A unique approach to starting solid foods, baby-led weaning involves jumping straight to finger foods and bypassing purees. Here’s why you might want to consider it — and how to get started.
Thinking about starting your sweetie on solids? You may imagine mounds of mushy rice cereal and pureed peas plus lots of time coaxing baby to open that tiny mouth. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A growing number of moms are bypassing purees and jarred baby food altogether with baby-led weaning — giving their babies control over what (and how much) they put in their mouths.
What is baby-led weaning?
Popular in the U.K. and gaining traction in the U.S., baby-led weaning is a practice where babies 6 months old or older jump straight to finger foodsas soon as solids are introduced, bypassing purees and mashed-up foods. It’s called baby-led because that’s what the premise is — letting your little one feed herself the healthy foods she wants to eat right from the start (which is why this works only for a baby who’s at least 6 months old and capable of self-feeding). And it allows babies to learn how to chew (or more accurately, gum) first, then swallow. It also prevents parents from pushing food, since babies are in control of how much they put into their mouths.
When to start baby-led weaning
Experts including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now recommend the best time to start solid foods is around 6 months. By that age, most babies are able to sit up by themselves and grab and hold onto objects. They’ve also dropped the tongue-thrust reflex (which causes them to push foreign substances out of their mouths), plus their intestines have developed the necessary digestive enzymes to absorb solid food.
Wondering if baby-led weaning is right for your child? Run the idea by your little one’s pediatrician for an opinion; while most babies will get the green light, some (those who have special needs and are unable to pick up and chew foods on their own) might not be able to try baby-led weaning. Then look to your baby — some like taking the lead, while others don’t.
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Benefits of baby-led weaning
According to advocates and some research, babies who start solids with baby-led weaning are:
- Familiar with more different textures and flavors than babies who are fed purees, which may make them more likely to develop more varied and healthy food preferences in the long run. Plus a number of studies have shown that babies who eat a variety of foods (including peanut products and fish) may actually be less likely to have food allergies later in life.
- Less likely to become overweight than children who are spoon-fed. With spoon-feeding, the parent is in control (which may make babies eat faster and more than they really need, potentially leading to a habit of ignoring feelings of fullness) — but similar to breastfeeding, baby-led weaning allows baby to self-regulate how much she eats based on her hunger levels.
- Developing manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination skills.
- Learning how to chew, which aids in digestion.
Downsides of baby-led weaning
Though there are plenty of reasons to consider baby-led weaning, there are a couple of downsides, including:
- It’s messy: Eating finger foods is messy for babies of any age, especially those who are learning how to hang onto it and get it into their mouths.
- You need to pay attention to iron: Breastfed babies get enough iron from your breast milk until baby is 4 months old — but levels can diminish at this point, which is why your pediatrician will likely add an iron supplement to the mix (1 mg/kg per day) until baby starts eating iron-rich solids. However it can be hard for some babies to chew on many iron-rich foods (like beef). Pureed meat, green veggies and fortified cereals can help fill the gap. Your doctor may also recommend that your little one stay on an iron supplement through the first year as an added precaution.
Is my baby at risk of choking?
If you have choking concerns, take heart: Your baby will do just fine, as long as you offer safe foods — your little one’s gums are quite capable of chewing soft foods.
Worried your new eater will turn into a new gagger? It happens — especially in the first few weeks of baby-led weaning — as baby tries to maneuver unfamiliar lumps in her mouth. But bear in mind that gagging is actually a safety response to food traveling too far back into the mouth — and it’s not the same thing as choking, which is silent.
When babies gag, they’re handling the problem themselves, and it’s best to just stay calm (or at least look calm) and wait until it passes. The gagging will ease up as baby learns to cope with the solids and the lumps. That said, you’ll do well to learn the difference between gagging and choking, and what to do if it’s the latter:
- A child who is gagging appears to be coughing mildly and may make a little noise.
- A child who is choking will look terrified, be unable to breathe and make no noise.
As long as you present food safely, baby-led weaning is safe for baby. A few tips to ensure your baby stays safe when you start:
- Avoid serving any foods that are choking hazards, including nuts, whole grapes, apples with the skin and cherries.
- Never leave a baby alone with food.
- Keep baby sitting upright in her high chair while eating.
- Watch for allergic reactions. That said, the thinking is no longer to hold back on certain foods to avoid allergies: The more options you offer, the more likely your newbie foodie will accept different foods, which translates into fewer mealtime battles in the future.
- Explain baby-led weaning to everyone who takes care of your child so that they follow the same safety precautions you do.
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Getting started on baby-led weaning
You may be skeptical that your 6-month-old will be able to handle whole pieces of food right off the bat, but your baby’s ability to chow down will likely amaze you. If you’ve decided to start your baby on solids the baby-led-weaning way, follow these basic principles:
- Invest in a big bib. Consider dressing your little one in just a diaper and covering her with an oversize bib or smock, and put a drop cloth or newspaper on the floor beneath the high chair.
- Continuing to nurse or bottle-feed. Keep up the same nursing frequency or bottle-feeding frequency, since babies get the majority of their nutrition from breast milk or formula throughout most of the first year.
- Skip the schedule. You may have heard that you should put your baby on a feeding schedule that incorporates breast milk or formula plus three meals of solid food a day. But if you choose baby-led weaning, simply offer solids at mealtime, and let your baby decide if she’s up for eating them.
- Cut food into thick sticks or strips. Slice foods up so baby can hold them in her fist and chew from the top down (instead of tiny bite-sized pieces).
- Start slowly. At the beginning, you only need to place one or two pieces of food in front of your little one at mealtimes. More and you may overwhelm baby with too many choices.
- Don’t worry about plates or bowls for now. She’ll toss ’em on the floor anyway. Just place the food right on the table or high-chair tray, and let the party start.
- Dine together. There’s no reason if your dinner is steamed cauliflower and salmon that baby can’t eat the same foods right along with you. Eating is a social activity, so let your little one see what you do with food and give her a chance to mimic you. Baby wants your toast or reaches for the banana you’re snacking on? Offer her a portion (as long as it’s baby-appropriate).
- Encourage fun. Think of solid food meals as playtime, when baby explores different textures and experiments with tasting and chewing. Baby-led weaning is all about getting comfortable with various foods.
- Offer a variety of foods. Over time, expose your baby to a wide range of choices to help her develop an adventurous palate and make her less likely to be a picky eater later in life. Serve up foods of different colors (roasted tomatoes, steamed green beans and sweet potatoes) and different textures (smooth avocados, crisp watermelon, grainy whole-wheat bread and even tender cooked pasta).
- Don’t force the issue. Since your baby is getting the nutrition she needs form formula or breast milk, don’t be surprised if she eats very little in the first few months. Let her set the pace. As she gets more proficient and starts to eat more, she’ll gradually consume less breast milk or formula in favor of the solid foods she’s learning to love.
Best foods for baby-led weaning
As long as it’s soft, cut into small, manageable pieces (baby fist-size) and not on the list of foods that pose a choking risk, it’s on the baby-led weaning menu. Don’t worry about how much or how little your baby eats in the first few months; just do your best to serve up a well-rounded diet. Consider offering a food from each of these food groups every day to ensure baby’s getting the nutrients she needs:
- Grains, such as whole-wheat fusilli pasta or wheat toast with hummus
- Healthy fats, such as avocados (eaten on their own or smeared on bread)
- Protein, such as boiled chicken or beef, eggs or grilled fish (be careful to remove any bones)
- Fruits and vegetables, such as a piece of banana or avocado; a ripe triangle of pear; steamed broccoli, carrots or green beans; or sweet-potato fries (all of these are easily mashed by toothless gums and are either shaped like thick sticks or can easily be cut into thick strips, which are easy for baby to hold)
- Dairy, such as yogurt and soft pasteurized cheeses like ricotta or cottage cheese (if given the chance, babies can learn to spoon-feed themselves)
There’s no need to add salt, sugar or artificial sweeteners to your baby’s foods, since they don’t add any nutritional value. What’s more, they mask the innate flavors of baby’s foods — and some research has even found that babies don’t actually have any preference at all for these tastes. Plus, consistent use of salt or sugar sets kids up to prefer salty or sugary foods in the long run. (It’s fine, however, to season food with herbs and spices — your baby might love the kick in flavor.) Skip chips, cookies and other prepackaged, prepared foods, too, since they tend to be devoid of nutrients and full of additives and unhealthy trans-fats.
Remember that baby-led weaning, like so many other parenting approaches, isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. You can choose baby-led weaning some of the time, alternating with spoon-feeding or adding to it (baby eats a chunk of banana, you spoon in some yogurt).