The baby-led way

Willow experiments with food at 6 months and loves it!
Willow experiments with food at 6 months and loves it!

Sensationalism sells. When The Steve Harvey Show covered “extreme” parenting practices back in September, he fueled a fire that burns basic biology.

I cringed at his misunderstanding of the “baby-led way.” Doesn’t he know that baby-led weaning (BLW) is perfectly normal, effective, and so easy?! It made introducing food to my daughter Willow a total blast.

Gill Rapley, second from right, engages in a meeting with parents in a bookstore in Poland.  She is accompanied by a Polish publisher, a dietitian and an interpreter.
Gill Rapley, second from right, engages in a meeting with parents in a bookstore in Poland. She is accompanied by a Polish publisher, a dietitian and an interpreter.

Gill Rapley is a former midwife and health visitor, international authority on BLW and co-author of several books including Baby-Led Weaning and her latest release Baby-Led Breastfeeding which I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to help adapt for an American audience. Rapley says that there is always going to be a strong reaction to breastfeeding in the media because of the influence of formula companies.

She adds, “The media’s portrayal of baby-led weaning is consistently bad.”

BLW is a method of allowing children to feed themselves complementary foods when weaning begins.

Finding a balance

Often times, media’s discussion ceases to be exciting if it’s not alarmist. Rapley suggests “playing it down” and “sneaking in under the radar” in order to normalize BLW as well as breastfeeding.

She notes that The Steve Harvey Show did not present a balanced discussion because the moms supporting BLW weren’t given a chance to speak.

“They went into it excited about the chance to spread the word about baby-led weaning and they ended up like rabbits in the headlights,” she says.  “Every question they were asked was phrased in a negative way, so that they were forced to be on the defensive and they weren’t given time to respond fully to any one question.”
With the hopes that any news is good news, Rapley anticipates some viewers were prompted to do their own research.
Attempted spoon-feeding. Willow does not approve.
Attempted spoon-feeding. Willow does not approve.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that BLW encourages children to:

• choose a healthy diet with a wide variety of foods
• control his or her own appetite
• chew earlier which may improve facial development and speech
• become more dexterous
• improve hand-eye coordination

“Baby-led weaning generally encourages independence,” Rapley explains. “There is nothing to suggest that spoon feeding will improve any of these areas.”

The research

Rapley suggests not getting caught up in small studies around BLW though.

“The idea that we do feeding to a child is what we need to get our heads around,” she says.

Rapley admits that developing research around BLW is difficult because optimally, longitudinal studies should be considered. Randomized control tests will not work.

“It’s not ethical, but also you can’t randomly assign a parent to practice BLW or not,” she says. “It’s something they commit to or not.”

As with studies concerning breastfeeding and formula feeding, there is a host of other socioeconomic factors when considering BLW.

Nothing new

Willow, 6 months, gnaws a  juicy peach.
Willow, 6 months, gnaws a juicy peach.

BLW is not different or extreme. In fact, Rapley explains that parents practice BLW all of the time; they just don’t put a name to it.

When the World Health Organization changed its recommendation to introduce complementary food from four months to six months, the need for pureed foods diminished because at this stage most babies are developmentally ready for finger foods.
“Baby-led weaning is going to become the normal on its own through word of mouth,” Rapley suggests.
However, she foresees a unique challenge to be faced by American parents.
“Families in the U.K. rarely see a pediatrician,” she explains. “I imagine families in the U.S. having a more difficult time normalizing baby-led weaning because of the pediatric lobby they have to fight against.”

Breastfeeding challenges and solutions  

But it seems no matter where a family resides, they are plagued with unnecessary breastfeeding battles.

By eliminating breastfeeding related horror stories, Rapley says she believes women will gradually understand the normalcy of breastfeeding and realize that there is no reason not to do it.

9780091935290She and co-author Tracey Murkett see Baby-Led Breastfeeding as a mother’s handbook to sit alongside the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI). Rapley also suggests it as a reference for healthcare professionals.

Baby-Led Breastfeeding focuses on following baby’s instincts to ensure effortless feeding. Still, Rapley and Murkett are not quick to dismiss formula.

“We didn’t want to alienate any group of readers,” Rapley explains. “We did not want to overtly support formula feeding but wanted to manage to support moms who choose it.”

With an overwhelming wealth of infant feeding information at most families’ fingertips, Baby-led Breastfeeding serves as a “ sensible and sensitive voice” (retrieved from that encourages moms to get to know their bodies and their babies.

Rapley and Murkett avoid overly scientific breastfeeding explanations in their new release.

“There is a lot of research that I call ‘so what’ information,” Rapley says and stresses the importance of mothers simply spending time with their babies.

For more information about the Baby-Led brand click here. Follow Gill Rapley on Twitter @gillrap.

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