How it all began...
Gill Rapley a health visitor by training, came up with an approach to weaning where control is handed over to the baby during mealtimes. She noticed that weaning was much easier when babies were left to feed themselves and went on to do a Master's Degree during which she investigated this idea in more depth. She called this new way of feeding babies 'baby-led weaning' (BLW), a term that has caught on and is now very much in common parlance in the world of parenting. Rapley's techniques (as she herself acknowledges) have been practised by parents for thousands of years. What she has done is to formalise this way of feeding children, challenging received wisdom and empowering parents to trust their babies to feed themselves.
With BLW, babies (from the recommended six months of age) are given graspable pieces of food to eat and they decide how much they want. No spoon-feeding, no purees and definitely no little orange ice cubes. There is much to be said on what kinds of foods are suitable for BLW, but this post isn't the place - there are lots of good resources online, as well as Rapley's excellent book on the subject.
So, fantastic, that's weaning solved then? Not quite. As with every aspect of baby rearing, some controversy lurks not far beneath the surface... The main problems people seem to have with BLW are the mess it makes and a perceived risk of choking. One mum (Rachel of House of Dominic ) was at the receiving end of some fierce criticism on both of these fronts from a member of the public. She gave her seven month old son his meal whilst they were eating out one day. He was tucking into his pieces of pineapple, cucumber and chicken, making the the kind of mess that is to be expected when food and babies meet. A woman at a nearby table made a comment about how Rachel ought to clean up the mess. Then, Dominic gagged and spat up some of his pineapple. The next thing Rachel knew, she was being shouted at: "You're putting him in danger. He will choke. Would you risk your babies life for a fad?!" said the angry lady.
Well, there are always people with views about how we ought to be parenting our children a bit more like they do, but this lady was wrong on two counts. First, the mess (which poor Rachel was going to clear up anyway). If you try to avoid mess when feeding children of any age, this can give them really unhelpful messages about food. They can become intolerant of certain textures (eg. wet food) and see food as something to be feared. One little boy who I used as a case study when researching my book, was very upset by many textures. His mum had an OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and was so scared of mess that she couldn't help but unconsciously communicate that to her children. Part of the work we did together was around helping her and her little boy tolerate being and feeling messy. So take a deep breath, and let the food throwing commence. As for the gagging - the gag reflex is an essential part of how children learn to cope with solids. This is something Nutritional Therapist Kathryn Barker talks about in my interview with her earlier this week.
Some people feel BLW can be a little extreme - they feel condemned by BLW advocates for not being purist enough. Katie (of 'Hurrah for Gin') felt this way. She writes about how she has found it hard to use BLW techniques along with a little traditional spoon-feeding without feeling criticised by the 'baby-led weaning police'.
Kathryn Barker says "Whilst an advocate of baby led weaning, I think there is far too much pressure on parents - there is no need to worry if someone occasionally spoon feeds a meal. The important thing is that the baby and parent(s) are happy and relaxed with the method they are using. It could be argued that you can still be led by a baby when offering food on a spoon if you recognise when they have had enough. I would encourage self-feeding to begin with but don't see any harm occasionally spoon feeding a meal further down the line if the baby is happy to be fed, and the parents feel more comfortable knowing how much they have actually eaten. At the end of day, if the parents are relaxed about the approach they have chosen this will impact on the child's relationship with food in a positive way. "
In War & Peas, I describe how I came to develop my own method of 'baby-led weaning lite' - a little spoon feeding coupled with a lot of graspable food worked for us. The one thing I never compromised on is I always served everyone the same, with a few minor modifications for safety such as cooking with no salt.
If you want to know more about BLW, this excellent post by Melanie Potock offers a very in-depth investigation of BLW from a developmental perspective. I also love this post on the Lulastic blog which offers a really balanced and sensible take on the subject.
Whether you're about to embark on BLW, or already have pasta stuck to your ceiling, good luck and enjoy the ride!