Once a baby reaches the age of about four to six months, one of the first things many parents do is stop by the store to pick up a box of baby cereal and an assortment of pureed baby foods. While there is certainly nothing wrong with this way of introducing solid foods, some parents prefer to use the baby-led weaning method.
Baby-led weaning allows a child to learn the skill of feeding themselves from the very beginning. Proponents of this method say that self-feeding can provide several positive experiences for a child:
- Encourages independence.
- Allows them to feel included in family meals.
- Can help them become an adventurous, healthy eater for the long term.
However, along with these positive attributes, baby-led weaning can come with its own set of challenges that parents should be aware of and have strategies in place to deal with.
Ready to give baby-led weaning a try? Here is some of the basic information along with some suggestions for how to get started. Let the eating begin!
What is Baby-Led Weaning?
Rather than feeding your baby purees or strained foods with a spoon, baby-led weaning consists of giving your child finger foods they can feed themselves.
When parents spoon-feed their baby, the child is a passive recipient rather than an active participant. Baby-led weaning allows your child to lead and control the feeding process themselves to a greater degree:
- They are able to choose the amount of food they consume.
- They have the freedom to explore, manipulate and learn about the food they eat.
- They can eat at their own pace.
- They can eat until they are satisfied.
When is Your Baby Ready to Try Baby-Led Weaning?
Most children who are developmentally ready to start on purees are also ready to start baby-led weaning.
Experts often recommend a diet of exclusive breast milk or formula for the first six months of life, followed by a gentle introduction to solid foods. Healthcare providers usually schedule well-baby visits at four and six months, and these appointments are a perfect time to talk with your child’s provider about developing a plan for starting solid food.
After you get the green light from your child’s doctor, be alert for these common signs that your baby is ready to eat solid foods:
- They are able to sit up well on their own. For a child who still needs to actively work at keeping themselves upright, the addition of chewing and swallowing food is too strenuous.
- They are showing interest in the food you are eating.
- Young babies have a protective reflex that causes them to push their tongue forward when something is placed in their mouth. This reflex diminishes over time, and it should be minimal or gone when your baby is ready to eat solid food.
- They are practicing chewing motions.
Teaches Baby to Chew Rather Than Swallow First.
The idea behind baby-led weaning is to teach a baby how to manage solid foods in a different way. Instead of thin, runny foods, parents give their child large pieces of food to explore, squish and eventually get into their mouths. Once your baby has managed to take a bite, the firmer texture of the food requires them to develop the proper chewing motions first rather than simply swallowing an almost-liquid food.
A baby must also learn to control the position of the food in their mouths and how to move food around with their tongue. Babies have a strong gag reflex that helps protect their airway and prevent choking as they master these skills.
Helps Baby Develop Fine Motor Skills and Coordination.
Self-feeding provides a great opportunity for baby to practice their coordination and an assortment of motor skills.
- Palmar grasp. This involves using all the fingers to pick up and securely hold an object within the hand.
- Pincer grasp. This is the motion of picking up a small object between the thumb and pointer finger.
- Hand-eye coordination. Your baby sees an object, and they must move their hand to the correct location to pick it up.
- Hand-to-mouth coordination. Your baby must bring their hand to their mouth to eat the food.
Encourages Baby to Try Different Textures.
Proponents of baby-led weaning claim that introducing a child to a wider variety of textures at an early age can help encourage adventurous eating and possibly reduce the chances of picky eating as a child grows older.
A variety of textures and flavors can make eating solid foods far more interesting for babies. Young children are naturally curious, and having the opportunity to feel different textures, discover how they respond to being handled and tasting new flavors can make for an interesting learning experience.
Introduces Baby to Family Food Earlier.
Baby-led weaning allows the parents to feed their baby many of the same foods that the rest of the family is eating. This can help reduce the work of having to prepare a separate meal for your baby.
More Convenient Over Time.
While baby-led weaning may take a little more time and effort at the outset, the skills your baby learns can help them to become a more independent eater at a younger age. This can allow you to sit next to your baby and share a meal together as opposed to having to spoon-feed your baby.
Chewing actually encourages faces and jaws to grow properly.
Could Cause Parental Anxiety.
Most parents would rate choking near the top of the list of scary things that could happen to their baby. Since baby-led weaning involves giving babies chunks of food rather than purees, there could be an increased risk of choking.
Preparing your baby’s food properly and giving your baby your full attention while they are eating can help reduce this risk. As mentioned before, babies have a protective gag reflex that helps keep food from going where it isn’t supposed to. Even though gagging may look terrifying to a parent, it is just the body’s way of helping to keep your baby safe.
Requires Some Additional Prep Work at the Beginning.
Rather than simply opening a jar of baby food, baby-led weaning requires the parents to prepare and appropriately cook fresh foods for their baby. This is obviously more time-consuming and may be a deterrent to some parents who are already busy and pressed for time as it is.
However, as your baby hones their eating skills, they can begin to have larger amounts of table food. The goal is to have baby eat small pieces of most things that the rest of the family eats sooner than the traditional approach to solids.
Baby-Led Weaning Will Not Work for Every Child.
If your baby has any neurological concerns or is experiencing any developmental delays, baby-led weaning is probably not a good option. These issues could put your baby at a higher risk for choking, and purees are likely to be a safer choice.
Talk with your child’s health care provider to develop the plan that will work best for introducing solids based your child’s individual needs.
Mealtime Will Take Longer, Especially at the Beginning.
Your baby may treat mealtime like playtime for a while as you begin to give them new foods to explore. The squishy and smeary textures may appear to be more entertaining than nourishing, but keep trying. Eventually, your baby will probably get the idea to put some of that stuff in their mouth and discover that it actually tastes pretty good.
It Can be Very Messy.
Your baby is still working on their coordination, and it’s likely that more food will end up on their face, in their hair and all over their clothing than in their mouth for quite some time. They will eventually master the technique, but you should definitely expect to spend some extra time wiping your baby down for the first few weeks or months.
Vegetables should be cooked to a consistency that is easy to smash but still firm enough for your baby to get a grip on. Steaming and roasting are two good cooking methods.
Cut cooked vegetables into long sticks that are about the size and width of your little finger.
To introduce your baby to the wide world of vegetables, try some of these options:
- Florets of broccoli
- Winter Squash
- Sweet potatoes
The natural sweetness in fruits makes them a favorite for many babies. While hard fruits like apples need to be cooked before feeding them to your baby, some fruits are safe to be eaten raw. The ideal texture for raw fruits should be very ripe and soft; they may even appear to be slightly overripe. However, be alert for any darkened spots that could indicate rotting.
Cut the fruits into wedges or slices that are large enough for your baby to hold easily.
Fruits like these are usually well accepted:
Growing children need protein for strong muscles, a healthy immune system and cellular regeneration. Since small bodies are still growing and developing, make sure to include a source of protein daily.
Foods with high amounts of protein include the following:
- Small portions of flaked fish.
- Small pieces of ground beef.
- Hard-boiled egg yolks.
- Diced stewed chicken.
Avoid hard foods and other common choking hazards.
Some foods are unsafe for new eaters to attempt, and you should avoid them completely.
These are a few dangerous foods that can wait until your baby has developed the skills to eat them safely:
- Raw vegetables and hard fruits.
- Whole grapes.
- Hot dogs.
- Nuts and large amounts of thick nut butters.
Give your baby a spoon and let them explore with it.
Even though your baby is unlikely to get the hang of utensils for several months, letting them have the chance to hold a spoon may help them learn how to use it earlier. Make sure to do plenty of exaggerated demonstrations of using a spoon or fork to give your baby a visual lesson.
Supplement with purees if needed.
Some babies may be able to feed themselves adequate meals almost immediately. However, many babies will not be able to eat enough calories from self-feeding alone. If your little one isn’t eating much food independently, don’t be afraid to spoon-feed purees as a supplement. Just be sure to let your baby have sufficient time to feed themselves before you offer purees.
Don’t give up right away, but do be attentive to your baby’s cues.
When introducing new routines or items to your baby, it often takes several attempts before your baby feels comfortable and accepts the new state of affairs. Whether you use the baby-led weaning method or not, it can take some time before your baby starts eating any significant amounts of food.
Keep trying even if your baby seems uninterested and doesn’t eat much of anything at first. Even though a gradual increase in the amount of food they consume is most common, they may surprise you by wolfing down their whole meal one day.
However, it is equally important to be sensitive to what your baby may be trying to tell you. If they consistently cry and refuse to eat anything themselves, they may be communicating that self-feeding just isn’t working for them. If that is the case, don’t worry. Give your baby solid food by spoon for a while and simply provide praise and encouragement for what they do eat. You can always try baby-led weaning again a little later.
Remind yourself that your child will learn to feed themselves at some point, and they simply need your support and guidance during the learning process.
Your attention and presence is required.
Even though letting your baby feed themselves may sound like less work than spoon-feeding, you still need to remain within arm’s reach of your baby while they are eating. This is especially true at first when your baby is still getting the hang of chewing and swallowing safely.
Create a Positive and Relaxing Mealtime Atmosphere.
Use your baby’s daily routine to develop a meal schedule that coincides with the times when your baby is well-rested, relaxed and ready to try something new.
Make sure to allow your baby enough time to eat without feeling rushed. Every baby will eat at their own pace, but you should probably plan for each meal to take at least 20 minutes. Children are adept at picking up on parental emotions, and they may feel stressed or upset if they sense that you are getting impatient with them.
Try to maintain a positive attitude even on the days when your baby just throws their food over the tray or smashes it into their hair. If your baby senses you are getting frustrated with them frequently, they may begin to associate mealtime with negative emotions. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that messes can be cleaned up and your baby is washable, but forming positive food associations can help build healthy eating habits that last a lifetime.
Continue to feed breast milk or formula.
Breast milk or formula should be your baby’s primary source of nourishment for their entire first year of life with solid foods being a growing but supplementary portion of their diet. This fact may also provide you with some comfort if your baby doesn’t seem to be eating much solid food right away.
As long as your health care provider is satisfied with your baby’s growth and weight gain, just do your best to keep solid food fun and interesting. Encourage and praise eating, but don’t let it become a source of undue stress.
Being mindful of the positives, negatives and helpful tips for baby-led weaning can help you set realistic expectations and have a better chance of success. Even though self-feeding can help encourage your child’s independence, never forget how much they need your support, praise and supervision.
Your baby taking their first bite of solid food is a milestone that can make you realize just how fast they are growing up. Make it a point to slow down and take the time to enjoy every moment, no matter how messy it may be!
Do you have any experiences with baby-led weaning? Let us know about them in the comments!