Baby-Led Weaning (BLW): What the Research Says

By Lauren M. Koch, RDN

One of the fiercest areas of debate when it comes to infants revolves around feeding. Starting with what and how they eat as newborns, to what and how they eat when starting solids. It’s enough to make a mama nuts.

Just so you know, I probably have covered the spectrum with my three kids. Bottles, breast, supplementation, homemade, store-bought, purees, baby led weaning and a mix of the two. And though I do have them, I’m also not here to give opinions on what I believe is best. We are team #ittakesavillage here at The Family Foodnag. Everyone does the best they can for their kids, and we mamas need to be a source of support for each other. ‘Cause it’s just not cool to go around passing out tickets to the guilt train. We are totally capable of obtaining tickets to THAT particular train on our own.

As a Registered Dietitian, and a mom, I rely on evidenced-based information when making decisions for my kids. So, I wanted to share what I’ve found with you on the topic of Baby-Led Weaning.

What Is Baby-Led Weaning?

baby-84686_1920BLW has grown in popularity in the past 10-15 years. Due to a wide variety of interpretations, a definitive definition of BLW is not really available. Generally, it involves forgoing traditional pureed baby foods, allowing baby to self-feed family food. In feeding themselves, the infants also dictate the pace of feeding, and the total amount consumed. Initiation of solids is also delayed until 6-months of age at the minimum, once the child can sit unassisted and independently grasp food to feed themselves.

Why BLW?

Proponents of baby-led weaning believe that it promotes healthier eating behaviors and healthier body weight. This includes claims of lower rates of fussy eating habits later in toddler and childhood, advanced fine motor skills, as well as lower rates of childhood obesity. Additionally, it negates the need to prepare separate meals for infants, as they consume whatever the family meal is (modified as needed).

What the Research Says

So, now you’re wondering: is this all for real? Or just another of those claims from the #superiormomsclub?

Below is a list of conclusions gleaned from the available research today on this topic. The majority of the studies were completed in the UK and New Zealand, however, a few are from the US and Canada between 2010-2016. A link to all of the studies reviewed can be found here, and a full text of the below conclusions can be viewed here.

  • Most infants are capable of self-feeding around 6 months of age, however should be delayed in certain instances (Failure the thrive, sensory sensitivity, and other feeding difficulties)Photo of a breastfeeding baby
  • Baby-led infants were significantly less likely to be fed infant rice cereal
  • Significantly higher percentage of baby-led infants were delayed feeding until 6 months or later.
  • Mothers who followed a baby-led approach were also more likely to have initiated breastfeeding at birth and continued for the longest period of time.
  • Breastfeeding mothers are more likely to follow a ‘responsive feeding’ style (i.e. allowing baby to dictate when, what, and how much to eat) in infancy and beyond. Longer duration of breastfeeding is associated with lower rates of childhood obesity, fussiness, a slower rate of eating, and better appetite control.
  • Mothers who followed a baby-led approach were also more likely to practice responsive feeding of solids, with lower rates of maternal pressure to eat, restriction, concern for child weight and monitoring.
  • Baby-led infants are more likely to consume meals during family meal times.
  • Baby-led infants are potentially exposed to nutrients less suitable than prepared packaged foods (i.e. higher sodium intake), however, due to inadequate data, more research is needed in this area.
  • No differences are found in total caloric, or macronutrient intake (carbohydrate, protein, fat) between baby-led and traditionally fed infants.
  • Babies who followed a baby-led approach were less likely to be described as “fussy eaters” at 18-24 months and demonstrated a preference for carbohydrates (versus those in the traditionally fed group, who demonstrated a preference for sweets).
  • Infants who were traditionally fed were found to be significantly heavier at 18-24 months than infants who followed a baby-led approach (independent of birth weight, maternal weight, breastfeeding duration and maternal child-feeding style).
  • Health professionals are significantly more concerned about dietary adequacy, and safety issues such as choking risk than parents choosing to adopt a baby-led approach.
  • Though difficult to measure, no differences were found in the rates of choking between baby-led and traditionally fed infants.
  • Foods most commonly choked on include apple slices, crackers, and sausages.

End Notes

Photo of child reaching for spinach bitesIn conclusion, I’ll leave you with a quote directly from the above-linked article, because I think it really says it all:

“Initial research, particularly that exploring the experiences of those who have successfully followed it [BLW], has suggested that the approach may foster the development of positive eating behavior and potentially weight gain, but further large-scale rigorous is now needed to understand this.”

In other words, it seems that those baby-led enthusiasts may be on to something. But as always, discuss your concerns with your medical provider and registered dietitian!

Happy feeding!

XOXO,

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