Is Your Baby Ready For Baby-Led Weaning?

Baby-led weaning is gaining popularity with parents. Is it right for your baby?

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Recently, a friend gave me a really well-written and informative book all about baby-led weaning. Immediately, I felt like a failure, because for the past couple months, I’d been giving my eight-month-old pureed baby food. Worse, I didn’t even make it myself.

My friend didn’t intend to mom-shame me. She practiced baby-led weaning, and she just wanted to share an awesome book that had helped her tremendously. Of course, I’d heard of baby-led weaning, and I’d even tried it—once. But after watching my son gag on a piece of banana, I was too scared to try it again.

Fast forward a couple of months, and he’s more interested in what’s on my plate than his bowl of pureed green beans (and who could blame him?), so I decided to give baby-led weaning another go.

I spoke to a few nutritionists and child feeding specialists who work with parents and infants to introduce solids the right way to get the scoop on baby-led weaning. Here’s what I found out.

What is baby-led weaning?

Baby-led weaning, sometimes referred to as BLW, is a bit of a misnomer. Contrary to the name of this feeding method, you’re not actually weaning your little one. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies should have only breast milk or formula until they are at least six months old. But after six months, you can use baby-led weaning to introduce solids to your baby, who is still getting several nursing sessions or bottles per day.

Baby-led weaning is a method of starting solid foods with an infant that skips traditional purees and spoon feeding,” explains Diana K. Rice, a pediatric feeding expert who teaches baby-led weaning workshops in St. Louis, Missouri. “Instead, the baby is offered whole table foods in appropriate sizes and textures and allowed to self-feed from the start.”

For example, if you’re practicing baby-led weaning, you’d give your baby chunks of banana to bite into instead of pureed banana (a common first food). During baby-led weaning, your baby will still continue to breastfeed on demand until at least 12 months of age, or whenever you decide to stop breastfeeding.

Baby-Led Weaning Benefits

Until a few years ago, the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that babies be exclusively breastfed until four months of age, at which point solids could be introduced. At four months though, babies aren’t developmentally ready to chew, so that’s why purees have traditionally been baby’s first food.

Since both organizations changed their guidelines and now recommend that parents wait until six months of age to introduce solids, baby-led weaning has become a popular way to introduce complementary foods to baby. Between four months and six months of age, babies reach several developmental milestones necessary for successful baby-led weaning: They learn to sit up unsupported, grasp food and bring it to their mouth, chew, and swallow. Because the guidelines changed, and in light of these milestones, it may not be necessary to feed baby traditional purees.

“Baby-led weaning is a method … that skips traditional purees and spoon feeding. Instead, the baby is offered whole table foods in appropriate sizes and textures and allowed to self-feed from the start.”

—Diana K. Rice

Few studies have been conducted on baby-led weaning, but some research does suggest that baby-led weaning may help reduce obesity rates in children by encouraging healthy eating habits where the child is in control of their own diet from an early age. In fact, the UK recently changed their infant feeding guidelines to include finger foods as an acceptable way to introduce babies to solid foods.

While more research is needed, letting baby lead the way when it comes to introducing solids could help them be better eaters as they age. According to another study, babies who weaned with a baby-led approach demonstrated less food fussiness and more food enjoyment at 24 months compared to babies weaned with other methods.

Does my baby really need solids? Isn’t “food before one just for fun”?

Whether you’re introducing your baby to solids via baby-led weaning or purees, most parents are taught the adage “Food before one is just for fun.” But Melanie Potock, a pediatric feeding specialist and author of the book Adventures in Veggieland, explains that this phrase is a little misleading:

Food before one is definitely not just for fun. Learning to eat is developmental, just like learning to crawl, then walk, then run. Certain foods help babies learn to control mouth reflexes and learn to bite, chew, and swallow effectively and safely.

Plus, at around six months, many infants use up their iron stores. Iron is necessary for baby’s brain development, so you may need to supplement with iron-rich foods. While evidence shows that extended breastfeeding is a good way to prevent iron deficiency, introducing foods rich in iron around 6 months of age is also recommended.

Sarah Skovran, a registered dietitian who specializes in maternal and child nutrition, weighs in: “I might amend this to ‘food before nine or ten months, just for fun,’ which I realize doesn’t rhyme. And this is absolutely a question to discuss with your baby’s doctor, as the expert opinions vary quite a bit based on the source. My recommendation is two-fold: One, offer iron-rich foods like cooked broccoli and sweet potato, and two, if you are concerned your baby isn’t eating enough by ten months of age, visit your pediatrician.”

How to Do Baby-Led Weaning: A HealthyWay Guide

Before you begin baby-led weaning, review a list of foods that could be choking hazards for babies. Rice says that includes:

  • Whole grapes
  • Whole cherry tomatoes
  • Small coin-shaped foods like raw carrot slices
  • Whole nuts
  • Whole leafy greens
  • Seeds
  • Popcorn
  • Very soft bread
  • Thickly spread nut butters (She does say “you can toast bread or spread nut butters in a thin layer to make them safe to consume.”)

Even though baby-led weaning is totally safe when done correctly, you should still get your infant CPR certification and learn the Heimlich maneuver for infants. Most hospitals offer free or low-cost infant safety classes for new parents. Even if you’re a veteran mom, it never hurts to be up-to-date on your certification—just in case.

Recommended First Baby-Led Weaning Foods

Your baby may be reaching for your plate, but she’s probably not ready for everything you’re eating just yet. So what can baby eat?

“Try slices of ripe avocado, steamed vegetables, or strips of buttered toast,” says Potock.

Most hospitals offer free or low-cost infant safety classes for new parents. Even if you’re a veteran mom, it never hurts to be up-to-date on your certification—just in case.

Cut each food into strips about the size of an adult’s index finger for baby to grasp and mouth. Roll slippery foods in fine cracker crumbs to make them easier to hold and to add a bit of texture.  Include pea-sized pieces of safe foods for baby to rake up with his fingers and, over time, pick up between his finger and thumb as he develops his pincer grasp.

One good way to test if a food is right for baby-led weaning is to try it yourself. If you can mash the food between your own tongue and the roof of your mouth, baby can too.

Dos And Don’ts Of Baby-Led Weaning

Do: Include baby at mealtimes!

Including baby at mealtimes with the whole family keeps them engaged and occupied during meals. Plus, pulling baby up to the table at mealtime lets them know Hey, it’s time to eat! That way, they’ll begin to understand their eating schedule.

Don’t: Season baby’s food.

Some seasoning on food is fine, Potock says, but limit salt and sugar. One easy way to do this is to portion out baby’s food first, and then season the rest as you like. Speaking of flavoring, it’s also crucial that you avoid feeding baby anything that contains honey, which is not safe for kids under a year old.

Do: Cut baby’s food into pea-size bites.

Recently, I let my son nibble off a banana I was munching, and before I knew it, he had a huge chunk of banana in his mouth. He was totally fine, but I had to fish it out and give him more manageable bite-size pieces. For babies just starting solids, food needs to be no larger than pea-size. Once baby is older and has more teeth, they can have larger bites.

Don’t: Overload baby’s senses.

Don’t give your baby too many new foods at once. Try one new food at a time. This will help you notice any signs of food allergies in addition to helping you tune into what baby will and won’t eat. If baby doesn’t seem to like one food, try it again a couple of times. It may not necessarily be the taste they don’t like, but the texture of a new food that takes some getting used to. My son hated avocado at first, but now it’s one of his favorites. If baby still doesn’t like a food after a couple of tries, move on to something new, and come back to it later.

Do: Get ready for gagging.

When we tried baby-led weaning the first time, I was not prepared to watch my infant gag. My son gagged like he was dying for a few seconds, swallowed, then gave me a huge grin. Though he was totally fine (and even seemed to enjoy the experience), I was traumatized. That said, gagging is a normal part of the process when introducing solids.

“It is very important for a parent to be prepared for the baby to gag,” Rice says, “The baby will make a U shape with his or her tongue and make a gagging noise. The baby’s eyes may water and he or she may even spit up a little bit as [they work] to spit out the large piece of food. Parents should keep in mind that gagging is a sign that the baby is learning NOT to swallow large pieces of food.”

This sounds really scary (and it is!), but Rice explains that by gagging, baby is learning how to avoid choking, which is obviously a very important life skill. Also remember that choking is typically noiseless, but when babies gag, it’s usually with a loud coughing or retching sound.

When Baby-Led Weaning Isn’t Right for You

Baby-led weaning is just one way to introduce solids to your baby. It’s still totally okay to give your baby purees, or to both spoon-feed baby and give them finger foods.

In fact, Potock says that while some proponents of BLW suggest skipping purees, many feeding specialists who focus on mouth development recommend introducing purees along with safe hand-held solids.

“Purees have a purpose: They help babies swallow safely by providing a consistent texture that’s thicker than breast milk or formula while offering new tastes and temperatures,” Potock continues. “Although some BLW educators feel that parents should never put a spoon or food directly into the child’s mouth, feeding specialists feel differently. The most important thing, which both camps can agree upon, is that parents read their baby’s cues. If baby isn’t interested in a new food, don’t attempt to help things along by putting the food in the baby’s mouth. Instead, show baby how to pick up the food, play in the food and experience the texture and temperature with the sensations in his hands and fingers. Kids are programmed to explore with their hands first and then their mouths, and that’s what leads to an interest in tasting.”

“Purees have a purpose: They help babies swallow safely by providing a consistent texture that’s thicker than breast milk or formula while offering new tastes and temperatures.”

—Melanie Potock

Plus, baby-led weaning is just plain hard sometimes. It requires a lot of time. Working mamas or moms with more than one kid may just not have enough time to sit and patiently supervise baby through a baby-led weaning session at mealtime. And baby-led weaning can be downright messy. If you’re a busy mama (and who isn’t?), you may barely have enough time to shower yourself, much less clean up a messy baby and even messier eating area after mealtime.

Baby-led weaning is totally safe when done correctly, but some parents are understandably concerned about choking hazards. If that’s the case for you, it might feel more comfortable to spoon-feed until baby is a bit older. Also, some babies may be perfectly capable of eating finger foods, but just prefer purees over finger foods at first, and that’s also okay.

Ultimately, deciding how to introduce solids to your little one is a personal decision. Whether you choose to do baby-led weaning, purees, or a combination of both, the most important thing is that eating is a positive and nutritious experience for baby.

Sweet Potato Pancakes: A Recipe for All Ages From Adventures In Veggieland

Yield: 12 Pancakes

Ingredients:

  • 3 large eggs, beaten, plus one more if needed
  • 1 cup cooked and pureed sweet potato
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Butter or oil for pan

Method:

  1. Combine all ingredients to form a batter the consistency of thick applesauce. Add an additional egg if the batter is too thick.
  2. Heat a skillet or griddle over medium heat and coat with butter or oil.
  3. Carefully spoon batter onto your cooking surface to make pancakes the size of a baseball. Brown one side, flip, and brown the other (cooking about 5 minutes per side).

Serve with maple syrup for older kids and grown-ups. Babies can just hold, smush, and eat!

Adapted from the recipe on page 52 in “Adventures in Veggieland” by Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Martin
Katie Martin
Contributing Writer