Baby Led Weaning: The Good, the Bad, and the Messy

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Now that we’re three months into the magical, mystical, thoroughly messy journey of feeding Natalie solid foods, I thought I’d write a post about our experiences with Baby Led Weaning (BLW for short).

“Weaning” here is meant in the UK sense, as in “adding solid foods,” and not in the American sense, which is “giving up breastfeeding.” BLW is in addition to nursing (or formula, if your baby is bottle-fed) and means that your baby feeds herself from the start, rather than you making purees, spoon-feeding her, mixing up baby cereal, etc.

I’m going to be up front here and let you know that we are not militant about only giving Natalie whole foods. I’m sure the BLW police will be at my door at any moment, but…*shrug*. You have to do what works for your family. Sometimes that’s straight up BLW with a firm NO PUREES policy, perhaps it’s only purees for the first several months, or (most likely) it’s somewhere in between based on your baby’s preferences, the time you have available for meal preparation and post-meal cleanup, or even what’s most convenient.

Truth: Sometimes I choose what she’s going to eat based on what is most convenient to feed her at that moment in time, like a squeeze pouch full of blended fruits and veggies if we’re out and about, rather than bringing along 3 bibs, an entire roll of paper towels, and a vinyl tablecloth to put underneath her just so she can lick half a banana and toss the rest on the floor.

So, that little introduction out of the way, let’s get to it.

The Good

BLW is easy. SO EASY. We just put some of whatever we’re eating on her tray and let her eat it/windshield wiper her arms through it until she’s done. Ta-da! Dinner is served.

I LOVE that when the three of us eat together, we are actually all eating together, as opposed to one of us eating and the other making airplane noises and trying to coax Natalie to open her mouth for the spoon. It really feels like having a family meal, which I didn’t think was possible with a nine month old.

We don’t cheer when she puts food in her mouth and we don’t praise her for finishing everything on the tray (even though that never happens anyway!). It’s all just very normal. We interact with her, of course, and say things like, “Wow, I’m so glad you liked that tamale pie! You were hungry!” We name the foods and encourage her to at least taste new things by pointing to them and asking if she’d like to try them, but we don’t pick anything up and we don’t put anything in her mouth.

Natalie is eating everything. I have no doubt that we’ll reach a fussy stage eventually where she’ll only eat beige foods, or circular foods, or foods that start with the letter “m,” or whatever the toddler whim du jour is. But right now, she’ll eat anything you put in front of her. Store-bought purees and pouches seem to be a little light on the protein, so it’s nice that we can just give her a juicy piece of steak to gnaw on. Homegirl loves steak, as well as any and all meat we give her. No worries about this child getting enough protein.

BLW is fascinating, for us and for her. She gets to try out new tastes and textures, as well as practice handling all these new things. Picking up a banana without squishing it, for instance, is totally different from picking up a piece of broccoli. It’s so cool watching her figure all this stuff out.

If she’s not particularly hungry, no biggie. I think I would care more if I had spent a bunch of time preparing a special baby meal for her and she pushed all of it onto the floor, but it’s not exactly a hardship to drop some of my broccoli and sweet potato onto her tray.

BLW has really made us examine our own eating habits. This initially felt like it could go in the “bad” column, because we did have to stop and think not only about what we were eating, but how. If you’re eating TV dinners on your couch every night, BLW is not going to work for you. You can’t share that stuff with your kid, and besides that, do you really want to spend family dinner time bathed in the glow of your TV? Left to my own devices, I could happily eat cereal for breakfast every day, and pasta with canned Parmesan cheese for lunch and dinner. That is not an ok menu for Natalie, sadly enough. Especially now that she’s eating three true meals a day, I sometimes have to force myself to make something that is appropriate for me AND for her, rather than just pouring myself some cereal and calling it lunch.

But that’s definitely a good thing, because my diet has improved since we first started introducing her to solid foods. I’ve been eating a lot more veggies so SHE can eat more veggies, and aiming for more balanced meals so SHE can have more balanced meals. Of course, I absolutely have days when I eat cereal and she has leftover stirfry. I am the first to claim imperfection in all things related to parenting. But good enough, possibly aiming towards solidly ok? Yeah, I think I’m ok with that.

The Bad

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Warning: BLW may lead to unfortunate blueberry mustaches.

If you read any books or websites about BLW (which I strongly encourage you to do if you’d like to serve your baby whole foods, since there are certain safety guidelines to be aware of), you should know that many of them feel quite strongly that if you give your baby a puree or if you spoon-feed her anything, you’ve doomed her to a lifetime of obesity and she’ll never, ever be able to tell when she’s full and will thus overeat forever and ever. Congratulations,  you’ve irreparably damaged your baby!

I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy this (see above about doing what works for your family). BLW has worked wonderfully for us but that doesn’t mean it’s right for you. So don’t sweat it if a straight-up whole foods approach is making you crazy. It’s ok. Really.

I won’t sugarcoat this. The first two months of BLW were very scary for me and I wanted so badly to throw in the towel and just spoon-feed Natalie. If she weren’t so dang stubborn, that’s exactly what I would have done. But Miss Independent wouldn’t let us do that, so we persevered with whole foods.

There’s a LOT of gagging in the early stages. My understanding is that this isn’t exclusive of BLW; babies also gag on purees. We didn’t see that, however, so I can’t really comment. I can tell you that watching your baby suck a piece of orange into the back of her throat and start making noises like the cats working on a gnarly hairball is scary. Her eyes water, she waves her arms frantically, and all I can do is try and talk her through it.

Which is exactly what I did. Whenever that happened I would kneel directly in front of her high chair, and very calmly make exaggerated chewing faces to remindher of what she’s supposed to do. I was NOT calm. I was ready to stick my fingers in her mouth and forcibly remove whatever she was gagging on. But freaking out would only freak her out, which could make her actually choke as opposed to just gagging (which is bad enough). Also, reaching into baby’s mouth when she’s gagging on something can push the food down her throat. No bueno.

Side note: watch all the YouTube videos you can find of babies eating solid food and gagging. This is kind of a strange recommendation, but trust me. Gagging is normal and something your baby can and will work through by herself, but you need to know what it looks like. Choking is a completely different animal, and is something you need to differentiate from gagging. Take a baby first aid class or at the very least look up how to dislodge the food with back blows.

The Messy

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OMG the mess. SO SO SO messy. Expect cleanup to take you three times as long since you are dislodging clumps of food from EVERYWHERE. Baby’s hands and yours will be sticky and goopy, and you can absolutely plan on losing at least one onesie to a tomato sauce disaster, no matter how good your bibs are.

You can’t prevent the mess, but there are a few products that might make your life just a little bit easier and allow you to squeak by with just one baby bath per day instead of after every meal. (Amazon affiliate links throughout)

  • Splash mat: I bought ours on a whim at a local going-out-of-business sale, and at the time I thought it was kind of a frivolous purchase. And I suppose it is, since a vinyl table cloth from the dollar store will do exactly the same job. Unlike a table cloth, however, these suckers are durable and seem like they can withstand anything and everything your baby can throw at them. It’ll also make a great table or floor protector for when we get into messy crafts. Love this thing.
  • Bibs: We have these, and they’re just ok. They are waterproof as advertised, but the pocket doesn’t stay open very well, so a lot of what Natalie is eating just falls down onto her pants. These bibs by Baby Bjorn are stiffer and so the pocket stays open, but it also makes them more difficult to stuff in a diaper bag. For both price and function, however, I don’t think you can beat these bibs from Ikea: they have a pocket AND sleeves. Nice.
  • Highchair: I LOVE our cheap-o Ikea high chair, because the whole thing is plastic and there are no annoying fabric crevices for food to hide in. For $25 ($20 for the chair and $5 for the tray) you absolutely cannot beat it. I’m also a big fan of the highchairs that convert into boosters and then toddler chairs and then into a chair that five adults can sit in at the same time (perhaps a slight exaggeration), but our budget just didn’t allow for a $250 highchair. If yours does, however, I’ve heard great things about the Stokke Tripp Trapp, the Oxo Tot Sprout, and the Keekaroo.

Aaaaand that’s actually all I have for product recommendations. One of the upsides to BLW is the lack of stuff you need for it. That being said, since we’re doing more of a mixed approach we do have several tools for making our own baby food. But that’s for another post, so stay tuned!

One Response to Baby Led Weaning: The Good, the Bad, and the Messy

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