Baby Led Weaning: Why + How We're Doing It
Here's a strange thing about breastfeeding: you reach a point where it gives you Stockholm Syndrome. At least it has with me. I've made no bones about the fact that nursing has been a love/hate experience for me. The first three months especially, holy hell. Lots of 3AM online shopping went down. Once we finally got into a rhythm - and, most importantly, I started sleeping - I stopped resenting the habitual, handcuffing nature of nursing and softened my opinions on the whole enterprise.
That's not to say I'm Sandra Dee-delighted to pop a boob out every three to four hours. The day I can live 24 hours without strategizing when to feed, where to feed, and what to wear that doesn't involve buttons or plastic, hook-and-latch straps, I will rejoice. I may just stage my own Julie Andrews 'Sound of Music' moment on a local hillside.
But the moo cow call of duty is easing up a bit now that Harlow is nine months old. When she reached six months, we decided to introduce solids via the Baby Led Weaning method. I've mentioned this in a few prior posts, so today I wanted to share our experience thus far.
Let me start by saying I probably wouldn't have had the gumption to go down this road if it weren't for friends of ours who've successfully used it with their little girl, who's now a year-and-a-half old. They said all the right things: she enjoys foods and different flavors, she respects the act of sitting at the table to eat as a family, she eats like a champ, she doesn't require pouches or puffs or processed non-food foods, and she can eat something wherever they go -- no jars required.
Talk about music to my ears! Mike and I want all those things for Harlow, and frankly, for us, too. Instilling an appreciation for food and the act of eating it at a young age pays great dividends later in life. We want Harlow to understand that food, real food, has different textures, flavors, shapes, and other various characteristics. Turkey is a meat. It is not a brown gel you eat by spoon from a glass container. Watching some friends play a "guess the baby food" game at a baby shower this past spring cemented my stance. If smelling the gelatinous contents of the jars made us queasy, why would a baby want it?
In order to fully understand the method and safely administer it, I bought the official book on Amazon and dove in. It's a fairly quick read, rife with testimonials, historical context, and a few TL;DR "do this, don't do that" sections to guide you through the getting started phase.
If I haven't been clear to this point, BLW says 'thanks no thanks' to baby food purees, both store-bought and homemade. Its central premise is that offering babies appropriately sized portions of real prepared food is the healthiest, most natural way for them to develop. By doing so, baby gets to explore foods and flavors at her own pace. It cultivates fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and the act of chewing, a basic skill that can't be honed by breastmilk, formula, or purees. Baby acts as a participant in table-side mealtimes right from the start, watching and mimicking her parents, learning what she likes and dislikes, and stopping when she's full.
I'd never considered a baby's hunger threshold until I read this book. Breastfed babies can simply stop eating when they're full (forgive the slight generalization...I've been spit-up on more times than I can count) whereas mom and dad can't really know when baby's had enough, sometimes offering - sometimes forcing - more food than necessary via spoons. We tend to overestimate just how much food a tiny human wants, much less needs, and continually putting too much food in front of baby can lead to weight issues and a disassociation with the feeling of fullness. (I'm not preaching, just regurgitating what I've read, researched, and learned!). Letting them control how much they eat creates a healthy relationship with food that can last a lifetime. For many obvious reasons, I find this an incredibly important lesson and life skill.
Don't worry that baby won't get enough if you let her control her solid intake. She continues to get all the nutrition she needs from her breastmilk or formula. The culinary tandem of milk and solids keeps baby satisfied, allowing her to start adjusting how much of each she wants as she gets older. BLW does recommend breast or bottle feeding until at least a year for this very reason.
So. How do you do it? How do you start? How do you quiet the internal and external voices warning you of choking hazards? That last one I'm going to let the book handle, but rest assured it offers up some sound insight on why BLW is totally safe. Arm yourself with that information and with your conviction that this is a great thing for your baby because people will question you to death about the choking thing. As I write this today, we are over three months in without a choking incident. (Excuse me while I knock on wood, throw salt over my shoulder, and say a quick prayer). People who voiced their skepticism in the beginning are now in awe of how well Harlow eats and handles her food.
The very first food we tried: guacamole. Yes, it involves a spoon but guacamole is guacamole, not a wholly different food masquerading as creamy green dip. She LOVED it. Housed a whole ramekin. We went through a heavy Mexican phase to encourage her acquired taste, to my husband's great delight. (He could eat burritos seven days a week). We offered her sliced avocados, but she didn't take to them. Time to don the detective hat -- what's the difference?
Clearly, guacamole boasts other flavors besides avocado, like lime, cilantro, and salt. (PS - you really gotta watch the added salt for babycakes). Was it that? Was it the spoon feeding she liked, running contrary to one of the core reasons we're trying BLW? As far as I can tell, it's the texture she doesn't like. When she hardcore snubbed bananas after a few tries, I realized she does not like the feeling of super soft, mushy food on her hands. For one, it's hard for her to grasp. So maybe we'll circle back in a little while once her pincer grip smoothes out. (Update: we tried again with slices that still had the rind/peel on it and she did much better!).
Right now, we're still mostly in the stick phase. BLW suggests cutting vegetables like squashes and root vegetables into long stick shapes (about 2-3") so that there's enough room for baby to grab with her whole fist and leave some sticking out of her hand. Other veggies easy for baby to handle are broccoli and cauliflower; the stems act as natural handles.
Each night, we prepare 2-3 foods for Harlow to try. Some we fix just for her, others we take from our own plates to let her try new things and connect with Mike and I's behavior at the table. Here's a list of the rotating menu:
Roasted Vegetables: Yellow squash, zucchini, butternut squash, bell peppers, carrots cut into sticks, tossed in olive oil, and roasted for 20-25 minutes on 400 degrees. You want the veggies to soften but not become mushy and fall apart in baby's hand or on the highchair tray.
Sweet Potatoes, prepared the same way with an added sprinkling of ground cinnamon (not cinnamon sugar!).
Broccoli and Cauliflower, steamed. Fresh or frozen pre-mixed bags you just stick in the microwave work great, but be sure to test how hot they are before offering them to baby. They also cool off extremely quickly, so if baby starts turning up a nose try and heat them back up and see how she responds.
Dips and spreads: Guacamole, hummus, or bean dip.
Fruits: Apples, pears, oranges, mango, melons, bananas. You can steam or roast the apples, but Harlow enjoys gnawing on raw sticks; I think it's because they feel good on her teething gums. Tip: Leave some peel or skin on slippery fruits to allow baby a better grip.
Breakfast foods: Yogurt, oatmeal, scrambled eggs, toasted "O" dry cereal
Bread, pita, or naan. Top with a dip or spread for extra flavor. Harlow does like avocado or hummus spread on top of toast fingers.
Raw Vegetables: Cucumbers and tomatoes sliced into sticks or wedges
Meats: Chicken, meatballs, mini burgers, steak, pulled pork, fish (select varieties). Larger pieces are easier for them to manipulate in the beginning. They won't ingest much at first, just suck or gnaw at it. Harlow once worked on a piece of steak for 5-10 minutes and squealed if we tried to take it. I present to you Exhibit A from steak night.
This is a fairly typical first foods list for a baby in the early phases of BLW. Once she gets older, we can expand our offerings to her in both type and preparation.
We try to plan meals with ingredients that she can safely eat in order to reinforce the unified family dining experience. I want her to understand that she eats what we eat, and not learn to expect separate types of foods at mealtime. For instance, I made these amazing cauliflower tacos the other night -- you may have seen me walk through this on Instagram stories. For those who didn't, I explained how Mike and I eat the assembled tacos as you'd expect, while we offer Harlow the individual components: cauliflower, refried black beans, avocado slices, and corn kernels.
The book does a good job walking you through the steps, and issues a gentle reminder not to compare your kid's progression or interest to others'.
Some additional tips that've come in handy:
Buy organic vegetables, dairy, and meats. I may slide a bit on certain veggies, but I do not mess around with non-organic meat or dairy for Harlow. Publix's Greenwise label is a fantastic and affordable option for buying pricier organic options. I even get their organic unsweetened apple sauce, eggs, and toasted "O" cereal.
Introduce a variety of flavors and textures at each meal. Talk to baby about the differences i.e. "fruit is crisp and juicy" and "fish is soft and flaky."
Two big no-nos are peanuts/hard nuts (allergies, serious choking hazards) and honey. (it contains harmful spores).
Don't be afraid to season baby's foods with spices and herbs, not salt, butter, or sugar. Breastmilk actually absorbs some of the flavors of the foods mom eats, so breastfed babies are already used to flavor dimension in their diet. Harlow loves the cinnamon on her baked sweet potato fries, and the garlic in her hummus. I've heard many stories of BLW babies loving chicken curry before the age of one!
Get that spartan Ikea highchair I recommended in this post. BLW is M-E-S-S-Y! The mess is part of the process, but it can be tough. I've learned to let it go, mostly...though I did let my dog help me clean up by eating the floor scraps and now she's about four pounds overweight. Whoops! The point is, cloth highchairs will get stained and stinky super quickly!
Resist the urge to constantly wipe off her face, hands, and tray. Again, it's all about encouraging and supporting their own experience of food. Smearing food all over the place makes you cringe - it does me! - but I try to remind myself that it's part of her learning process, a crucial step towards smoothing out her motor skills and understanding the act of feeding oneself. Honestly, I still give her a good swipe with the paper towel once or twice during meals...having food dangling off your chin can't be comfortable, right? I give you Exhibit B: Refried Black Beans night.
My doctor advised me to start with veggies and grains to avoid getting Harlow hooked on sugar/fruit too early. We went a few days that way but then just naturally offered her fruit from our own plates. Thus far she hasn't shown a preference for sweeter foods...though she is serious about her (unsweetened) applesauce!
So that's as much as I know, and as far as we've gotten. Do I think my family is superior for trying BLW? Not in the least. I do believe in the benefits of the method, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't even a little selfishly motivated to go this route instead of jars and purees. One, I don't want to pay for them. My budget is strained so hard the buttons are about to pop off! Cooking for Mike and I leaves extra as it is, so we just offer that to Harlow and supplement with cheap veggies like squash, sweet potatoes, etc.
Two, I'm really short on another crucial resource: time. Where would I find the time to make batch upon batch of homemade purees? The idea of spending my precious free time or weekends in the kitchen with a blender makes my stomach churn, especially now that it's fall, the weather is perfect, and football is back!
Lastly, my personal situation is conducive to this method. I'm at home with Harlow during the day, so I can captain the ship of how we eat versus relying on a day care provider to do so. There's a great cost-benefit of any stay-at-home/work dynamic (another article) and trust me when I say that while I appreciate being in control in regards to Harlow's food intake, I'm pulling my hair out on the other side because I'm drowning trying to handle everything on my plate (yet another article).
My parting advice at the end of this great big tome is to think about which approach best suits your lifestyle, personality, and preferences. If it's BLW, buy the book and take it from there one day, one step at a time. Some days or meals will see success, some won't -- NO different than anything else related to an infant! This has just been my two cents on the subject, 100% an opinion given with 0% professional expertise or pretension.
Now I'm off to pre-cook our spaghetti and meatball dinner - a family favorite!