It’s the typical picture of a six-month old: mashed peas smeared all over one cheek, goopy rice cereal caught in his hair, and a parent sitting nearby playing “airplane” with a tiny spoon. But some parents are passing on the typical “baby food” route. In fact, they don’t feed their babies mush at all. These parents are following the “baby-led weaning” (BLW) trend, in which babies are given, well, regular food.

In BLW circles, the typical picture of an eating six-month old looks quite different. It looks like a curious baby chowing down on a full stalk of broccoli in one hand and a slice of chicken cutlet in the other. The parents are sitting nearby watching, possibly eating their own meals alongside their baby. In fact, the parents are probably eating cutlets and broccoli for dinner as well.

But what is baby-led weaning? Why do parents do it? And should all parents feed their babies “grown-up food” as soon as they start eating solids?

BLW Vs. Parent-Led Weaning

When parents lead the weaning (or solid introduction) process, babies are first given foods that they can swallow without chewing. During BLW, on the other hand, babies are given foods that they can touch, mouth, and play with, even though they won’t be able to actually swallow them yet. Instead, the budding epicures explore the textures and tastes of various types of food, regardless if the dish is typically labeled kid-friendly.

BLW is based on the fact that when children begin eating solid foods, it is mostly a sensory experience, since the food is not yet needed for nourishment. Many parents who feed their infants baby food find themselves measuring exactly how many spoonfuls the baby consumed, but some BLW proponents see this as counterproductive. Instead, they believe that little ones should feel that they're eating because they want to, as opposed to because they're forced to.

You may believe that your tiny foodie won't necessarily reach out for food if it is offered to her, especially around six months, the age that solids are often introduced. Research shows, however, that 94 percent of infants will grasp the offered food between the ages of six and eight months, so don't be concerned about using BLW on your typically developing child.

Why BLW?

Sites like attempt to educate parents about this feeding option and give them a place to ask questions and get information about BLW. When asked why parents would choose to go the BLW route, “Aitch,” the owner of the website, responded, “Why would they not? It’s fun, it’s easy, enjoyable and the parents get to eat their dinner while it’s still hot. Seriously, what is not to like?” Here are some other reasons why parents might choose BLW over the typical route:

  • They believe that it helps develop better eating habits in children. After all, kids are making their own choices about what to eat from day one, and parents are learning to back off.
  • It allows babies to become part of the family meal. Instead of feeding baby and then having to keep her entertained while the parents eat, the entire family gets to sit together and enjoy each other’s company during mealtime. It’s never too late to start a family meal together, is it?
  • No need to fret over preparing special "baby food" for your child--simply give her the same food that's on your plate, in infant-friendly portions. If she doesn't eat it, no work is wasted! Plus, she's getting her calories from breastmilk or formula anyway.
  • It gives kids exposure to tastes and textures that other babies may not encounter until much later. BLW proponants often wonder aloud whether other children prefer bland food because, well, that’s all they were exposed to when they first learned how to eat. When you’re raised on rice cereal and mashed bananas, why would you deign to try black-bean quesadillas dipped in salsa? Perhaps these tastes are foreign to children because we train them at a young age to prefer bland food.

Is BLW For You?

At the same time, some people feel uncomfortable with baby-led weaning. “People who can’t tolerate mess will probably enjoy this style of weaning,” says Aitch. “You really do have to unclench and leave it up to the child. Some people (like me) find that ‘hands-off’ approach liberating, but if you’re the sort of person who likes to be in control you might struggle.”

At the same time, parents who avoid BLW for this reason may be simply postponing the inevitable. “The way I see it, they ALL have to learn how to self-feed at some point, so you might as well get it over with before their throwing arm gets stronger,” jokes Aitch.

You may worry about how other people will react to a very young child eating whole solid foods. Aitch says that surprisingly, people tend to react with “curiosity and delight.” She notes that “especially in restaurants, where they are often used to seeing children reject food, seeing a chubby six-monther chowing down on a green bean is fantastic.”

A surprising trend? Perhaps, and yet it calls into question whether baby food is truly best for a young child learning how to eat. Why not try it with your baby, and see what happens?