Baby-Led Weaning is Becoming the New 'Breast is Best'—But It's Time to Squash Both
As a mom of two young boys who's just reemerging from the fourth trimester and about to embark on the messy adventure of introducing solids yet again, I'm no stranger to the parenting communities on social media. That means I'm also faced with the insistence—and sometimes even bullying—that breastfeeding and baby-led weaning (BLW) are the gold standard when it comes to feeding infants. If you stray from those two options you're left with the guilt that you've somehow failed your child.
Let's be clear: There's no one "right" way to feed your baby. For Black and Native American mothers, breastfeeding is reclaiming a cultural practice that was stripped away. The movement to increase breastfeeding rates among Black and Native American babies is also a movement to reverse the high mortality rate that Black and Native American babies disproportionately bear the brunt of. But that mom guilt can hit hard if your feeding plans deviate at all.
The "breast is best" mantra all over social media is like a dagger to the heart of this hormonal mama whose breastfeeding journey just didn't work out for long either time. While I escaped much of the same pressure when it came to starting solids with my firstborn, parents—and especially moms—are getting more and more vocal when it comes to baby-led weaning—where the baby is in charge of feeding themself safe finger foods—being the best way to go.
Now, as my younger son is about to get the green light to start solids, I'm left wondering if doing a mix of my own purées and BLW like I did last time is actually OK. Am I somehow messing my kid up if I'm using formula and feeding him with a spoon?!
The Baby-Led Weaning Pressure is Real
Luckily, I saw an Instagram post about exactly this from Kids Eat In Color, a resource for parents to help get kids to eat better "without the mealtime battles," at just the right time. According to Jennifer Anderson, founder and CEO of Kids Eat In Color, registered dietitian, and mom of two, parents in her community have been sharing "how defeated they feel when they hear messages that suggest they are failing their child." And while moms continue to hear that breastfeeding is "best," there's a new, harmful message on the block: Baby-led weaning is the "right" way to feed solids to your child.
"On social media, the pressure to do baby-led weaning if you want to do the best for your baby is growing daily," says Anderson. "I hear the parents talking about how defeated they feel when they realize it's not best for their child or not best for their family. At the same time, many parents who did not do baby-led weaning (myself included), have experienced judgment from the baby-led weaning community."
Anderson hit the nail on the head with her Instagram post: BLW really is the new "breast is best." And comments on the post echoed the sentiment I too share—that judgmental parents can be relentless and unnecessarily add to the guilt many of us already feel for one reason or another.
"I just entered the ring of motherhood for the 4th time but with a decade since my last," Sarah Nicole Landry—aka @thebirdspapaya—commented on the post. "BLW didn't exist back then. Back then you were crunchy as granola to make your own baby food and the aisles of baby food jars were long. Things have changed. When I said for us we are going to explore BLW but starting with purées that I'm making (already a huge step for me, into my crunchy granola side) I was literally mocked. 'Oh lol you are sooo old school, purées?' 'You can't ACTUALLY do mixing it's not the way, but ok' and so many 'JUST DO BABY LED WEANING ITS THE ONLY WAY'. And I get it. It's exciting to show others what you know. I'm so excited that we have new things to learn. I think it's amazing that so many are passionate about it and have shared amazing sources of information with me. But my gosh! This was such an unexpected pressure. Such an unexpected anxiety. Such an unexpected secret ranking of what it is to be a mother. Fed is best. Always will be."
These kinds of black or white "rules" only make the first year of parenting that much harder. In reality, raising kids is just one big grey area. Every parent is different and every kid is different, and what might work for some won't for others.
"There absolutely is not one right way [to feed a baby], but wow, the online space around this issue is so militant," says Amy Palanjian, founder of Yummy Toddler Food. "I don't really understand why this choice of how to feed a baby has become so polarized or why so many feel the need to proclaim which way they feed their babies, but please trust me when I say that you can do one or the other, you can do both—there is no one right way to feed a baby."
Baby-Led Weaning vs. Purées
Don't get me wrong—there are benefits to baby-led weaning. From helping create toddlers who are less picky eaters to just being simpler to do, infant self-feeding really is a good choice for many families.
"With BLW, babies are in charge of how much and what they put into their mouths," says Jenna Helwig, author of Baby-Led Feeding. "That takes the pressure off them, which in turn can help them be more confident eaters. [Plus,] with BLW they can join into family meals sooner. Parents can adjust family meals slightly (omitting salt, added sugar, and making sure foods are soft and finely chopped) and baby can join everyone else at the table. One meal for everyone means less work for mom or dad."
But, even with all of the pros to BLW, not opting to go that route isn't somehow a bad choice. In fact, parent-fed purées have been around much longer and, spoiler alert, those of us who were fed that way—and, yes, even those of us who ate baby food right out of the jar—are completely fine. Ahem, I can chew just as well as this new BLW generation!
"We have been purée feeding for generations and if there was one right way, we would see millions of kids around the world with eating issues because they were purée fed," says Mona Amin, D.O., a pediatrician, mom, and creator of The New Mom's Survival Guide, a digital e-course and online community for navigating the first year of motherhood. "It comes down to how we approach feeding and meal times. A great eater can be created whether you do purées or BLW. It comes down to how we approach and read their hunger cues."
According to Dr. Amin—who many parents probably know from the uber helpful Instagram @pedsdoctalk—it's important to research all of your feeding options, follow your child's lead, and incorporate self-feeding skills by 9 months even if you don't go the BLW route.
Helwig also points out that even if parents do start off with BLW, "babies need to learn how to eat purées too! We want our kids to enjoy mashed potatoes and applesauce, right? To be clear, there is absolutely no evidence that offering your baby both purées and safe solid foods is dangerous or bad. Your baby needs to learn to handle both textures. It's even fine to offer both at the same meal! Just don't put two textures on the same spoon; that can be a challenge to eat."
The biggest roadblock to baby-led weaning—and a crucial aspect to successfully feeding your child? Knowing the difference between gagging and choking. "I like to remind parents that if you prepare the food correctly (think strips of food that can be squished between your fingers), the risk of choking is extremely minimal," says Dr. Amin. "Gagging is very normal whereas choking is not. So, knowing the difference can help."
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, parents need to do their research and move forward with what they're most comfortable with and what their baby responds to best.
"To parents who feel that BLW is the only way to feed a baby I would say that I too am a fan of the method, but every family is different, and I trust moms and dads to make the right decisions for themselves and their babies," says Helwig. "There are plenty of reasons to practice BLW and plenty of reasons to wait on finger foods. Live and let live!"
Thank you so much for this article! It was so helpful. My now 12 month old only wants to feed himself. We offer him a variety of foods at each meal, usually a protein, carb and fruit/veggie. However, he only wants fruits! He doesn’t want any vegetables, protein (salmon, egg, tofu, meat nothing!) He even refuses foods that he used to eat. He will at least put the food in his mouth, but promptly spits it out. I’ve tried all types of cooking - raw, roasted, boiled etc and no difference. This has been going on for about a month now. He drinks about 18 oz of milk/day. Do you have any suggestions on what I can try?Read More