An increasingly popular approach to starting solid foods, baby-led weaning involves jumping straight to finger foods and bypassing purees. Here’s why you might want to consider it — and how to get started. Thank you to the wonderful What To Expect site for this amazing information!
What is baby-led weaning?
Popular in the U.K. and gaining traction in the U.S., baby-led weaning is a practice where babies 6 months old or older jump straight to finger foods as soon as solids are introduced, bypassing purées and mashed-up foods.
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 6 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 are in control of 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:
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. A number of studies have shown that babies who eat a variety of foods (including peanut products and fish) may actually be less likely to have food allergies later in life. Just keep in mind that nuts (in the form of nut butters) and seafood are some of the most common childhood allergens, so you should always consult your child’s pediatrician about how to best introduce these foods to your baby.
Could reduce the risk for child obesity. With spoon-feeding, the parent is in control (which may make babies eat faster and more than they really need, potentially leading to a habit of ignoring feelings of fullness) — but similar to breastfeeding, baby-led weaning allows baby to self-regulate how much she eats based on her hunger levels. That could result in a lower chance for 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:
It’s messy. Eating finger foods is messy for babies of any age, especially those who are learning how to hang onto foods and get it into their mouths.
You need to pay attention to iron. Breastfed babies get enough iron from your breast milk until baby is 4 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 baby starts eating iron-rich solids. However, it can be hard 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 stay on an iron supplement through the first year as an added precaution.
When to start baby-led weaning
Experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), now say the best time to start solid foods is around 6 months. By that age, most babies are able to 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 right 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 are unable to 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 skeptical 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 the majority of their nutrition from breast milk or formula throughout most of the first year.
Keep it soft. No matter what’s on the menu, in the beginning, the food’s texture should be soft 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 9 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 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 foods of different colors (roasted tomatoes, steamed green beans and sweet potatoes) and different textures (smooth avocados, juicy watermelon and even tender cooked pasta). You should aim to offer at least one high-iron food per meal.
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 quite capable of chewing soft solids.
Still, it's important to know the signs of choking in babies, as well as understand how choking differs from gagging. Gagging is common, especially in the first few weeks of baby-led weaning as baby tries to maneuver unfamiliar lumps in her mouth. But bear in mind that gagging is actually a safety response to food traveling 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 just stay calm (or at least look calm) and wait until it passes. Gagging should ease up as baby learns to cope with solid foods. That said, you'll do well to learn 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 child who is choking 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 color to 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. These include foods such as 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 baby sitting upright in her high chair while eating. Don’t let her eat while she’s crawling, playing or reclining, and don’t serve 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 important to ensure all caregivers follow the same safety precautions you do.
Take an infant CPR class. And regularly refresh your memory on how to help a young child who is choking.
Best baby-led weaning foods
As long as it’s soft, cut into manageable pieces (baby fist-size at first) and not on the list of foods that pose a choking risk, it’s on the baby-led weaning menu.
In the first few months, do your best to serve up a well-rounded diet, and ask your child’s pediatrician if you have concerns about how much or little your baby is eating. Do focus on offering a variety of foods from different food groups each day to ensure baby’s getting the nutrients she needs. Some tasty options to try:
Fruits for baby-led weaning
Soft, smooshy ones can be served raw, while harder ones like apples should always be cooked.
Thinly sliced strawberries
Halved or smushed blueberries
Orange wedges (seeds and tough membranes removed)
Steamed, peeled apple slices
Pear slices (steamed or peeled if hard, but can be served raw if soft and very ripe)
Vegetables for baby-led weaning
Steamed or baked sweet potato or butternut squash fries
Steamed carrot strips
Steamed green beans
Thinly sliced tomato
Steamed or roasted zucchini or summer squash strips
Steamed beet strips
Proteins for baby-led weaning
Shredded poached chicken
Hard-boiled eggs, quartered
Shredded boiled beef
Baked or grilled flaked fish, bones removed
Raw or lightly baked tofu strips
Whole grains for baby-led weaning
Whole grain toast strips
Whole grain pita strips
Whole grain English muffin strips
Baked oatmeal strips
Whole wheat pasta, cooked until very tender
Whole grain pancake strips
Dairy for baby-led weaning
Plain, full-fat yogurt (regular or Greek-style)
Swiss and cheddar cheese
There’s no need to add salt, sugar or artificial sweeteners to your baby’s foods, since they don’t add any nutritional value. What’s more, they mask the innate flavors of baby’s foods — and some research has even found that babies don’t actually have any preference at all for these tastes.
Plus, consistent use of salt or sugar sets kids up to prefer salty or sugary foods in the long run. (It’s fine, however, to season food with herbs and spices — your baby might love the kick in flavor.)
Also skip chips, cookies and other prepackaged, prepared foods, too, since they tend to be devoid of nutrients and full of additives and unhealthy trans-fats.
Tips for successful baby-led weaning
You and your new nosher will get the hang of baby-led weaning quickly (even if it seems a little overwhelming at first). For a smooth, low stress start, keep these tricks of the trade in mind:
Invest in a big bib. Consider dressing your little one in just a diaper and covering her with an oversize bib or smock, and put a drop cloth or newspaper on the floor beneath the high chair.
Start slowly. At the beginning, you only need to place one or two pieces of food in front of your little one at mealtimes. More and you may overwhelm baby with too many choices.
Don’t worry about plates or bowls for now. She’ll toss ’em on the floor anyway. Just place the food right on the table or high-chair tray, and let the party start.
Make slippery foods easy to grasp. Are those yummy soft finger foods (avocado, tofu) slipping and sliding in your baby's pudgy fingers? Grind Cheerios or other whole grain cereal, wheat germ or whole grain crackers into a fine powder, and then coat the foods with the "dust." It'll make it easier for your little one to grab hold of and munch on (plus, it'll boost the health factor of the foods).
Encourage fun. Think of solid food meals as playtime, when baby explores different textures and experiments with tasting and chewing. Baby-led weaning is all about getting comfortable with various foods.
Don’t force the issue. Since your baby is getting the nutrition she needs from formula or breast milk during her first year, don’t be surprised if she eats very little in the first few months. Let her set the pace. As she gets more proficient and starts to eat more, she’ll gradually consume less breast milk or formula in favor of the solid foods she’s learning to love.
Be flexible. Remember that baby-led weaning, like so many other parenting approaches, isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. You can choose baby-led weaning some of the time, alternating with spoon-feeding or adding to it (baby eats a chunk of banana, you spoon in some yogurt).
Baby-led weaning can give your little one more independence at mealtime, and maybe even help her become a more adventurous eater. Just be sure to have your camera ready: The snapshots of those messy first meals will be priceless.