Introducing first foods can be an exciting milestone for families—your baby will begin to experience new tastes and textures in addition to breast milk or formula.
And while there is no right or wrong way to introduce solid foods into your baby’s diet, there are a few different approaches to help you along the way. If you’ve ever been curious about baby-led weaning, we have more information on this approach to introducing solids, and if it might be right for your family.
What is Baby-Led Weaning?
Baby-led weaning is the gradual practice of introducing your baby to solids through self-fed table food instead of traditional spoon-fed pureed baby food. Instead of starting your baby on pureed foods at a certain age, baby-led weaning encourages parents to follow their babies cues about when they are ready for food, and slowly introduce different solids into their diet, allowing feeding independence. (AKA, letting your baby learn to feed himself more than you feed them with a spoon or pouch.)
If done correctly, baby-led weaning can be a safe and fun way to introduce a variety of flavors and textures to your beginner’s diet. This method does require patience and close attention to your little one’s cues. It may take months before your baby actually swallows or consumes anything, and that’s OK.
As long as you’re offering nutrient-rich foods and demonstrating how to eat by sharing meals together, you’re making progress. Remember, developing a relationship with food is a journey, and baby-led weaning encourages taking that journey at your baby’s pace, not yours.
Benefits of Baby-Led Weaning
Proponents of baby-led weaning say the method has many benefits, such as encouraging independence, facilitating family mealtimes, and allowing babies to become acquainted with solid food at their own pace.
By far, however, the biggest perk is convenience. You can feed your baby almost anything on your own plate. There’s no messy puree to blend or find storage for in the freezer. There is some evidence that suggests that baby-led weaning may be linked to a healthy weight later in life, since it promotes appetite control and satiety awareness. Baby-led weaning also promotes dexterity, hand-eye-coordination, and the pincer grasp.
The one downside? The mess! Baby-led weaning may not be for the clean freak mama. Traditional weaning can be messy too, but baby-led weaning is on a whole other level. It’s a slippery, splashy, squishy, and just downright dirty experience. In fact, it’s not uncommon to need a full bath after every meal in the beginning—and we’re not just talking about the baby.
Your little one is ready to start baby led weaning once all signs of readiness have been met. Starting first foods is exciting, but it’s important to wait until your child is ready. Beginning too soon increases the risk of choking and later aversions to foods.
What are the signs of food readiness? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, some signs that your baby is ready for solid foods include:
- Your baby is at least six months old.
- Your baby can sit well unassisted and has good head control.
- Your baby shows interest in foods, like leaning towards it or opening their mouth when food is around.
- Your baby must no longer have their tongue thrust reflex—this means they don’t automatically push solids out of their mouth.
- Your baby is working on their pincer grasp, trying to grab food between their fingers.
Once you’ve determined that your baby is ready to try solids, it’s time for that first food! But what should it be? The beauty of baby-led weaning is that you can really choose any baby-friendly food for your little one. Some great first food options can be smashed banana, avocado, or sweet potato.
The only real food that you can’t give your baby is honey—honey can’t be given until after your baby turns one year old, due to the small but potentially deadly risk of it containing botulism spores. If you’re offering anything pre-packaged, be sure to read the ingredients list. You’ll be surprised how many foods are hiding honey as an ingredient.
When you do introduce solids, it’s important to safely prepare food to assist baby’s development and lower the risk of choking. A good rule of thumb is to cut foods into finger-length strips or sections. Even if baby doesn’t yet have a great pincer grasp, they can still hold the piece and take bites off at their own speed. Many caregivers believe smaller pieces are the safest way to offer new foods. In fact, the complete opposite can be true, because smaller pieces of food can be harder for your baby to control on their own. However, take caution with foods that can be choking hazards, like blueberries (squish them first!) and grapes (always quarter lengthwise).
It’s also important that you keep in mind that during the first year of life, babies should get the majority of their nutrition from breast milk or formula, so always offer those first. Then, wait about a half an hour before offering solids. Be patient and don’t force anything—remember, your goal is to create a positive experience with food and that can be a gradual process.
Once you’re ready to start baby-led weaning, it’s a good idea to brush up on basic safety. Some tips include:
- Take an infant CPR course and familiarize yourself with the differences between choking and gagging—a choking baby will be unable to breathe or make noise.
- Never walk away or take your eyes off a baby while there’s food in front of them.
- Avoid obvious choking hazards like nuts, whole grapes, and popcorn.
- Make sure your baby is sitting upright in a high chair or picnic style on the floor for mealtimes.
- Keep an eye out for food sensitivities and allergic reactions.
Additionally, you’ll want to ensure that anyone watching your child is familiar with the baby-led weaning method and safety measures. Preparing foods may become second nature for you, but for caregivers unfamiliar with baby-led weaning, it can be intimidating and even dangerous.
You may choose to introduce feeding gear to your baby led weaning routine. Allowing babies to explore new foods without dishes or utensils is a great perk of baby-led weaning. However, there are many products that work well with this method. When choosing plates, cups, and spoons, consider products that are designed with baby-led weaning in mind.
Here are some suggestions:
- Tableware. The EZPZ brand makes a practical line of all-in-one silicone plates and bowls that stick directly to most surfaces so babies can’t throw the entire plate. The company also makes an open top silicone cup as an alternative to sippy cups.
- Utensils. Introducing utensils to your beginner may seem premature, but it’s never too early to start with Grabease spoons and forks. They’re specially designed for little hands. You may be shocked at how quickly your child catches on.
- Cups. Small amounts of water may be offered once you start your baby led weaning journey. For beginners having a difficult time grasping how to use a sippy cup, the Munchkin weighted straw or 360 cup are both great for learners. If your child doesn’t take a bottle, you may consider skipping them all together and going straight to one of these options. They also work great for breast milk or formula.
If done safely and correctly, baby-led weaning is a positive experience for both parents and babies alike. It can be a rewarding process to watch little ones make progress all on their own.
To get started on baby-led weaning for your own family, follow your baby’s cues for when they are ready to try solids, take it slow if needed, brush up on your safety basics, and don’t forget to have fun exploring food along the way together.
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Reviewed by Chaunie Brusie, RN, BSN…