Bringing Up Baby, Part III – Baby-Led Weaning??

Recently I visited Whole Foods in Washington, DC and went upstairs to the cafe area to eat my lunch (cheese and homemade pate) before shopping. A woman with a baby of about eight months old came in and sat at the table next to mine. She ate a meal she had purchased at the deli. But what did baby in her high chair get? A few pieces of green pepper and cucumber on the high chair tray. When she left, those vegetable slices were scattered on the floor, with no evidence that baby had eaten much of anything.

BabyLedWeaningThis mom was following the suggestions of Baby-Led Weaning, a best-selling book on how to feed babies.  The subtitle:  The Natural, No-Fuss, No-Purée Method for Starting Your Baby on Solid Foods. As described on Amazon, “Baby-Led Weaning explodes the myth that babies need to be spoon-fed and shows why self-feeding from the start of the weaning process is the healthiest way for your child to develop. With baby-led weaning (BLW, for short), you can skip purées and make the transition to solid food by following your baby’s cues.”

Baby-Led Weaning by Gill RapleyThe premise of baby-led weaning is that mom doesn’t need to spend any time in the kitchen making purees for her six-month-old child, but that baby can be fully nourished on chunks of food like broccoli and rice cakes. The idea is to put “a variety of foods in front of baby and baby will know what to eat.”  Furthermore, according to the authors, babies need this training in order to learn to put things in their mouths. (Seriously!) Babies need to eat with the family at the table and baby-led weaning is the way to accomplish this.  Also, babies might be traumatized and grow up to be axe murders if you put a spoon in their mouths.  Please forgive my sarcasm, but as a mother of four children who grew up just fine after their infant diet of purees, I have to wonder where this deep-seated aversion to pureed baby food is coming from.

So, according to baby-led weaning, baby’s early diet should look something like this:
Baby-led eating, example 1
Or this:
Baby-led eating, example 2

Really, you have to ask, how much nourishment is baby getting from carrot sticks and pieces of lettuce? How much is even going down the gullet? And what about the danger of choking?

There is just so much wrong with this book. . . Let’s start with the dietary guidelines themselves. Suggestions for baby’s first foods include raw carrot, raw broccoli and a strip of meat–remember, baby doesn’t have molars yet. Even adults sometimes have trouble chewing a strip of meat. Baby gets full-fat dairy but no butter.  Instead he gets “healthy fats” such as vegetable oils, oily fish and olive oil. Salt is bad for babies, insist the authors of Baby-Led Weaning. Baby gets whole grains, including oat cakes, rice cakes and dry breakfast cereal (Rice Crispies are especially recommended). Pasta and pizza are OK—they make great finger foods!  And microwaving is OK also. The key is that mom just puts a few of these objects on baby’s tray, and baby then tells mom what he is going to eat. Once baby learns to talk, he can dictate all his food choices! Don’t be surprised if he wants to eat nothing but pizza.

As justification, proponents of baby-led weaning point to the baby feeding studies by Clara Davis, carried out at the Mt. Sinai Hospital in Cleveland in 1926. In this study Davis fed a group of orphans by putting a variety of foods in front of them every day.

Clara Davis: Food Choices at the Orphanage
The first thing to notice is the choice of foods that Davis considered important for babies. These included “sweet milk”—in 1926, that would be whole raw milk—as well as sour milk.  In addition to fruits, vegetables and grains, the babies got to choose from beef, lamb, chicken, bone marrow, bone jelly, sweetbreads, brains, liver, kidneys, fish and eggs. Notice all the organ meats and the lamb jelly! To top it off, babies got to dip their fingers in a bowl of sea salt!

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The babies did well—they thrived and had rosy cheeks.  Does that mean the babies know what they should eat?  No, it means that Clara Davis knew what babies should eat—far, far better that what modern moms know, plunking slices of green pepper down on the high chair tray.

Commentators have declared that the Davis study shows that “All the babies ended up eating a balanced diet.” The babies did well, for sure, but how do we know they all got a balanced diet?  Were nutrient levels in the foods measured?  Were the babies followed into adulthood?  Were they given blood tests to determine blood levels of vitamins and minerals?

The babies developed definite tastes. For example, one baby ate two pounds of oranges in one day. I’m not sure I would call that a balanced diet, and if I had a child who only wanted to eat oranges, I would not let him tell me what he wanted to eat, but do my best to vector him to other foods.

But the key point is this: in the Davis study, the foods were mashed, ground up or finely minced—not raw and in big chunks.  The babies indicated what they wanted and then the nurses fed them with a spoon. Babies also ate with their fingers. The baby-led weaning folks have definitely twisted the Davis study to justify giving babies raw broccoli or raw carrots as their first foods!!

Another flaw: the cover of Baby-Led Weaning promises “no purees, no stress, no fuss.”  But moms are advised to “expect a mess,” something like this:
Baby-led eating, example 3
I’m sorry, but motherhood is hard enough without having to clean up a mess like this three to four times per day! Making purees for your baby is a joyful, relaxing activity—but cleaning up a horrendous mess at every feeding time is stressful indeed!

Please watch this short video of a baby of about five months old, getting fed his pureed liver:

A few things to point out:

  1. Baby is not traumatized. He seems to be having a wonderful time (and definitely clowning for the camera).
  2. Notice that puree—it is very thin and easy to swallow. The food can get thicker as baby gets older, but the first purees should be somewhat watery.
  3. Notice that baby is still pushing a little food out with his tongue (called tongue thrust), even though he has been getting solid food for several weeks. On the first feeding, he will push most of it out.  Just be patient and keep putting it back in his mouth, and he will soon get the hang of it. (You can also let baby lick the food off your fingers for the first few tries.) Baby pushing food out does not mean that “baby is not ready for solid foods” or “baby is not hungry” as I have heard mothers say.  It just means that he is still learning how to eat.
  4. Notice how engaged he is with the person feeding him! Rather than leave a child alone with some food objects on his tray, you can make meals a time of real engagement with baby. You are looking at him, talking with him, laughing with him.  This is the right kind of training for family meals—the association of food with pleasant social interaction.
  5. And finally, there is no mess! No yucky food on high chair, floor and baby for mom to clean up.

What about family meals—do we need to practice baby-led weaning to have baby participate in family meals?  Not at all! In fact, a lot of family members would not find it enjoyable to eat with a baby making a terrible mess with his food.

Instead, feed baby his puree before the family meal, so that he is well-fed, satisfied and not fussy.  Then at meal time, put a few small pieces of banana or cheese on his tray—something nourishing but not too messy.  Let him play with those while the rest of the family eats. If he is teething, give him a bone to chew on—it’s a great teething tool, but definitely not a source of nourishment at that age. As he grows older, you can give him some of the family food, such as soup or finely minced stews, fed to him with a spoon until he learns how to do this himself.

So what’s the downside of baby-led weaning? Let me count the ways:  malnutrition; wasteful; choking; mess; horrible for family meals.  But most seriously, it pretends to put baby in charge of what he eats.

Mom and Dad need to be in charge of what baby eats—baby does NOT know what to eat, only wise parents know what and how to feed baby. If you put a cookie on baby’s high chair tray, he will eat it even though this is a horrible choice for a baby. Of course, if baby exhibits a real aversion to something you are feeding her (like throwing up), then you will need to find a substitute but equally nutritious food.

The precedent of parents deciding what baby should eat needs to be established from the start.  Give baby plenty of freedom to play, to develop, to explore on his own, but take full charge of baby’s diet—his good health and optimal development depend on it.

In my next blog, we will talk about the kind of foods that baby needs for optimal nourishment during the critical first year of life.

The Weston A. Price Foundation is your source for accurate information on how to nourish your baby, from preconception through childhood.  Your membership supports the work we do.


Author: Sally Fallon Morell

Sally Fallon Morell is best known as the author of Nourishing Traditions®: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. This well-researched, though-provoking guide to traditional foods contains a startling message: animal fats and cholesterol are not villains but vital factors in the diet, necessary for normal growth, proper function of the brain and nervous system, protection from disease and optimum energy levels.

7 thoughts on “Bringing Up Baby, Part III – Baby-Led Weaning??”

  1. Hi Sally,
    First of all, let me just say that I highly respect all of your research on nutrition, and we as a family have been following the Nourishing Traditions way of eating for about 7 years now. We are all thriving and healthy thanks to you, Dr, Enig, and Dr. Price and your research. I did want to talk about my experience with BLW with my Nourishing Traditions babies. I had loads of breast milk, and my babies slept fine so I didn’t start solids until about 6 months. Neither of them had teeth at that point, but I knew they needed more varied nutrients than just breast milk, so I began introducing other food. I started them with stocks and broths (obviously spoon fed at first, but then they began drinking it out of cups), then I gave them egg yolks and liver that was in bite size pieces that they easily ate by themselves. I slowly began introducing soft shredded meats and scrambled eggs then cooked vegetables. From your book I learned that most little children can’t absorb many nutrients from raw vegetables, so I avoid those until they are older. Basically I would just give the babies the meat and cooked or fermented veggies from whatever we were eating as a family. It only takes a minute for me to wipe my baby and high chair down after a meal. When I have to spoon feed my babies (ie when we are having soup) it takes me about 10-15 minutes of just sitting there feeding them. My babies are chunky and have BIG appetites, so it works much better to just give them food and spend 1-2 minutes cleaning up afterward. As they got a little older, I introduced fruit, raw dairy in the form of yogurt and cheese, and then fermented/soaked whole grains. I did allow them to have a little maple syrup on their sourdough waffles or soaked oatmeal, but no other sweet things until after 1 when they could have a little honey on things. By the time their friends started eating solids, my babies were already able to feed themselves with a fork or spoon and make very little mess. So, while I completely agree that the BLW dietary guidelines are way off base, I just wanted to point out that there are ways to feed your baby the same nourishing food you already prepared for the rest of your family with very few changes AND not have to spend lots of time feeding your baby via spoon. Neither of my babies ever choked, and I certainly did not let them choose what they ate. They ate what I put in front of them just like they would if I spoon fed them.

    1. In the early days, I do think spoon feeding is necessary, just to make sure baby gets enough to eat, and the food needs to be pureed to ensure that baby doesn’t choke. But this period doesn’t last very long–2-4 months at most. Then baby has learned to eat and can manage thicker food, even small pieces. And you are right, by age one, babies can be feeding themselves with a spoon!


  2. So, I generally agree with many of your posts and articles when I read them, but this one is a bit ridiculous. That’s not at all how baby-led weaning works; I know this because I and several of my friends have utilized this book and raised incredibly healthy children. Your article almost seems like a personal issue you have with the book or someone involved with the book. The things you’ve stated aren’t even close to accurate about the contents of the book or how the method is properly employed. This article alone makes me question your credibility in other areas and will definitely cause me to second guess anything I read written by you again. So disappointing!

    1. I went through the book carefully–their food suggestions come directly from the book. But even reading the front cover, the main message of baby-led weaning is that moms don’t have to trouble themselves making purees. And with that I strongly disagree.


  3. I have been practicing BLW. It has been the most rewarding experience. Yes, the baby barely gets much down on her own at the beginning. Her main nutrition comes from breast milk though at the early stages of self feeding anyway. So nutriton from solids is not the primary goal. The foods she puts in her mouth herself are more or less exploratory, and in time with more practice the skill of food handling and food choice develops.

    When you stuff the baby’s face with food of your choice and your desired quantity, you diminish the little human’s ability to handle foods, send the message that he is not trusted to self regulate the food intake aND self care. Yes, babies are aware of satiation – look at their nursing clues.

    Our little one would reach in our plates and take what she feels like, fully participating in the family food rituals. She is never excluded and she sees that we eat the same foods as her. What kind of the message to do you send when you give her something you’d not want to eat yourself.

    Turning real foods into mush is a disservice to your baby senses. I won’t even talk about weird food combos, which remind me of the feed for pigs- throw in a bunch of things in a trough to meet all dietary needs at once. Try to puree your favorite dinner plate and combine it into one blob of a mess aND sip it from a tea spoon.. I bet you’d turn your nose away too even with the best impression of an airplane flight.

  4. Let me start off by saying that I follow your work and I always reccomend others to read it because it is so well researched. The science in it is spot on and you can tell it’s evidence based as opposed to emotional based. This piece, however, drips with emotion and lacks in the research department. I have a hard time believing that you made it past the front cover of the BLW book. No where in it does it say to offer your infant raw vegetables. This is a direct quote from the book that so clearly states the texture should be soft.

    “Vegetables can be broiled, grilled, roasted, stir-fried, or baked. They should be firm enough for her to hold, but soft enough for her to munch.”

    The discussion from the book on meat also clearly states that meat must be tender. Again, a direct quote.

    “Lamb, beef, and pork need to be cooked so that the meat is very tender.”

    As for your emotional response to the possible mess from BLW, what stresses one mother out may be no stressor to the next. As a full time working parent, the 3 minutes it took to clean up after a meal did not compare to the time it would have taken me to puree food for my child. Not to mention I had a child that had a very strong “I do it” mentality. Spoon feeding equaled just as much mess as she would grab every spoonful and want to put it in her mouth herself. If I did not go along with her desires I ended up with a very upset child that refused to eat at all. So while the mess turned you off, it was a blessing to me. With that said, a mess or not has no bearing on how nutritious the meal is and has no business being in a critique of BLW’s ability to follow the nourishing traditions way of eating.

    I will give you that the BLW book is written from a mainstream nutrition point of view. I completely agree with your opinion of its recipes and nutrition suggestions. However it is very simple to take the basic principles of BLW and adapt them to the reccomendations of Weston A. Price. In fact there is a group on Facebook that follows both BLW and the nourishing traditions reccomendations called Nutritious Baby Led Weaning. Its fantastic and I urge everyone to look into it. Yes it is true that BLW puts more control into the baby’s hands, mom however still has 100% control over what is being offered. Us BLW parents are not giving a 6 month old child complete control of the reigns with food and it is absurd to suggest that we are.

    You are more than welcome to feel that BLW is not right for your family, but it is not ok for you to claim that BLW cannot fit into the nourishing traditions lifestyle.

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