UPDATED! All about Baby-Led Weaning (BLW), Part 3: Problems with Spoon-Feeding & What about Choking?

Messy with peanut butter!

Messy with peanut butter!

Problems with Spoon-Feeding

According to Rapley and Murkett (2008), “Spoon-feeding isn’t bad; it’s simply not necessary… feeding babies this way carries a potential for creating problems that doesn’t exist with BLW. Partly this has to do with the consistency of puréed or mashed food, and partly it’s to do with how much control the baby has over her eating” (16). With BLW, babies can follow their instincts to copy others and develop feeding skills in a natural, fun way, learning as they experiment. Babies learn to cope with textures (like lumps) better and more quickly if they are allowed to feed themselves, as it’s easier to manipulate and chew food when it starts off at the front of the mouth.Below are further reasons why spoon-feeding isn’t ideal.

  1. Spoon-fed foods tend to be sucked straight to the back of the mouth where they can’t be moved around as easily – or as safely.
  2. Spoon-feeding eliminates a baby’s control of how much and how quickly he eats.
  3. Babies aren’t able to copy others’ eating (like their parents and siblings) if they're spoon-fed.
  4. Spoon-feeding purées is an interruption of self-feeding. During breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, babies eat as much as they want at the pace they choose. Spoon-feeding, conversely, creates a short window of time when babies are “force-fed.”
  5. Pushing a spoon into a baby’s mouth can stifle the gag reflex, which is a biological safety mechanism designed to prevent choking. If food is pushed too far into a baby’s mouth, it will likely pass the gag reflex and be pushed backward instead of forward. Therefore, spoon-feeding has the potential to make choking more likely.
  6. “As the gag reflex moves back toward its adult position, it becomes less and less effective as an early warning sign. So babies who haven’t been allowed to explore food from the beginning [six months or so] may miss the opportunity to use it to help them learn how to keep food away from their airway. Anecdotal evidence suggests that babies who have been spoon-fed have more problems with gagging and ‘choking’ when they start to handle food (often at around eight months) than those who have been allowed to experiment much earlier” (Rapley & Murkett, 47).
Practicing with spoons

Practicing with spoons

What about choking?

Many people close to me (including parents, grandparents and friends) have expressed concerns about my son choking. For the record, he has never choked since starting BLW at six months old. He definitely gagged a lot in the beginning, but it didn’t faze him! He made noises while pushing the food out, and sometimes seemed slightly uncomfortable, but never panicked or afraid. He would just gag, spit out the food, and continue eating happily as if nothing had happened. A few times it made me a little nervous, but I trusted him to figure it out. I also knew that we would be able to intervene if necessary. (See below for more information about how to help if necessary.)

It is important to remember: gagging is not choking. It is totally normal (and actually safer) for a baby to gag as he learns to move food around in his mouth. “This [gag] reflex is triggered much farther forward on the tongue of a six-month-old baby, so not only is it activated more easily in a baby than it is in an adult, it also operates when a piece of food that has caused it is much farther away from the airway… it very rarely means they are in danger of choking” (Rapley & Murkett, 46). With this gag reflex, babies quickly learn how to manage food safely. For the reflex to work properly, it is essential that a baby is sitting up straight (not reclining or at an angle) to allow for pieces of food to be pushed forward when he gags.

If your baby gags while eating, stay close, stay calm, offer comfort and encouragement, but don't interfere. Particularly, do not try to remove the piece of food with your finger, as this can actually push it farther back and increase the risk of choking. This video shows a baby gagging while eating. 

Choking looks significantly different than gagging. Most importantly, it is silent! According to KidsHealth.org, "A child may be choking and need help right away if he or she: is unable to breathe; is gasping or wheezing; can't talk, cry, or make noise; turns blue; grabs at his or her throat or waves arms; appears panicked; and becomes limp or unconscious." A choking baby needs immediate help. All parents (regardless of how they approach solids) should be prepared and know what to do. This video offers a brief demo. 

For more information about the risk of choking with BLW versus purées, check out this recent article from October 2016. The study cited in the article found that babies eating solids (no purées) are no more likely to choke!

Works Cited
Rapley, Gill, and Murkett, Tracey. Baby-Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods and Helping Your Baby Grow Up a Happy and Confident Eater. The Experiment, New York: 2008, 2010.