Why won’t my toddler eat solids? Exclusive Q&A with baby led weaning experts Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett

All baby supermodels are different. Some are up partying all night. Some won’t get out of bed for less than a billion. Mine just ain’t into solid food.

And that’s cool. She is chubby, energetic and has VVIP access to the all-night milk bar. But just when I adjusted expectations to realise it’s all gravy, my GP goes and panics me again.

So I chatted to leading health visitor Gill Rapley and journalist Tracey Murkett, who have written the best-selling, definitive guides to baby led weaning — which is the most gentle, natural and common-sense way to wean babies.

And it has truly put my mind at rest again. I hope it helps you too. As you were, rock n roll superbabymodels. 🤘

What is baby led weaning and why should parents choose to feed this way?

Baby-led weaning is an approach to the introduction of solid foods that allows the baby to be in control of what he eats, when, how fast and how much.

The baby joins in with family meals, sharing the same healthy food (with no added salt, sugar, additives etc).

The food is cut into shapes and sizes that the baby can manage, according to his age and experience, and he can explore and experiment with the food, feeding himself with his hands (and later, cutlery) whenever he is ready.

Baby-led weaning is more enjoyable for babies than spoon feeding and allows them to move on to solid food gradually, in their own time.

It allows them to exercise their natural appetite control and encourages the development of chewing, fine movements, hand-eye coordination and social skills.

It is based on respect and trust for the child’s instincts and abilities and avoids the mealtime conflict that is so common in families with young children. It makes introducing solids easier and less stressful for babies and their parents.

Sounds kinda like what we do. But I sometimes give my daughter pouches of fruit puree or yogurt on a spoon, alongside finger foods. Does this mean I’ve been doing BLW wrong? And why do these exclusive labels even matter?

If your daughter is feeding herself these foods and truly controlling how much and how fast (and whether) she eats it, then no problem.

For example, you may be offering her a dipper to eat runny food, or a pre-loaded spoon. Or perhaps you are holding the spoon but letting her put her hand on your hand, so she can control it.

Giving her the pouch so that she can squeeze food into her mouth herself is not advisable; it can be dangerous, as well as preventing from being truly in control of how much she is eating.

However, if you have been spoon feeding your baby then you haven’t really been doing BLW!

Just offering finger foods alongside spoon feeding isn’t the same as giving your daughter control over her eating.

Finger foods have always been recommended from 6 months, even in the days when purees were introduced from 4 months, so doing ‘a bit of both’ is actually just conventional weaning.

Of course, all parents do what works best for them but mixing spoon feeding with self-feeding stops it being baby led – and leads to some of the benefits of this approach being lost.

For example, babies tend to get caught up in the ‘game’ of spoon feeding and stop paying attention to the signals their body is giving them. This means they can easily end up eating more than they need.

Plus, if they are not offered food in its ‘real’ form, and given time to explore it (without necessarily being expected to eat anything), they can miss out on the chance to develop new skills and to learn about the appearance, texture and taste of different foods.

It doesn’t matter to you or your baby what term you use to describe how she is moving onto solid food but it does matter in terms of general understanding and research.

It will be impossible to identify and compare the benefits of BLW versus conventional weaning if we aren’t clear about which is which and how they are different – and we won’t know why BLW works so well.

What do you suggest for a baby that has had very little interest in solids from the start, but that is a good weight, height and has lots of energy from breastmilk? How can I know if she is eating enough? Basically how can I stop worrying?!

Babies are born knowing how much they need to eat and, provided they are allowed to, they can continue to regulate their own appetite right through weaning (and beyond).

If they are hungry, they will eat. And if a full range of nutrients is offered, they will eat the right things.

The problem – for the parents – is that most babies eat less than we expect.
Babies actually need very little in addition to breastmilk (or formula) – just very small amounts of a few micronutrients (mainly iron and zinc), not large volumes of high calorie foods.

Breastmilk or formula should remain the main source of a baby’s nourishment for at least the first year, with some iron-rich food offered at each meal.

The idea of making sure your baby has ‘enough’ is left over from when parents used to be encouraged to phase out breastmilk (or infant formula) far too quickly, replacing it with large quantities of solid food.

We now know this approach meant babies lost valuable – and far more nutritious – milk feeds to less nourishing foods.

As long as your baby is able to have as many milk feeds as she wants, and offered a healthy range of other foods, there’s no need to think about how much she is eating.

Most babies eat very little until they are around 9-10 months and some don’t show much interest in actually eating (rather than exploring) until they are over a year old.

Babies know what they need and can be trusted to follow their appetite. But they can sense tension or pressure at mealtimes, and this can lead to them eating less than they might otherwise.

Or they may be so keen to please you that they end up eating far more than they need (see answer above).

If you focus on offering food rather than giving it, and enjoying watching your baby learning about different foods, it will be easier to ignore how much is actually eaten.

We do recommend following (in the UK) the Department of Health guidelines regarding (supplementary) vitamins for babies and children, whether BLW’d or not, but there is no need to sneak vitamins in if the baby is happy to accept a dropper. (And giving supplements and medicines by dropper doesn’t mean weaning is not baby-led.)

Finally, try not to focus too much on your baby’s diet. If she looks well, is growing and is full of energy, it’s likely she’s eating all she needs.

One thing my daughter LOVES is yogurt. How can things like yogurt, cereal and porridge be eaten with hands — or should we wait until they are old enough to use a spoon themselves?

If your family is eating runny food, such as yogurt and porridge, your baby can eat it with her hands, provided you don’t mind the mess.

Alternatively, you can offer her another food to dip into it – a stick of cucumber, say, or a finger of toast.

Another option is to pre-load the spoon and offer it to her to put into her mouth herself, or let her guide your hand with you holding the spoon (as long as she is truly in control).

Some parents simply choose to wait until their baby is more skilled before offering runny foods – they aren’t essential to a baby’s diet.

Vegetables ARE essential though. But how can we make ’em more.. interesting? 

With BLW, babies are generally just as happy to choose vegetables as they are fruit. It’s much more common for there to be an issue with vegetables when they’re offered as spoon-fed purees.

With BLW, vegetables come in such a huge range of colours, shapes, tastes and textures to explore – what’s not to like?

If you’re eating and enjoying vegetables, so will your baby – but if she suspects that you don’t like them, then neither will she.

If she chooses not to eat a particular food, it’s because she doesn’t need those nutrients at that time.

There may be individual vegetables that she doesn’t enjoy but very few babies refuse a whole food group unless there are emotional issues connected with those foods, such as pressure to eat a certain amount of them or the ‘eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert’ scenario. This type of pressure doesn’t exist with BLW.

What other misconceptions are there around BLW?

Many people assume BLW is something new, when in fact many parents throughout the world and across the generations have practised it as a natural way for their baby to join in with family meals. It’s just that it wasn’t talked about because it didn’t have a name.

Some people still believe that experience with purees is essential for learning to chew and that babies are more likely to choke if their first solid foods are self-fed.

In fact, research is beginning to suggest that babies are less likely to choke with BLW, and that practice at chewing from the minute the baby can do it is beneficial.

There are no known benefits to learning to eat from a spoon before moving on to chewable foods – the actions are not connected.

Another myth is that BLW doesn’t ‘allow’ the use of purees. Babies should be offered the same (healthy) foods as the rest of the family, adapted if necessary so they can feed themselves.

They benefit from the chance to experience all sorts of textures, so if your meal includes ‘pureed’ foods such as mashed potato, smooth soup or hummus, it’s fine for the baby to have some too – provided he’s allowed to feed himself with it. But he doesn’t need to be fed by someone else or to have only purees.

Many people assume there’s no evidence to support BLW. In fact, there’s a growing body of research that suggests it’s effective, beneficial and safe.

What’s interesting is that there’s no research to support the use of spoon feeding and purees for babies of 6 months – it’s simply a practice left over from when people believed babies needed foods other than milk before they were able to feed themselves with them.

Finally, there is a belief that BLW is just another method of weaning. In fact, it’s about helping your baby to develop a relationship with food that will be life-long.

The idea is that the trust and respect you show him when he is first discovering solid food will continue throughout the toddler years and beyond, so that he can continue to follow his body’s needs as he grows.

So I’ve been doing it a bit wrong so far — but if I decide to never use a spoon or put food in my daughter’s mouth again starting from tomorrow, am I then exclusively BLW?

Babies should always put food into their mouths themselves.

So, offering a spoon for your baby to feed herself is OK, but putting pieces of food into a baby’s mouth increases the risk of choking, so that should never happen.

If you have been feeding your baby up to this point and now want to follow the baby-led weaning approach instead (sharing mealtimes and allowing your baby to be in complete control of what she eats, when, how fast and how much) then yes, you’ll be doing baby-led weaning.

However, your baby won’t have been exclusively weaned with BLW, in the same way a baby who has been formula fed and later just breastfeeds hasn’t been exclusively breastfed.

Even if your baby doesn’t start out with BLW there are still advantages to you both whenever you make the switch. But starting at six months maximises the benefits.

Bear in mind too, that there may be a period of adaptation needed if your baby has been used to being spoon fed large quantities of pureed food.

How can parents encourage “fussy” babies and toddlers to eat then?

It’s very unusual for a baby not to ‘like’ eating. A baby who is well and has plenty of energy, but simply doesn’t eat much, is probably responding appropriately to the fact that his body has no need for anything else.

If he is still breastfeeding, he may not need very much on top – breastmilk is very nearly a complete food for a child of any age.

This is not ‘fussiness’ – it’s just a normal appetite response. Babies and toddlers often need less food than their parents believe.

Quirky dislikes and ‘food fads’ are common in toddlers, when certain foods are devoured eagerly or avoided completely for weeks or months at a time.

The reason for this is not clear: it may reflect the child’s need for different nutrients at different times or it may be part of gaining independence.

Drawing attention to the behaviour, or using coercion, bribery or games to change it, is unlikely to be helpful and may increase the chances that it will become a long-term problem.

It’s also worth noting that we have heard, anecdotally, of many babies and toddlers who were reluctant to eat foods that they were later found to be allergic to.

In general, babies tend to do things for a reason and it’s worth giving them the benefit of the doubt.

People say if i cut down on breastfeeding at night my daughter will eat more in the day. Is that true?

Family foods complement (or add to) breastmilk, and then gradually take over as the main source of nourishment.

Weaning, also known as complementary feeding, can last from 6 months of age until 2 years or more, until your baby has his last milk feed.

All food offered and eaten during this time should be complementary, whether the approach is baby-led or not.

However, BLW as an approach allows the baby to set the pace, and to decide how fast the changeover should happen, so it’s more gradual and works more naturally with breastfeeding.

Conventional weaning is more parent-led and the pace tends to be faster, so, from the baby’s point of view, it doesn’t complement breastfeeding in the same way.

Cutting down on breastfeeding used to be recommended to encourage babies to eat more solid food. However, there is no good reason for withdrawing the very best food there is (breastmilk), in the hope of persuading a baby to eat more solid food, which is less nutritious.

Forcing the pace of the changeover won’t enhance the baby’s nutritional status – and it may even make it worse.

Provided a range of healthy foods is available – including breastmilk – babies will choose what they need.

Is it better to have a routine and consistent place and way to eat, or can we do whatever and snack on the go?

Eating on the move is not a good idea because it increases the risk of choking. It’s safest for anyone – adult or child – to be sitting upright and able to concentrate while eating.

But that doesn’t mean that mealtimes need to be scheduled. Your baby can simply be included whenever you eat or have a healthy snack.

Toddlers need to eat little and often, so it’s more important for them to be offered a healthy mini-meal whenever (and wherever) they feel hungry than to be made to wait for lunchtime – or to be persuaded to eat when they’re not hungry.

Would you say vegetarian or vegan babies are at a disadvantage in terms of energy and nutrients for growth?

Diets that don’t include meat can be low in certain micronutrients, notably iron and zinc, but the lack of ‘haem’ iron can be compensated for by eggs, fish and dairy products.

Avoiding all foods of animal origin carries an additional risk that the individual may lack vitamins B12 and D.

These nutrients are important for everyone but especially for babies and young children.

With care, it’s perfectly possible for a baby to be healthy on a vegetarian diet but a nutritionally complete vegan diet is less easy to achieve.

We would recommend speaking to a nutritionist or dietitian if you want to bring your baby up as a vegan.

Thank you both! My mind can worry about something else now. Like sleep. All the lols.

You can learn tonnes more about BLW in Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett’s best-selling books listed below. They have also written books on Baby-led Breastfeeding and Baby-led Parenting.

* Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby to Love Good Food
* The Baby-led Weaning Cookbook
* The Baby-led Weaning Quick and Easy Recipe Book

What are your experiences of BLW? Got a muscleman vegan babe? We would ❤ to hear from you. Contact us, comment below, or tag #WokeMamas on social media.

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