Baby-led weaning (BLW) is a feeding method growing in popularity over the last decade. It’s an alternative to traditional baby spoon-feeding and can be started when babies are around six months old.
Has your child’s pediatrician said it’s nearly time to start your sweetie on solids? You may imagine mounds of mushy rice cereal and puréed peas, plus lots of coaxing babies to open that tiny mouth.
BLW allows babies to feed themselves from the moment they start solids, making it easier for them to learn how to eat independently and develop healthier eating habits early on in life.
With baby-led weaning, your kid is in charge. It might be the best thing to happen in the high chair since the invention of the bib.
Here are some tips for baby-led weaning success.
What Is Baby-Led Weaning?
Baby-led weaning is a method of introducing solid food to babies whereby purées and spoon-feeding are skipped entirely, favouring finger foods that a baby self-feeds.
Coined by Gill Rapley, a former public health nurse in the U.K., baby-led weaning (or baby-led feeding as it is sometimes referred to) offers parents a way to entirely bypass the idea of baby food.
Growing in popularity, baby-led weaning is particularly popular with parents who want to avoid raising picky eaters and parents who subscribe to Montessori-type philosophies of child-rearing where children are encouraged to be self-sufficient.
At its core, baby-led weaning emphasizes the independence of the baby.
A parent is to wait for their baby to show signs of readiness for eating and follow the baby’s cues in introducing solid food.
Babies are brought to the table for family meals, encouraged to pick up food with their fingers, and trusted to eat as much or as little as they need.
Babies introduced to solids with baby-led weaning also continue breast or bottle feeds and is permitted to determine when that milk should be reduced.
This approach is called baby-led weaning 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 six months old and capable of self-feeding).
Baby-led weaning allows babies to learn how to chew (or, more accurately, gum) first, then swallow.
It also prevents parents from pushing food since babies control how much they put into their mouths.
But those aren’t the only benefits. According to advocates and some research, the potential perks of baby-led weaning include:
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Encourages Babies to Become Familiar With a Greater Variety of Textures and Flavors.
That may make them more likely to develop more varied and healthy food preferences in the long run.
Several studies have shown that babies who eat various foods (including peanut products and fish) may be less likely to have food allergies later in life.
Just keep in mind that nuts and seafood are some of the most common childhood allergies, so you should always consult your child’s pediatrician about introducing these foods to your baby best.
Could Reduce the Risk of Child Obesity.
With spoon-feeding, the parent is in control (which may make babies eat faster and more than they need, potentially leading to a habit of ignoring feelings of fullness) — but similar to breastfeeding, baby-led weaning allows the baby to self-regulate how much she eats based on her hunger levels.
That could result in a lower chance of becoming overweight compared to children who are spoon-fed.
Promotes Fine Motor Skill Development.
Sticking primarily with finger foods encourages the development of manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination skills.
But no feeding method is perfect, of course.
Though there are plenty of reasons to consider baby-led weaning, there are a few downsides, including:
Eating finger foods is messy for babies of any age, especially those learning how to hang onto foods and get them into their mouths.
You Need to Pay Attention to Iron.
Breastfed babies get enough iron from your breast milk until the baby is four months old — but levels can diminish at this point, which is why your pediatrician will likely add a liquid iron supplement to the mix (1 mg/kg per day) until the baby starts eating iron-rich solids.
However, it can be challenging for some babies to chew on many iron-rich foods (like beef). Puréed meat, green veggies and fortified cereals can help fill the gap.
Your doctor may also recommend that your little one stays on an iron supplement through the first year as an added precaution.
The Benefits of Baby-Led Weaning
In a nutshell, baby-led weaning means skipping spoon-feeding purees and letting babies feed themselves finger foods right from the start—at about age six months.
The benefits can be significant.
For starters, it helps fine-tune motor development: Baby-led weaning supports the development of hand-eye coordination, chewing skills, agility, and healthy eating habits.
It also offers babies an opportunity to explore the taste, texture, aroma, and colour of various foods.
It’s also an early—and crucial—step for babies in learning self-regulation: learning to stop eating when they feel full.
Babies who self-feed cannot eat more than they need since they are feeding independently.
With spoon-feeding, parents can sneak in a couple more spoonfuls even if the baby is full.
Doing so frequently will teach the baby to routinely eat more than he needs and stop regulating his intake efficiently.
Though few scientific studies have been conducted on the subject, experts see potential for baby-led weaning to have a lasting effect on a child’s food preferences, eating habits, and palates.
Plus, you won’t have to buy little jars of food or spend time blending, freezing, and defrosting homemade baby food.
It’s important to note, though, that baby-led weaning might not benefit every baby.
Babies with developmental delays or neurological issues should start solids more traditionally. You’ll also need to be extra vigilant about choking and food allergies.
Benefits of Letting Your Baby Self-Feed
- Independence: Baby learns to eat independently and is in total control.
- Development: Baby practices critical motor and oral skills.
- Appetite Control: The baby is in charge of eating and learning to stop when complete.
- Ease: Baby (mostly) eats what you eat. Less special meals!
- Variety: Babies can eat various textures and flavours, which may reduce picky eating later on.
- Less Expensive: Baby eats real food. No pricey jars, pouches or blenders required.
- Family Meals: Baby is part of your family meal, eating with you.
- Dining Out: It’s easier to eat in restaurants as babies can eat whole food.
- Fun! Babies enjoy touching, inspecting, and tasting different flavours and textures.
While our preferred mode of introducing solids—finger food first—builds on the wisdom of baby-led weaning, it offers a bit more flexibility.
For example, with a finger food first approach, you can employ a combination of feeding methods, with an emphasis on letting your baby self-feed a variety of textures and flavours.
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When Should I Start Baby-Led Weaning?
Wait until your baby is ready. Your child should be able to sit in a high chair unassisted, have good neck strength, and be able to move food to the back of her mouth with up and down jaw movements.
Most healthy children over six months of age are developmentally able to self-feed; however, strong chewing skills in some children may not be fully developed until nine months.
The baby-led weaning process will help develop those chewing skills.
Also, note that “weaning” is a bit of a misnomer. Breast milk or formula will continue to be a baby’s most significant source of nutrition until he or she is 10 to 12 months old.
Experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), now say the best time to start solid foods is around six months.
By that age, most babies can 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.
While baby-led weaning is growing in popularity and has benefits, it does differ from traditional methods of introducing solids by spoon-feeding your baby purées (the AAP recommends parent-initiated spoon-feeding).
If you’re not sure whether baby-led weaning is suitable for your child, run the idea by your little one’s pediatrician.
While most babies will get the green light, some (those who have special needs and cannot 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.
How to Start Baby-Led Weaning
You may be sceptical that your 6-month-old will be able to handle solids 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:
- Continue to nurse or bottle-feed. Keep up the same nursing frequency or bottle-feeding frequency since babies get most 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 solid food meals a day. But if you choose baby-led weaning, offer solids at mealtime, and let your baby decide if she’s up for eating them.
- Keep it soft. No matter what’s on the menu, in the beginning, the food’s texture should be smooth enough for you to smush with your fingers or easily dissolvable — signs that your baby will easily be able to gum or chew it. Steer clear of foods that are hard or crunchy, like raw carrot or apple slices.
- Prepare food according to your child’s age. For 6-month-olds just starting solids, offer foods that can be sliced into thick strips or sticks so your baby can hold them in her fist and chew from the top down. Once your child has developed her pincer grasp, usually around nine months or so, you can start cutting food up into tiny bite-sized pieces that she can easily pick up.
- Dine together. If your dinner is steamed cauliflower and salmon, there’s no reason that the 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).
- 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 different colours (roasted tomatoes, steamed green beans and sweet potatoes) and different textures (smooth avocados, juicy watermelon and even tender cooked pasta). It would help if you aimed to offer at least one high-iron food per meal.
The Best Baby-Led Weaning Foods
You may see photos on baby-led-weaning Facebook pages of babies chowing down on all sorts of improbable foods, from drumsticks to casseroles.
But most experts recommend beginning more slowly. Start with single-ingredient foods so you’ll be able to pinpoint any food allergies.
Examples of first finger foods include banana, avocado, steamed broccoli florets with a stalk “handle,” baked sliced apple without the peel, moist and shredded meats, poached and flaked salmon, pasta; omelettes cut into pieces or strips of chicken.
Substantial-size pieces—cut in long, thin strips, coin-shaped, or with a crinkle cutter—are most manageable for your baby to manage.
That’s because very few 6- to 8-month-olds have mastered the pincer grasp (thumb and index finger), so they’ll pick up food with their whole palm.
Once your baby develops this pincer grasp, around 8 to 9 months, serve food cut into small pieces, like ripe mango chunks, cooked beans, chopped steamed spinach, and parts of pasta.
Also, remember that texture is critical. The food you give your novice eater should be soft and easy to smash with gentle pressure between your thumb and forefinger.
For example, you should steam fruits and vegetables when beginning baby-led weaning.
Once your baby has tried and tolerated several single-ingredient foods, you can begin offering mixed dishes.
Ensure there are high-calorie foods and those with iron, zinc, protein, and healthy fats on the tray. It’s also good to cook with little or no salt since a baby’s body cannot process sodium well.
What If My Baby Chokes?
Most babies are surprisingly adept at managing finger foods, but gagging is very common in the early days of eating.
It’s a normal and reflexive safety mechanism that might cause watery eyes, coughing, or sputtering.
But parents should understand that gagging is a safe reflex to get rid of food that is a little too challenging.
Your baby will learn from your reaction: If you are scared, she will get nervous, too.
On the other hand, Choking happens when food becomes stuck in the throat or windpipe, blocking airflow.
If a baby is choking, she probably won’t make sounds or effectively move air, says Schilling and Peterson.
Avoid this by staying away from choking hazards such as grapes, hot dogs, raisins, popcorn, raw vegetables, and sticky nut butter.
It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the infant-specific Heimlich maneuver. As a precaution, always stay with your baby when he eats, and make sure he’s sitting up.
Safety Tips to Keep in Mind When Trying Baby-Led Weaning
It’s natural to have choking concerns when introducing solids to your baby. But as long as you offer safe foods, your little one’s gums are pretty capable of chewing soft solids.
Still, it’s essential to know the signs of choking in babies and understand how choking differs from gagging.
Gagging is common, especially in the first few weeks of baby-led weaning as the baby tries to maneuver strange lumps in her mouth.
But bear in mind that gagging is a safety response to food travelling too far back into the mouth — and it’s not the same thing as choking.
When babies gag, they’re handling the problem themselves, and it’s best to stay calm (or at least look calm) and wait until it passes.
Gagging should ease up as the baby learns to cope with solid foods. That said, you’ll do well to know the difference between gagging and choking and how to act if it’s the latter:
- A child who is gagging appears to be coughing mildly and may make a little noise.
- A choking child will look terrified, be unable to breathe and make no noise, or might gasp or wheeze. They may also have a panicked look and bluish colour to the skin and may grab their throat (in toddlers).
The bottom line? Baby-led weaning is safe for little ones as long as you present food safely and stick with a few common sense feeding guidelines. Remember to:
Avoid serving any foods that are choking hazards.
For babies under 12 months, these include nuts; whole grapes, cherries or cherry tomatoes; raw vegetables; uncooked apple slices; uncooked dried fruit; thick gobs of nut butter; hot dogs; large chunks of meat or cheese; fish with bones; popcorn; and crunchy snacks like chips, pretzels or granola bars.
Always supervise your baby while she eats. Never let your baby eat unattended.
Keep the babysitting upright in her high chair while eating. Don’t let her eat while she’s crawling, playing or reclining, and not serving food in the stroller or the car.
Watch for allergic reactions. The thinking is no longer to hold back on certain foods to avoid allergies.
Most experts believe that the more options you offer, the more likely your newbie foodie will accept different foods, which translates into fewer mealtime battles in the future.
However, it’s still important to know the signs of a food allergy — which can include hives, skin swelling, tongue swelling, sneezing, wheezing, throat tightness, vomiting, difficulty swallowing, and stomach pain and diarrhea — and consult your child’s pediatrician about how and when to introduce common allergens such as eggs, peanuts and seafood.
Explain baby-led weaning to everyone who takes care of your child. It’s essential to ensure all caregivers follow the same safety precautions you do.
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