Basically, parents were originally advised to wean at 3 months. This was then changed to 4 months and is now 6 months. Originally, because babies' digestive systems were still very immature, they were more prone to allergies and couldn't sit up securely or get food to their mouths themselves, you were advised to give purées and baby rice at first and then were encouraged to introduce lumps then solids from 6 months. This guidance hasn't been updated despite the advice changing to wean babies at 6 months. At 6 months, babies are usually better at sitting up and most can get their hands to their mouths to put food (and other objects of course) in there. Also, their digestive systems are much more matured so they can digest solid food. Their bodies should also be less prone to allergies. The advice from the Department of Health (DoH) now says that you should introduce finger foods at the beginning as some babies prefer this. To be honest, baby-lead weaning does follow a lot of what it says in the DoH guidelines. It just misses out the purées, baby rice and spoon feeding. Although, even with the spoon feeding, it says to "Allow your baby to feed themself, using their fingers, as soon as they show an interest".
What you do
The idea is that, in the beginning, you offer food in easy to hold shapes (sticks of carrot, broccoli, toast soldiers) for your baby to hold and explore. You offer them, if possible, the same food that you are eating and you are encouraged to eat all your meals together as a family and, whenever you eat, offer your baby the same food. Some people who try BLW actually sit their baby on their laps and let them pick bits from their plate. You should try to expose your baby to a variety of tastes right from the beginning. this is different from the usual approach where you may offer the same single ingredient (i.e. sweet potato) for a few days before you try a new ingredient.
You have to be careful that what you are eating (and they are eating) doesn't contain food that should be avoided, such as salt, sugar, honey and nuts - or these ingredients are used sparingly (with the exception of honey which should be avoided until they are 1 as it could cause Botulism). If you want to eat foods that you don't want your baby to have, either don't offer these foods to your baby (perhaps try to give them that is similar but better for them or looks the same) or eat them when they are not around.
Some of the benefits of doing BLW compared to the traditional spoon feeding and purées can be:
- Less chance of a fussy eater (considering what a fussy eater I was, for this reason alone it is worth trying)
- More confidence in themselves
- Gives baby independence
- Can help with their speech (something to do with the chewing action)
- The main one for me - can go out to eat with your baby without having to worry about taking preprepared food with you. You can either order something for them or give you stuff of your own plate.
- They can join in with family meals - this could also mean they learn good table manors early on - they mirror what they see their parents doing.
The down-sides are:
- It can be considered messier
- It can take longer - both in terms of mealtimes can take longer and it can take a while before baby is actually eating food (they are learning about tastes and textures before they learn to eat food)
BLW is a lot slower as you are completely led by your baby (hence the name). In the beginning, babies are just exploring tastes and textures and don't actually eat very much at all. Eventually, they learn how to push food to the back of their mouths and to swallow. Then they realise that food can stop them from being hungry which is when they finally start actively eating meals. So this can all take a couple of months.
However, it can be a lot more fun and relaxed. As long as you approach it in a relaxed manner and expect there to be mess and don't put pressure on your baby to eat or direct him/her to eat specific food then the whole weaning process should be a much more enjoyable experience for both parents and baby.
The book I've read is the aptly named Baby-Led Weaning by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett.
You may also find the following websites useful:
http://www.baby-led.com (by the authors of the abovementioned book)