Breastfeeding on demand, baby-wearing, home-birth, co-sleeping (depending on your culture—in Japan this has always been the norm), no-cry sleep training method, baby-led yoga classes (ok I just made that one up), baby-led weaning (BLW). These are some of the many quasi-buzz words that enter our vocabulary in this era of modern parenting.
I wouldn’t call myself a strictly natural-parenting Mum myself, but more of a pick-and-choose-what-seems-to-work-best kind of Mum. However, I do tend to lean towards the natural, instinctive way of doing things as long as they seem practical and my husband is in agreement (sadly LA was sent off to sleep in her ‘isolation room’ as I jokingly referred to it from the age of 5 weeks, although it does seem to have served her and us well in the end).
We are taking the same approach towards weaning. By weaning, I mean the slow process of gradually shifting bubs away from breastfeeding towards her eventual reliance on solid food. The conventional method of doing so is generally to start off at a set age-milestone (4,5 or 6 months, depending on where you are from) with a teaspoon here and there of baby cereal, before moving onto purees, and gradually moving up in terms of quantity, frequency and texture. The baby-led approach instead treats the experience of learning to eat as any other developmental stage. Take crawling, for example. A baby could start to crawl any time between 6-10 months, and in fact some babies might skip this stage altogether (not that I would suggest skipping the ‘learning to eat’ stage a reasonable idea!). There is not too much you can do to force your baby to start crawling at the age you wish her to, but instead you can give her ample opportunity and encouragement to try. The same approach is applied to weaning in that the baby is provided with healthy, safe and easily-manageable food from the time she starts to show an interest in it (around 6 months), and she is allowed the time and space to learn to eat.
Trust is placed in the baby’s instincts as to how much and what to eat (of the options given her), rather than amounts and foods prescribed by traditional methods. This aspect made a lot of sense to me. I mean, LA had been exclusively breast-fed from birth, and so in reality, I had no idea how much she was eating. My role was simply to help her to learn to latch, give her plenty of opportunity to eat, and then let her decide how much and how frequently. At times she didn’t want to feed, I couldn’t force her (believe me, I tried), and my will would never be strong enough to refuse her if I felt like she’d had enough or should wait a little longer (hello 6 hour cluster feeds…).
However, a theory “making a lot of sense to me” is one thing, and something having scientific evidence to back it up is another. I know how important it is that infants get the nutrition their bodies need to develop and grow, and some nutrient deficiencies (such as in iron) can cause permanent ill-effects. And while there is compelling anecdotal and observational evidence as to the benefits of BLW (such as lower-risk of obesity and tendency towards fussy eating in the future) it seems apparent that there is a lack of research to confidently assess whether it is an appropriate method or not. Take for example, this literature review which is generally positive towards the feasibility of BLW as an approach for weaning, but ultimately concludes that:
the feasibility, benefits and risks of BLW as an approach to infant feeding can only be determined in a study in which infants and their families are randomized to following BLW, and their outcomes are compared to those of a control group following standard feeding practices. Given the popularity of BLW amongst parents, such a study is urgently needed.
The review also specifically states that:
It appears that most normal healthy infants will possess the gross motor skills and oral functioning needed to self-feed whole foods successfully and safely, provided that appropriate foods are offered by their parents. However, research is required on whether infants following BLW have adequate energy and iron intakes in particular.
Given the lack of evidence, it is very much considered an “alternative” method. As such, while we definitely liked the idea of it, we were always going to proceed with caution given the importance of nutrition for infants. We’ve kept a careful watch on LA’s weight and taken note of what she is eating, and always planned to switch to conventional baby food mush if her weight gain seemed to slow or if it was apparent she really wasn’t eating at all.
We also follow BLW pretty loosely, and happily switch to spoon-feeding where it is more practical. For example, when we eat curry or oatmeal, and it is clear she wants to eat but isn’t able to get decent amounts into her mouth, we mush things up a bit more and switch between spoon-feeding her and letting her try to spoon-feed herself. While she is capable of getting spoonfuls of food into her mouth on occasion, it sometimes seems obvious that she wants to eat more but gives up because it is taking too long or the food keeps dropping off the spoon before she gets it in.
Anyway, that has been our approach so far, and these are my thoughts as to the pros and cons.
Convenience. One of the often-touted benefits of BLW is that it is more convenient than preparing baby food (and cheaper than buying it). It is definitely nice that I can just feed LA whatever we are having (or a softer, less salty or sweet version of it), but whether it is more convenient overall I’m not sure. There is a lot of mess to clean up after each meal! And I do still cook and freeze food separately for those occasions in which I’m in a rush and opt for an unhealthy convenient meal that I’m not willing to feed to her such as two-minute noodles.
When we eat out it is convenient because I can just give her some of whatever I’m having (although I usually do pack stuff separately for her as well). But I do feel pretty bad about the mess she creates. At restaurants I don’t feel so guilty (and we do make an effort to clean-up after ourselves), but when we go to others’ houses, I feel pretty awkward, especially when I see how nicely the other babies are eating.
Family meals. Instead of having to spoon-feed her throughout our family meals, we just place morsels of food in front of her and she feeds herself. This means that I more often eat together with her, and when the three of us are able to sit down all at once, we are able to have a more relaxed and fun time (LA seems to enjoy this too).
Nutrition. One huge benefit I’ve seen is that I’ve become more knowledgable about nutrition myself. I’m extra motivated to cook healthy and well-balanced meals and have learnt a lot in the process. Overall we are eating less salt and sugar, and more vitamins, minerals, protein and healthy fats. However, I do remain concerned about whether LA is receiving the nutrients she needs – iron in particular. So recently I’ve been researching how to increase iron in our diets to make sure she is getting enough.
For me this is the major downside to BLW. Some days, LA gulfs down the food and I am so happy to see that she is getting plenty of nutrients into her system. Other days, she doesn’t eat much, or she only eats certain parts of her meal (she LOVES bread, yogurt and any fruit). Overall, I’m pretty sure she eats much less solids than other babies her age, and she is still drinking heaps of breastmilk (which does make me less worried about nutrients, but leaves me wondering when she is going to start making more of a switch from milk to solids). I know the whole idea of a “baby-led” method is to trust bubs’ instincts in choosing and eating the food that she needs, but I still worry sometimes—just like I used to worry sometimes that she wasn’t drinking enough breastmilk because there was no way to confirm just how much she was drinking (as compared to formula-fed babies). However, as LA grew, my worries faded. Similarly, I imagine that next time around (if we do this all again!), I might have more confidence in the whole process.
Development and the fun of food exploration. I really feel that since the time we began BLW, the development of LA’s coordination has skyrocketed. While at first she struggled to pick things up and get them to her mouth, it seemed that only days later she was able to coordinate two hands to skilfully manoeuvre food into her mouth, chew and swallow. If nothing else, BLW is a great opportunity for bubs to learn about the texture, smell and taste of food, and to practice picking things up and using her pincer grip. It has been a joy to watch. And as we all know, play is a baby’s “work”.
Variety of food. While it is too early to tell, I really do think that LA will be receptive to trying a huge variety of food now. I may eat my words later, but for now she eats pretty much anything we give her (sometimes in small portions though, depending on her mood) and we’ve given her food with a whole range of flavours from many different ethnicities. One of the observations of BLW-fed infants is that they tend to grow up to be less fussy eaters and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the case for us (although of course whether or not this can be attributed to BLW, we will never known).
Choking and gagging. This is one of the main concerns for those considering BLW. BLW proponents have many explanations as to why this is not an issue which you can read about here. In our case, we never had a problem. LA spluttered once or twice but never seemed concerned and was able to cough out whatever the offending morsel was, but she did that quite a few times when breastfeeding in the beginning also.
Explaining. Another downside for me has been in explaining our approach to others! While BLW seems to be gaining popularity in New Zealand, in Japan hardly anyone does it (from what I’ve seen). Many people are surprised when they see what I’m feeding LA and ask questions. I certainly don’t mind answering questions, but, without intending to, I think I do come across a little defensive sometimes. I by no means consider that BLW is a superior approach that everyone should take. It is just something that appealed to us that we wanted to try. But, in explaining it to people, I do have to be careful not to make it sound like I think they are doing it all wrong. Especially in this day and age where there is so much mum-bashing going on!
Finally, some pictures. This was definitely one of my favourite parts! If you are going to try BLW, make sure to have your camera handy!