Complementary Feeding and Baby Led Weaning

I previously talked about the importance of waiting until 6 months to give your baby any solid foods.  So, once they hit that milestone, what do you feed them?

There are really two topics – 1) how does breastmilk play into the diet of a food-eating baby? and 2) what is the most natural way of eating for babies?

The first topic is called complementary feeding – meaning the period between exclusive breasfeeding and complete weaning.  The WHO details the nutritional needs of breastfed babies after age 6 months in their document Guiding Principles for Complementary Feeding of the Breastfed Child.  Breastmilk provides the majority of a baby’s nutritional needs through 1 year.  According to  breastfeeding should continue at the same level while solid foods are introduced and only begin to decline near or after the first birthday.  As you can see in the chart above solid food calories (complementary feeding) are first additional calories on top of the breastmilk calories and only later do they begin to provide a greater percentage of calories.

If introducing solid food is not primarily for nutrition or caloric energy, then why do we introduce solids during the last half of the first year?  For fun!  Just as babies put toys, feet, cell phones, etc. in their mouths to explore their world they will do the same thing with foods.  Anyone who has spoon fed a baby knows that most of the food does not end up in the belly.  Children at this age use food to explore taste and texture and to further hone their fine motor skills at getting the food into their mouths.

Continuing that train of thought: if the purpose of eating in the first year of life is not nutritional then what should baby eat.  “Baby food” – that is jars of puréed fruits and vegetables – have become the ubiquitous version of what babies should eat.  However, this convenience food is little over a century old.  In the mid-19th century artificial baby foods were created for sick children and were bought in pharmacies or given by doctors.  It wasn’t until the 1920’s that commercially marketed baby food was generally embraced as a convenience food.  Prepared baby food of this sort leaves much to be desired ; however, the method of feeding is just as counterintuitive upon inspection.  If babies explore the world with their hands and mouths…why are we feeding them with a spoon?

Aparently I wasn’t the first to think this odd.  Gill Rapley, a UK nurse and UNICEF advisor,  first researched the concept of giving whole foods to babies as her Master’s thesis where she coined the term Baby Led Weaning (BLW).

Sounds intimidating, strange, new-agey?  Another “weird-o” hippie parenting idea from Paige, right?  😉  But, seriously give this one a second because it is really so obvious once we turn off the Gerber brainwashing.  The short of it is this:  
Skip purées.  Skip spoon feeding.  Give your baby food.  Let them eat.

Crazy right?

To me this seems to flow naturally from breastfeeding.  I feed Aellyn on cue when she wants to be fed.  I don’t watch the clock or ration out her food – or try to get her to eat a certain amount.  Breastfeeding is purely baby-led.  She decides when and she decides how.  Why should that change when she starts getting solids?  And remember, since food is for fun and not nutrition in the first year, you don’t have to painstakingly make sure baby gets x number of tablespoons down the gullet!

But babies can’t eat food, you say!!!  Here are some highlights from the BLW basic guidelines from Gill:

But won’t the baby choke? 
Many parents worry about babies choking. However, there is good reason to believe that babies are at less risk of choking if they are in control of what goes into their mouth than if they are spoon fed. This is because babies are not capable of intentionally moving food to the back of their throats until after they have developed the ability to chew. And they do not develop the ability to chew until after they have developed the ability to reach out and grab things. The ability to pick up very small things develops later still. Thus, a very young baby cannot easily put himself at risk because he cannot get small pieces of food into his mouth. Spoon feeding, by contrast, encourages the baby to suck the food straight to the back of his mouth, potentially making choking more likely.  
There is no need to cut food into mouth-sized pieces. Indeed, this will make it difficult for a young baby to handle. A good guide to the size and shape needed is the size of the baby’s fist, with one important extra factor to bear in mind: Young babies cannot open their fist on purpose to release things. This means that they do best with food that is chip-shaped or has a built-in ‘handle’ (like the stalk of a piece of broccoli). They can then chew the bit that is sticking out of their fist and drop the rest later – usually while reaching for the next interesting-looking piece. As their skills improve, less food will be dropped.

There are many benefits of this method of baby feeding:

  1. A baby that is developmentally able to grab, chew, and swallow is more likely to be developmentally able to digest the food.
  2. Baby learns to eat as much or as little as he needs – as he did with breastfeeding.
  3. Meals are not a battle to shove strained peas past pursed lips and hence babies can enjoy a better relationship with food that can lead to less pickiness later.
  4. Since you aren’t spoon feeding meals can be family time and baby will learn that eating is a social as well as biological experience.
  5. BLW’d babies generally learn to use utensils sooner because they can experiment themselves.
What about cons/things to think about?
  1. It is going to be messy.  But hey, you’re cleaning up spit up, poop, etc. all day and your sister-in-law is going to buy those finger paints eventually so just go with it.
  2. You still have to supervise eating.
  3. You should still introduce one food at a time with days in between to look for food intolerances.  Also, obey allergen rules – like no cow’s milk before 12 months.  Here is a good overview of an allergy friendly introduction to foods.
See it in action: 

And the photo gallery
To learn more get the book!


6 thoughts on “Complementary Feeding and Baby Led Weaning

  1. I started BLS (baby led solids–note: not weaning) when my girl was about 8 1/2 months. Once her suck reflex was gone, it was the right time. Most people say wait until they have a good pincher grasp, but I knew she was ready regardless. She’s a year old now and her grasp is wonderful. Eating has helped her master it and now she pinches me all the time. Haha! 😛

    Mind you…I don’t see anything personally wrong with cutting the food small enough. Pureeing is where I draw the line, however.


  2. I am such a big fan of baby led weaning/solids. I did this with sunnyboy and there were so many benefits for him, and the bonus for me that I didn’t have to bother with all the puree nonsense. I think the biggest reason to do this though was that sunnyboy remained in control of his eating (he already had been by being breastfed on demand) and was able to keep his awareness of the nutrition his body needs.


  3. I always love reading your informative posts on breastfeeding. It’s great to see your dedication in raising awareness.

    have a wonderful weekend.


  4. I always love reading your informative posts on breastfeeding. It's great to see your dedication in raising awareness.have a wonderful weekend.


  5. This is basically the philosophy I have, and what I did with my children, although I didn’t know of anyone else doing it. Since Gerber and strained peas are actually a very recent addition to the world, I knew that they were not “necessary” and wondered if they were even “all that” to start with. Somebody gave me a few jars of baby food that their kids had outgrown, so I tried it on my older son, and he wouldn’t eat more than a bite of it. Considering how expensive those tiny, endless jars are, I know I saved a bunch of money!


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