“My first baby taught me about baby-led weaning (BLW) long before it even existed as a concept. I made organic purees and froze them in little ice cube trays and dished them out to her, and she found it repulsive,” laughs American midwife, lactation consultant and founder of the Baby Led Weaning UAE Facebook group Amy Vogelaar. “But when she reached the age that [children’s cookbook author] Annabel Karmel said I could give her finger foods, [it] must have been eight or nine months [old], she ate anything I put in front of her and she absolutely loved food. So I went from thinking about her as a picky eater to my mother-in-law being astonished that she was eating lobster and broccoli and corn on the cobb.”
Then, in 2005, she came across researcher Gill Rapley’s book on BLW. The idea eschews the traditional methods of pureeing everything for a kid’s consumption. How does one practice this type of feeding? By allowing a child to feed themselves.
It can be scary for new mums and dads embarking on the journey, especially since as kids explore they may gag or spit up the new foods. “My greatest fear for both my children when it comes to baby-led weaning (BLW) is actually the fear of choking as well as the fact that I get easily scared if they gag,” says Filipino expat in Dubai, Leslie El Kurdi.
The 39-year-old mum of two – her children are aged four and 21 months – tells Gulf News that she quells her anxiety by keeping a close eye on the kids when they are eating. “I never leave them alone. I always keep everything at arm’s reach so I won't be away even for a second from them,” she says, adding that it’s a good idea for parents to arm themselves with the stomach-pumping Heimlich manoeuvre in case of any accidents.
However, Vogelaar explains that a baby has just as much of a chance of choking by spoon feeding as he or she does when it comes to self-feeding.
“When Gill Rapley first came up with the research around baby-led weaning and her theory was because babies are picking up food themselves and putting it into their mouths, they are developmentally more prepared to handle it. When babies are being spoon fed they are potentially at greater risk, because we as adults are overriding their developmental abilities and putting food in their mouth,” she explains.
When Gill Rapley first came up with the research around baby-led weaning and her theory was because babies are picking up food themselves and putting it into their mouths, they are developmentally more prepared to handle it.
There are of course some guidelines one must follow. “Obviously, you need to do things safely, foods need to be cooked [a certain way], cut a certain way. [There are guidelines on] how babies need to be sitting, how adults need to be supervising, and then however one plans to serve food to the baby, whoever is feeding the baby needs to have first-aid qualifications,” says Vogelaar, who has over the past decade or so held numerous workshops for mums and dads, teaching them about BLW.
When can one start on BLW?
“Developmentally,” says Farah Hillou, Integrative and Functional Nutrition Certified Practitioner based in UAE, “…the majority of healthy infants appear to be ready for BLW at the age of six months as they possess the gross motor skills and oral functioning required to self-feed whole foods successfully and safely, as long as parents provide appropriate foods.”
The positives, say proponents, include:
- Babies participate in family meal times
- Infants eat a wider variety of food.
“When practising BLW, infants are offered 'baby-fist size' pieces of chopped or minced food that are easy to grasp. The infant then decides what, how much and how quickly to eat. BLW emphasizes that the infant is an active partner in the feeding process,” adds Hillou.
The majority of healthy infants appear to be ready for BLW at the age of six months as they possess the gross motor skills and oral functioning required to self-feed whole foods successfully and safely.
It’s also a method of food introduction that does not involve screen time. “Often, spoon feeding goes hand in hand with screens being used to divert the attention of the child. But with BLW, eating is the main event and the child is involved with their eyes and hands so there is less need for distractions,” explains expat Rabia Sheikh.
Steamed broccoli floret (soft consistency), large enough for the infant to hold with some sticking out from the fist.
Banana, peeled at the top but with the skin left on the bottom so that the baby can hold it.
Pasta: pieces of well-cooked spirals.
Beef: stewed until tender, offered as a chunk or a strip of meat that is large enough for the infant to hold with some sticking out from the fist.
Relationship with food
Some doctors and nutritionists urge attention to what’s plated; after all BLW relies on a child’s choices when it comes what they are eating and in what quantities. “BLW has caused some concerns regarding iron adequacy, energy and nutrient intake, and risk of choking. Research however has yielded mixed results. There is some evidence to suggest that BLW may encourage greater acceptance of foods with a variety of textures and flavours, which may result in higher intakes of ‘healthier’ foods like vegetables,” explains Hillou, adding that it may also promote self-regulation in a child.
Palestinian mum of three-year-old twins Thanaa Khawaja explains on her Insta account @kofiia that her own relationship with food wasn’t the healthiest while growing up. “I did not have a normal relationship with food during my childhood, I remember that I only ate a few things in addition to a lot of chocolate and sweets, some of which I was allergic to. So, I decided that my daughters' experience would be different. I spent a lot of time reading the research, articles and experiences of mothers who preceded me to create a rich experience for my daughters.
“We started at six months with fruits, specifically with bananas. Every day we tried something new, and thus they were exposed to countless types of foods. Every month we would choose two or three allergens and test it over the course of a whole week in different forms and quantities.”
The method calls for immense trust in a child’s instincts and respect for his or her autonomy. “It is important to understand that children differ in the development of her skills, she may be ahead or behind her generation in various skills… it is important for the mother to wait for child's readiness regardless of their age. One of my daughters sat at the table with us for four whole weeks without touching a single piece of food. For the four weeks I offered her food once a day until she was curious and she reached out and tasted the food we had prepared,” says Khawaja.
And another benefit, suggests Hillou, is the richness of gut microbiome diversity that may develop with exploration of new foods. “Changes in dietary composition alters the prevalence and types of microbial species living in the gut. Thus, first solid foods introduced could play a key role in shaping the infant’s gut microbiome. Further investigations are needed to determine the mode of weaning (BLW versus traditional) and the microbiome,” she explains.
Tips to help you on your BLW journey
Hillou offers the following tips:
1. Timing: Wait until the time is right; healthy infants over six months of age can sit independently and are developmentally able to self-feed however, strong chewing skills in some may not be fully developed until nine months of age.
2. Talk to a doctor: Discuss BLW with the infant's paediatrician, and weigh both risks and potential benefits for the infant.
3. Monitor growth parameters alongside the paediatrician, especially during the first few months of weaning.
4. Offer foods that are easy to pick up and hold.
5. Prepare homemade meals, and avoid processed foods as well as added sugar and salt.
6. Cook foods well and until soft.
7. Offer nutritious foods with a variety of textures, colours and shapes.
8. Avoid hard foods such as nuts and grapes, due to risk of choking.
9. Include high-iron food like red meat.
10. Ensure that the child is never left alone while eating.
Jomalyn Peria Presa, a 25-year-old Filipino mum of one, says it’s fascinating to see how things unfold when doing BLW. And hesitation is just part of the journey. “Amara has been on BLW since six months old, my husband didn’t really want us to do it because of choking at first, but soon when he saw her daughter eating well with us, he gave us all his support. When we went to our home country, Amara was only 10 months old. When my mum and mother in law saw our daughter eating on her own they were all amazed.”
Today, Dubai-based Peria Presa says, her 14-month-old daughter loves to eat homemade meals, by herself.
She advises other first-time mums to take it easy.
Do this, not that
Don’t compare: “Children are different and we should not compare our child’s food preferences to other children’s,” she explains.
Establish a routine: “Set a schedule for their mealtimes so they know when to expect it, ‘’ she suggests.
Join them during mealtimes: “Either join them while they eat or let them eat with the whole family. Make mealtimes enjoyable for them,” she says.
Patience is key: “Be patient with your child because eventually they will eat properly,” she adds.
Babies can talk
Communication is key to any successful project and one very useful tool to have in your weaning bag is sign language. Shonali Lihala, Chief Play Officer at Katie Jane Dubai, says: “Baby-led weaning focuses on following your baby cues and sign language is a great way for your baby to indicate that they are ‘finished’ or want ‘more’ or simply need some ‘water’.” [Read more about teaching your child sign language here.]
Baby-led weaning focuses on following your baby cues and sign language is a great way for your baby to indicate that they are ‘finished’ or want ‘more’
Vogelaar says her daughter, the one who hated purees, still hates homogenised food. “She doesn’t eat things with a spoon, she’ll only eat things with a fork. She is a great eater; she likes really interesting textures and flavours but she doesn’t like any smooth, pureed food. Some babies will not accept a more traditional way of baby feeding because it doesn’t work for their sensory processing and their preferences and so it’s good to have a number of options,” she explains.
All babies are different, she adds, and they decide how they’d like to eat. She laughs: “I think as long as one focuses on the nutritional and safety guidelines, I think you can find your own path.”
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