icecube-tray or whatever) is inherently superior and guaranteed to produce a marvelous eater, the laws of karma dictate that her baby will grow into one of those toddlers who refuses to eat anything except luminous orange macaroni cheese. You Have Been Warned.

Further reading
Weaning Made Easy by Rana Conway. I discovered this book after writing this post; Conway discusses some of the ideas talked about here, with a good run-down of some of the advantages and potential issues with puree-only or "pure" baby led weaning approach, and recommends a mixed and flexible approach to feeding as being the best suited to the majority of parents and babies.


  1. I just found your blog through your Slate link...I'm really enjoying it, it's nice to hear a more common sense approach to breastfeeding and all things baby!

  2. Hey Tara, nice to hear you are enjoying the blog! (Good Enough Mum is a good blog as well, BTW....:))

  3. LOVED this! I keep getting the sanctimonious 'Did you know the purees you are feeding your child are unnecessary and could be doing them harm?' bullshit in my news feed by a crunchy friend who also claims that it's 'proven' that babies are more likely to choke on purees than finger foods. Not sure about the reasoning behind that one...
    Also, on a side note, I enjoyed one of the commenters on the 'hardcore BLWs' link talking about how they recommend Pizza Hut as very accommodating to BLWs. Pretty sure any 'evil' starter puree is healthier than a slice of greasy pizza.
    Really enjoying your blog :)

  4. I found your blog when I googled 'baby led weaning.' (I have a 8 month old that tries to spit out any sort of baby food...I also have a 6 yr old that refused baby food as well when she was a baby. Essentially, unbeknownst to us, we did BLW with her b/c she only was interested in eating when she could feed herself finger foods. So I was interested what all this BLW was about..). I have really enjoyed reading your blog! For the record, yes, I bf. I bf'd my daughter until she was 3 yrs & 4 months (so I guess I exceeded the world average! Whew-hew, the & KellyMom gals would give me a gold star ;-)). Never did I imagine we would go that long, but one year went to 2 years, and before I knew it, 3 years. Our son (the 8 month old) generally does sleep with me...b/c I'm too lazy to put him in his room and have to walk all the way to the other side of the house in the middle of the night. I'm also procrastinating on the night-time weaning, but I know I need to get on that. I'm a baby wearer...b/c it's more efficient for me. A girl has to do what a girl has to do when she has a fussy baby and needs to vacuum (the ERGO is my tool of choice). I do have the Dr. Sears BF Book on my nightstand...I find he's a pretty good resource for medical issues (i.e. clogged ducts, etc.), but I hear you on all of the other points pointed out in your link. If all of that didn't make me odd enough, I also cloth diaper b/c I'm cheap and I've acquired a weird affection for laundering diapers. I have crunchy tendency, but it's refreshing to read your perspective, instead of so many other blogs which would have you believe anything "un-natural" (i.e. chemicals, vaccines, pureed conventional foods, etc. ) is going to surely kill your child. :-) I look forward to reading more from you!

  5. Re: Cindy (above), glad you have enjoyed the blog so far! I think I tend to come across in the blog as the Person Who Is Against All Things Crunchy, but the funny thing is that I don't think most of the people who know me in real life would think that at all... I mean, I'm one of the very few people I know who will be nursing past one year and using washable nappies. But I also loved my c-section. I guess I would define myself as someone who is not really a crunchy parent but who sometimes gets mistaken from one at a distance... :D

    1. You sound like my kind of gal! :D Looking forward to more post!

  6. I agree that the baby led weaning book is very week on scientific proof. I was surprised in the amount of food my daughter ate (half an avacado or sweet potato in a sitting after a week or two of solids).

    For anyone who wants a more scientific approach to baby led weaning, I recommend Ellyn Satter's, Child of Mine book. There are actually scientific studies and footnotes to back up her claims. And in her approach purees aren't off limits, but no coaxing/tricking a child to eat more than he/she wants. Her theory is a "division of responsibilty" parents decide what and when to feed baby and baby decides what idea, and how much to eat.

    For the record, I'm now giving my baby purees and although I tried the pre-loaded spoon, it was way too messy for my carpeted house,so i'm "spoon-feeding"

  7. I'll check out the Child Of Mine book, Jennifer... thanks!

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  9. I think your wrap up says it all- do what makes you and the kids happy. I like that mantra for everything in parenting. It's helpful to see all the great options for feeding kids and to take them all with a grain of salt until you figure out how to put them into play. I wish I had seen more about BLW with my first, but I was too busy with my nose buried in a recipe book for purees. Oh well, live and learn!

  10. I admin the biggest baby led weaning group on Facebook, with over 14,000 fans. The term "Purist" that you use is only ever used by people who don't actually do BLW. Nobody who does BLW considers themselves a "Purist". Out of the 14,000+ fans we have, I'd be very surprised if none of them have never used a spoon. Spoons are not banned. Spoons are as valid a feeding method for a baby as they are for a adult. I wouldn't eat soup with my hands so why would my baby. None of our admins advocate against spoons at all. As long as baby has complete control over what and when they eat, that's baby led weaning. Whether that's chunks of veg or a plastic spoon dipped in yogurt.
    I actually agree with you over the effort some people go to to avoid using cutlery. The rolling in cheerios thing for instance. That's not anything that baby led weaning stipulates. I've no idea who thought of doing that originally, but again, it's not something any of our admin would do.
    Personally, it comes down to convenience. And it is convenient. Whichever way you feed a baby there'll be mess if you're feeding messy foods. But just giving your baby something from your own plate is more convenient than spending time preparing separate meals and mashing and pureeing stuff. I don't have time to make baby food. I have a baby. Makes for less washing up too ;-)

  11. Hi Partofme! I probably should have expressed myself a bit more clearly in my post--you're correct, the term "Purist" is not one used by any parents themselves that I'm aware of, but I basically wanted a term to distinguish between the two different ways people seem to use the term BLW--either to mean just "self-feeding finger foods," or to mean a philosophy of weaning (avoiding parental spoon-feeding/food before one is just for fun/breastmilk provides all their needs). Otherwise, the discussion threatened to get a little confusing.

    Basically... I enjoyed encouraging my own Little Seal to self-feed some of the time, but for our situation as least, ruling out spoon-feeding wouldn't have been convenient at all, for the reasons I touched on above. Also... I didn't really get into the nutritional area much in this post because at the time of writing I was still researching it myself, but I also wanted to spoon-feed certain nutritious foods to her (ground/pureed meat and fortified rice/oatmeal etc.) to make sure she got enough; I was concerned she might go short in certain nutrients if totally left to her own devices.

    The loaded spoon thing is interesting. We did do the loaded spoon thing too, but it was more about letting her have some fun poking about with her little spoon than about actual food conveyance. She'd turn it upside down without fail, and all the food would fall on the floor, splat! So parental spoonfeeding was part of the picture as well.

  12. I loved reading this article! As a pediatric resident and parent of two, I find it very refreshing to read a more balanced approach on parenting rather than one that teeters on either side of the pendulum. Often I feel as if the parent articles/blogs on "Dr. Google" revolve around all things natural, organic, chemical-free, etc... Do/Don't do ____ and your child will/won't have autism/ADHD/allergies/personality disorder... blah blah blah. I would probably also fall into your self-description above of being a "crunchy mama" from afar (I also cloth diaper, make my own baby food - pureed and finger, and make play doh (too cheap to buy it), but I also vaccinate my kids and use chemicals to clean my bathrooms and basically do what I need to do to keep my head above water!

    As for my professional opinion when treating patients - I'm usually happy to go along with parents' decisions as long as they are making INFORMED choices based on evidence, which should include sources OTHER than Jenny McCarthy, Oprah and Dr. Oz.

    In the end, parents do what they do because they love their children and want the best for them. It is nice to come across more middle-ground approaches such as your blog though. I look forward to reading your other posts!

  13. Glad you are enjoying the blog! I agree that most internet-based parenting stuff tends towards the crunchy side these days... which is odd, because the crunchy side seems to see itself as being a minority approach.

  14. Delightful. I came across this blog after a search under 'baby led weaning science'. And you have given voice to what I suspected. There is limited, if any, peer-reviewed scientific research that backs up the claims made. Ok, I went searching after a frustrating 2 day BLW splatterfest with my 8 month old who had previously been accepting some mush and other finger foods. Thanks for a note of reason...

  15. Oh hurrah, at last a sensible voice of reason! (I realise you posted this article in 2011, but I say 'at last' because I've spent the last few weeks drowning in a sea of ridiculousness as I trawl the internet looking for actual science). Like the previous poster, I came across your blog after searching for scientific evidence about infant feeding and BLW. I think of myself as a 'crunchy-sceptic', since I'm trained as a scientist and statistician but at the same time I'm a bit of an eco-warrior, health freak type (yup, cloth nappies, washable wipes, all that stuff). So, having heard about BLW and seen my older sister do it with her two kids, I was inclined to head that way with my baby and bought the Gill Rapley book and started to read it. Argh, the pseudoscience is painful to read! The cute little anecdotes in boxes every few pages grated on my nerves and the frequent logical fallacies (appeals to nature, appeals to 'common sense', reliance on single studies...) drove me totally mental. And this coming from someone who really _wanted_ to be convinced by it, since, as you say in your post, a lot of its features are really very appealing. I was especially inclined to buy into it because unlike so many forms of pseudoscience, it seems to come from entirely well-intentioned roots with no-one attempting to sell us anything. Indeed, one of the arguments is that it frees you from needing to buy either prepared babyfoods or snazzy equipment to make your own. But my suspicions were raised enough by the weird nature of the book that I started searching for evidence and am so glad that I've come across your blog and the links and resources that you and commenters have provided, both on this topic and on others. Very timely, since our paediatrician here in the Swiss/French border area told me last week that I 'must' start little miss 4-month-old on spoon feeding now (and, apparently, I must ensure that I introduce veal before rabbit and fennel before chard, in case you were wondering, with several days in-between). I am tempted now to offer her a Cadbury's Creme Egg as her first solid food, on condition that she can lift it to her mouth herself without assistance.

  16. Haha! Cadbury's cream egg----like it. Claireify and Feefielou, glad to hear you found the blog useful!

  17. My first baby HATED pureed foods. I then came across BLW and I watched my baby become an incredible eater that could self feed himself very competently by a year old. I did the same thing with my next two babies and saw the same thing happen. I wanted to point out something that you didn't mention about the BLW book, specifically what she says about the gag reflex and am wondering about the science behind that- if it has some basis for that. My second baby would gag on the tiniest piece of food and it freaked me out! I thought he must not be ready for food yet. Then I read Rapley's book and she talked all about this. She says that the gag reflex is not very far back and so a baby will start gagging on foods even if it is small and not very far back in their mouth. She says to just let them be if you know it is not a choking hazard and that they will figure out what to do and that they must chew the food more before attempting to swallow. She says that they will learn how to effectively bring food back up to the front of their mouth so they can chew more or they will just spit it out. So I kept giving him food and letting him gag and figure it out. And she was right, he totally did. He became an expert and bringing food back up and chewing more or swallowing it. Rapley says that the gag reflex moves back further in their mouths around 9 months and it becomes more of a danger for a baby that age to start eating finger foods for the first time because they are at more risk for choking since they did not figure out what to do when the gag reflex was further up and therefore at less risk of choking. Anyway, she sold me on the whole concept. I could give my son things most parents wouldn't dream of feeding their toddlers because I knew he had a good grasp on whether or not to attempt swallowing or not. He could gum something (like a pepper strip) and then spit it out if he couldn't get it small enough. It was amazing to see how well he could eat! Have you heard of this whole gag reflex thing? Do you thing there is truth to it?

  18. You said that everyone gives finger foods to their babies but my experience is that most people give their babies purees exclusively for the first while, even if they have waited until 6 months to start solids. Finger foods doesn't get introduced until much later. I have seen many babies struggle with finger foods and when I compare how my toddlers can eat to other kids (not that I like to compare, maybe noticing is a better word), my kids tend to be far better eaters and be far more competent with what they can eat. I have seen parents throw everything they made for supper (say sheperd's pie) into a blender with water and puree to feed to their baby who is nearly a year old! Why couldn't baby just eat what the family is eating?! I have loved BLW because it broke me out of the mold that I see so many parents in- a reliance on pureed foods and a fear that babies will choke on most foods that aren't pureed. Rapley also talks about the struggle that parents have to get their kids eating actual food after being fed purees. They get so used to purees they reject non-pureed food. I also think their is validity to this. One friend couldn't get her baby to eat sweet potatoes when she cooked them but her baby loved jarred sweet potatoes. And that is just one example I've seen. Many moms do struggle to transition their babies from purees. One of my personal issues with doing so much pureed food is that the baby doesn't get to experience the texture of foods. People who hate jello don't hate jello because of the taste, it is the texture they can't stand. So if a baby learns to love food in puree form, they sometimes struggle to eat it in the form that you eventually want them to eat it in. I do wonder if sometimes purees can lead to picky eating because of them not getting used to varied textures. I have seen a lot of picky eaters have strong aversions to certain textures.

    I know that you said that there was quite a lot of the BLW book you did like, which I was happy to see. I agree that it is a shame she makes some ridiculous and unfounded claims. A more balanced approach would be best. Because my experience has shown me that very few moms do a lot of finger foods when starting out but instead wait until their baby is quite a lot older (closer to one) and even then it is often can be quite limited in what they get for finger foods. Babies are so much more capable than we sometimes give them credit for and doing BWL has shown met that! I was told with my first that I couldn't skip purees because my son wouldn't learn to chew. But I had no choice since he hated purees. And I watched in amazement as he instinctively put food into his mouth and began to chew despite not learning to chew through purees! Each one of my kids has astounded me at what they are capable of eating and how well they could feed themselves by age one. If I hadn't learned about BLW, I wouldn't have had the confidence to do so much finger foods and feeding my kids just what we were eating. Despite the flaws in the approach, I am so incredibly grateful for stumbling across it because it led to very joyful feeding times with my babies and I feel I avoided many of the struggles that I see moms around me struggle with. Maybe someone should write a new book with a more balanced approach. It would be nice to see more moms blessed with some of the amazing ideas in the baby led weaning book, without all the stuff that you mention that spoils the whole thing. It would be nice to see more moms with the confidence to feed their baby more finger foods and be willing to try giving their babies more of the food that they are putting on the table for themselves. It would be nice to see moms not constantly worrying if baby can have such and such food and just feed from a more instinctive/intuitive approach.

  19. I suspect that this is very much about regional/local norms--I have known only a few people who stuck exclusively to purees for a really long time, but it may be the norm in other areas, I don't know.

    I actually agree that very heavy reliance on jarred/pouch baby food can be a bit risky. Nutritionally speaking there's nothing wrong with these foods as far as I know, but they do have that "jarred food" taste and texture which is rather different to anything you might make at home, and my suspicion is that if babies get very accustomed to this, they can get into a kind of "Thing" where they start refusing anything else. Like, they will eat jarred apple puree but not a homemade apple puree, let alone actual apple. I think it's because to make these foods shelf-stable, they heat them to very high temperatures which caramelizes the sugars, and the industrial equipment that is used can make them really smooth--much smoother than any homemade food is going to be. I think everyone uses these foods sometimes, as they are really handy, but I think I would personally avoid using them as the mainstay of a baby's diet, because it doesn't seem like a really good preparation for getting used to eating proper meals and fresh foods.

    That said, of course you can just mash up fresh home cooked foods and spoon feed if you want to... and on the flip side, I've seen a lot of BLWing people who rely very heavily on pouches of food for the baby to hold and suck down, like a bottle. So it goes both ways, really.

    I don't know anything about the gag reflex thing and how it develops, although I do think that as a general principle it's better to start giving pieces of food, chunks and lumps sooner rather than later. That's not really BLW advice, though, that's just standard advice; as far as I recall, the NHS (for example) suggests giving chunks/pieces of food very early on, as babies who are on silky smooth purees only for a long time often resist moving on to anything lumpy.

  20. Baby led weaning, a term invented by British health visitor Gill Rapley, may not be ...

  21. I love that you're calling a bit of bullshit on BLW purists. I was essentially 'shunned' from a BLW forum (that I went to for help!) for having already started with a bit of mush and spoon. I never went back to that forum and continued with what felt right for me and my daughter, a bit of both. She is a voracious and open-minded eater. Love this post.

  22. Now this is the blog I've been looking for! I often find mommy bloggers (and local mom friends) bypassing the use of critical thinking in lieu of following whatever trend is making the internet rounds. I started with your average age of weaning post and now I can't stop!

    My mindset: all babies are different. There is no one approach or way of doing things that is going to work for them all. As you've stated in this article, try different things and figure out what works for you and your baby. My daughter gets hand fed, spoon fed, feeds herself foods she can pick up, but mostly just mashes food and reaches for boob.

    This is my new favorite "while I'm nursing" read!

  23. This is exactly how I feel!

    My girl started with blended food, but definitely not smooth mushy mush. Her first food were mashed avocado and home-made apple puree and stuff. She never liked jarred baby puree and loves having the texture in her food. By one she's feeding herself neatly with spoon. My little foodie didn't reject adult food and progressed on well. With my new baby, friends asked if I'm trying BLW, something I've never heard of when weaning my 3-year-old girl. I googled BLW and I'm appalled to see the mess babies made... I love cooking, not cleaning. Thus it'll be much more difficult to clean up that mess than to prepare her food (I'm Asian and we usually cook her porridge with rice, oats, mung beans, millet, etc and add small chunks of carrot, broccoli or squash etc that we cut up with scissors, not blended). I'm so turned off by those BLW photos and wondering what's the big hooha about it, then I chanced upon your blog. This entry totally speaks my mind! Love it, thank you!

  24. Hello, great blog! I breastfeed my baby but am not a 'lactivist' and follow the general principles of BLW with my 10 month old without being preachy or pushy about it (I simply refer to it as 'letting her feed herself'). A couple of advantages that I have found to self feeding that aren't discussed here and aren't mentioned on the 'lactivist' type websites either:

    1) when the baby feeds herself, it frees up your hands. I plunk her down in her high chair for her afternoon snack and put food on her tray, then go about prepping dinner. If I had to spoon feed her, I would not be able to get other things accomplished at the same time. But voila! Increased efficiency from self feeding.

    2) since she eats what we eat, I don't have to worry about waste. I have friends who have spent their valuable time and money buying and making purées that their baby ends up hating. But if my little one doesn't like the stew I prepared for the whole family, the rest of us can finish it.

    3) since my daughter self feeds, we can all sit around the table as a family and enjoy dinner at the same time. I don't have to spoon feed my kiddo while my dinner gets cold, I can have a conversation with my husband and older kids, plus my baby gets included in the important ritual of the family meal.

    4) while it's probably not a good idea to base your parenting choices on the opinions and reactions of others, it is worth pointing out that people are endlessly entertained by watching a small baby cram copious amounts of food in her mouth.

    Just some food for thought :)

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  27. Very interesting. I actually came online looking for critiques of BLW as I did it exclusively with my first child but want to do some spoon feeding the second time around and was wondering if my baby will get confused regarding when he can simply swallow and when he needs to chew what goes in his mouth.

    Even though I did BLW with my first child, she has become a picky eater (although she does love her fruits and veggies). This time around I am spoonfeeding crazy messy foods. Also, I almost wonder if BLW encourages finger food eating too much, as my daughter doesn't like to eat anything "all mixed together," like chili, pasta, soup, etc., although I have nieces and nephews who do, and they were spoon fed. Although it seems to me most children prefer food that they can easily survey.

  28. Thank you for this. It's nice to hear some common sense. We are doing traditional weaning i.e. spoon and some finger foods where appropriate. If our baby doesn't like what's on offer it doesn't go in (mouth stay firmly shut). Therefore I see this as being equally "baby led" so I find Rapley stealing this term for self feeding quite annoying. Lastly I think BLW can put extra pressure on those parents who cannot afford to be wasting so much food.

    If BLW is for you great, go for it, it's your choice but please don't tell me how much better it is than traditional weaning as I really don't need any more pressure to be the perfect Mum.

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  31. my 4 year old with sensory processing disorder eats everything thanks to blw. number seven, he's the only one that didn't go through toddler food battles. even bell peppers and brussel sprouts and onions and raw cabbage. everything. it works.

    my 29wkr who is 1 now with serious fine motor issues is also doing it. i do a tiny bit of spoon feeding now that chewing is a well established habit he won't neglect. the danger of mixing comes in a child trying to swallow food that needs chewing. you just have to use common sense.

    it's okay for breast fed babies to not eat any large amounts of solids months past their first year. offer high fat, high calorie, high nutrition solids to make sure they are getting what they need. breads should not be eaten in large amounts before a year.

    my sensory, fine motor issue, can't crawl at one due to severe issues in his trunk and the limbs, is hand feeding himself zucchini and onions and bell peppers.

    Baby led weaning works. But I think it's okay to use your head and supplement or do something different if your observations of your baby tell you it is what will work for you at the time.

    I do not think there was a lot of stage one puree making in history. that's just not practical. their breads weren't even soft. I doubt they had the means or time to make stuff drinkable. *That's how we use purees. He had a bad swallow study so we have to thicken. purees make a great thickened drink*


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