Baby-Led weaning – A term you have most definitely heard before, but what is it exactly? Is baby-led weaning really as simple as feeding your baby whatever you eat?
The idea of drifting away from the classic purees and baby cereals can be intimidating, but it really isn’t impossible when you break it down. You may ask, how can I be sure what I am feeding my baby is totally safe? Is my kitchen truly going to survive this mess? Isn’t there some kind of increased choking risk with giving my baby whatever?
The truth is that once you learn the basics of baby-led weaning, it becomes a lot less scary and way more achievable for the average parent. It can even become empowering to know you are feeding your baby complex, whole foods with stimulating flavors and textures they just can’t necessarily experience in puree form.
We’re going to use this space to really break down the basics of baby-led weaning, touch on the big benefits your little one can experience, and shine a light on how achievable this method of feeding can be for any parent when provided with the right information.
What Exactly is Baby-Led Weaning?
Baby-led weaning in its most basic form is the hands off approach of allowing your baby to discover and experience new foods at their own pace. Rather than spooning the puree right from a jar to your baby’s mouth, babies are given an array of finger foods and allowed to practice picking up and transferring food to their mouth all on their own.
Exploring tastes, textures, and smells in their own unique way allows for babies to really work on developing those fine motor skills, alongside a healthier relationship with food in the long run.
In addition, exposing babies to the flavors and “family favorites” that frequent your dinner table has been shown to minimize the chances of a picky eater. Most importantly though, baby-led weaning fosters a healthy amount of independence in your baby allowing them to make choices about how much and what they eat.
Why The Baby-Led Weaning “Boom”?
The term baby-led weaning was first coined by Gill Rapley, a nurse / midwife turned author who wrote a widely popularized book centered around baby-led weaning in 2008. While she wasn’t the first to ever implement the practice of allowing babies to discover food the same way in which we would, she was the person to really kick off the movement.
Since then, parents all over the world have benefitted from the ease of baby-led weaning and taken the steps to deviate from the mashes and purees we often see as the “safest” options. When a baby feeds independently, they are able to develop the ability to self regulate – Which means when your baby is full they will recognize it, and you minimize the chances of the “post meal pukiness”.
The baby-led weaning boom these past few years can simply be most attributed to its overall effectiveness. The thing is, baby-led weaning actually works – Parents are finding meal times more enjoyable and actually stressing out less about how much and what foods their babies are eating.
When to Start Baby-Led Weaning
It is recommended to start baby-led weaning at the same time you would start solids in puree form, from the age of about 6 months.
There are however a few other requirements that need to be met to ensure that baby-led weaning is the safest option for your little one. First and foremost, your child must have the ability to grasp whole pieces of food and bring them to their mouth.
If grasp is something your child is struggling with, starting with baby-led weaning straight away may not be the best option for your family. In addition to the act of grasping food and bringing it to their mouths, your baby also must have the necessary neck strength to sit in a highchair unassisted. You want to start introducing solids when your baby shows signs of curiosity about what’s on your plate!
If your baby shows no interest in what you are eating it might not be the right time to begin introducing solids, and that is okay. Most importantly though, always consult your child’s pediatrician when making decisions centered around their feeding.
Just because 6 months is the recommended age to begin solids does not mean it is the best age for your unique baby. Self feeding may be a skill that your little one just isn’t ready to tackle at the typically recommended age, and that’s okay!
What Does it Look Like to Practice Baby-Led Weaning?
Messy! Baby-led weaning is undeniably far messier than spoon feeding directly into your little one’s mouth. Lots of squishing, smearing, dropping, mixing, and of course throwing can be involved in baby-led weaning. While it may seem anxiety inducing to watch the mess ensue, the long term benefits far outweigh the extended cleanup time.
At the very beginning of your baby-led weaning journey, experts suggest introducing single ingredient foods such as fruits and vegetables, tender meats, or eggs to pinpoint potential food allergies.
Foods should be cut into easily grasped shapes – Mango chunks, shredded chicken, steamed broccoli or cauliflower florets, avocado spears, foods that will be easy for your child to grasp and gnaw on as opposed to single bites.
The reason for cutting food into larger pieces rather than bite sized pieces is because up until about 9 months, babies grasp with their whole hand rather than just their fingers and thumbs making it far more difficult for them to grasp small pieces of food.
When first experimenting with baby-led weaning it’s important to note that anything offered should be easily mashed. You want to focus on serving your baby soft foods that have been steamed or boiled and can easily be broken down while your little one is learning how to properly chew food.
But Won’t They Choke?!
Choking is absolutely the number one concern parents bring up when it comes to practicing baby-led weaning. I’m here to assure you that there is no evidence that suggests a link between baby-led weaning and an increased choking risk.
Often gagging is misconstrued as always being a sign of choking, when in fact it is an extremely important part of learning how to properly eat! Not only is gagging extremely common when experimenting with solids, it is actually a safeguard against choking – A well developed gag reflex keeps food out of the windpipe and enforces thoroughly chewing food.
Don’t be discouraged or fearful when you notice your baby gagging as they try new foods. Gagging doesn’t signify that your baby is in immediate danger, or that they dislike the food you’ve offered, in fact it’s the opposite. Gagging signifies that your child is learning how to chew their food thoroughly, and not allowing large pieces to get stuck or lodged in their throat.
Needless to say, baby-led weaning is always practiced “all hands on deck”. Choking is silent. Refrain from ever leaving your baby unattended with solids or turning your back from them. When it’s time for your little one to eat, sit down with them for the entirety of their meal and only leave their side once all solids are removed from them.
The general rule for choking prevention is to avoid foods that are round (such as whole grapes or berries) and foods that are sticky or stringy (such as a spoonful of peanut butter, or celery).
How to Add Baby-Led Weaning Into Your Schedule
Everyone has heard the popularized phrase, “food before one is just for fun”, and that stands whether you decide to practice purees, baby-led weaning, or a combination of the two. When first starting baby-led weaning around 6 months, don’t worry about your baby experiencing three well rounded meals a day.
Try to focus on including your baby in the meals where the family is sitting down together, whether that be just one meal or all three. A huge part of the beneficial nature of baby-led weaning is including them in that family time!
As your little one continues to grow and starts to sneak up on that first birthday, become more intentional about including those solids at all three meal times and encouraging foods you are eating yourself rather than mainly one ingredient foods.
Can They Actually Eat ANYTHING I Eat?
Maybe not anything, but definitely most things! Until the age of 1, babies should avoid added salt, honey, cow / sheep / goats milk, artificial sweeteners, excess sugars, and the foods we addressed previously as choking hazards.
Although contrary to popular belief, our little ones can absolutely be exposed to many of the spices we frequent from 6 months onward! Ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, dill, and so on are completely safe for your baby and can help them develop an expanded palette that mirrors what’s often served up on your dinner table.
Of course avoid anything too hot with your little one, as experiencing spicy is the same as pain in infants and will turn them off of solids quickly.
Tips For Success
Take a deep breath
Baby-led weaning is a learning curve. It’s going to be messy, and that’s a good thing! Experimenting with food isn’t going to make mealtime into playtime forever, and they will not develop bad “table etiquette” if you allow them to squish and smash more than they consume.
While it can seem daunting to watch your floor get covered in avocado goop with a smile on your face, remember that letting your little one become familiar with food in their own way sets them up for a healthier relationship with it in their adult life. It’s a lesson that they will carry much longer than it takes to mop your floors!
One step at a time
Until the age of 1, your baby is getting all of the nutrition they need from breast milk / formula. Don’t worry about how much food they are actually consuming, rather focus on putting one new food item in front of them each day. Start with one or two pieces at a time so as to not overwhelm your little one with too many tastes or textures at once, and have fun with the process.
Ditch the plates and bowls
Rather than worry about everything you’ve prepared for your little one being dumped over, serve food directly on the highchair they are placed in. Still provide baby safe utensils for your little one to experiment with, but don’t place anything on the highchair that you are not okay with hitting the floor.
Baby is boss
Remember that this is a form of feeding where you hand the reins over to your little one! Your baby controls what they eat, how much they eat, and when they are finished with their mealtime. Don’t allow yourself to provide too much guidance or hover over their plates while they explore.
Refrain from placing food in their mouths or encouraging them to eat more when they are showing cues that they have finished.
See what works for you
Baby-led weaning is a way for your baby to get involved in meal times that is fun, exploratory, and (mostly) stress free. If you find that practicing baby-led weaning is adding to your anxiety or frustrating you more than it is worth, then it might not be the right fit for you – And that is okay!
Combining purees with baby-led weaning, or delaying it until you feel ready to take on the task is completely fine and absolutely encouraged. A happy mama is far more important to your little one than whether their banana is served mashed or in spears, and they will be much more receptive to food served to them from a smiling face regardless of its form.
Baby-led weaning is not an all or nothing approach to feeding, and we encourage you to experiment and find the method that works best for you and your family! Happy feeding time!