There are no studies to support purees as a first food. In fact, purees only became the norm at a time when doctors advocated introducing solids at 4 months. We now know that’s too early for proper digestion and can lead to allergies. Instead, baby led weaning is a natural choice for introducing solids.
But what is baby led weaning? We’ll break it all down, including:
Before We Start: A Special Gift for You
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What is Baby Led Weaning (or BLW)?
First coined by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett in their book Baby-Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods, Baby led weaning is an approach to introducing solid food where baby is allowed and encouraged to self-feed solid finger foods instead of receiving purées via spoon.
- Are encouraged to join the family at mealtime and self-feed appropriate finger foods.
- Choose what, how much, and how quickly to eat.
- Are given the freedom to explore new tastes and textures, without the pressure to eat a set amount or a specific food.
- Continue to nurse (or receive a bottle) just as often. Solids complement milk, and baby is trusted to know when to increase solid feedings and decrease milk (usually later in the first year).
When to Start Baby Led Weaning
Experts agree that solids should be delayed until the middle of the first year of life. This is when baby’s digestive system is mature. Some babies may seem ready at 5 ½ months, while others may not be ready until 8 months of age. It’s important to take into account ALL readiness signs for each individual child. As always, consult your child’s pediatrician if you are unsure or have questions.
When baby is ready, you’ll notice s/he:
- Sits up well without support.
- Has lost the tongue-thrust reflex (automatically pushing solids out of mouth with tongue).
- Has developed the fine motor skills to self-feed. Development of a pincer grasp (baby picks up food between thumb and forefinger, not palm and fingers) typically happens at around 6 months, but sometimes as late at 1 year.
- Is willing to chew, even if he has few or no teeth.
- Shows interest in participating at mealtime, and may try to grab food from your plate and put it in his mouth.
What Are the Benefits of Baby Led Weaning?
- Purees are time consuming. It’s much easier to adjust what the adults are eating to suit baby than it is to create a separate meal.
- Babies feed themselves, so you can eat at the same time. Baby led weaning gives moms the chance to relax and eat themselves.
Baby develops good eating habits
Through baby led weaning, baby develops the ability to:
- Self regulate, which may set the child up for a healthier BMI in the future, according to this study.
- Self-select, which has been shown to increase weight in underweight babies and support a healthy weight in most babies.
- Experiment with a wide range of healthy foods early on, which may improve food choices later in life.
Through baby led weaning, baby learns to:
- Safely handle food (they learn to chew then swallow).
- Manage different textures, tastes, sizes, and shapes of food.
- Finesse hand-eye and fine motor skills by learning to grasp food and move it to their mouth.
How to Start Baby Led Weaning
The great thing about baby led weaning is that you really don’t need much to get started.
Establish safe place to sit
The first thing you need is a safe place for baby to sit. A highchair is a great choice, but a parents lap is just as good (remember, baby should be able to sit up unassisted at this point).
Choose appropriate finger foods
The next thing you need is healthy, appropriate finger foods (covered below). A BLW baby is offered a variety of healthy whole finger foods (as well as a small amount of water) to choose from and explore.
Follow your baby’s cues. Begin offering solids once a day, and gradually increase as the child shows he wants or needs more.
Commit to the process
Baby-led weaning families are encouraged to make family mealtime a habit. One reason is that baby learns best by observation and imitation. When everyone eats together and eats the same food, baby feels included, and mealtime is a fun experience rather than a battle. If eating meals together doesn’t work for your family, consider eating a snack while baby has his meal.
What Foods Can I Feed My Baby?
Baby’s first foods should be a selection of fresh fruits, soft cooked vegetables, healthy carbohydrates, and fats. Think soft and easy to gum and swallow. When given a variety to choose from, baby will naturally choose the foods that meet her nutritional needs.
Baby Led Weaning First Foods
The best first foods for baby led weaning:
- Sweet potatoes
- Soft cooked apples
- Soft cooked carrots, green beans, zucchini, and beets
- Very ripe peaches and pears, plums, and melon
- Green beans with the skins removed
- Egg yolk
- Meat or poultry
- Slices of sprouted bread, cooked pasta, brown rice (Some decide to wait until molars come through before introducing grains. Wheat should be avoided until later in the first year.)
Baby led weaning foods to avoid:
- High choking risk foods, like grapes, cherry/grape tomatoes, nuts, whole hot dogs. (You can find a full list here.)
- Allergic foods,like gluten, egg whites, nuts (peanuts), seafood, and citrus, especially if you have family history of sensitivity.
- Added table salt* or sugar
- Unhealthy and processed foods, like chips, popcorn (a choking hazard!), sugar-containing foods, breakfast cereals, gum, and hard candy.
- Stimulants, like chocolate or sugar.
* Small amounts of high mineral sea salt can be added with the approval of a physician.
Baby Led Weaning Safety
There are obvious safety concerns with introducing solids to your baby. Assuming that baby has shown signs of readiness and can sit up unassisted, it’s important for parents to be vigilant and never leave baby alone when eating. It’s equally important that only baby put food into her own mouth.
Won’t My Baby Choke?
Choking is a real concern with any supplemental feeding, which is why close supervision is necessary. That said, there needs to be a distinction between gagging—a safety mechanism that safeguards against choking by bringing large pieces of food forward to be chewed—and real choking.
As baby grows, the place in her mouth that triggers the gag reflex moves further back towards the throat. According to Rapley, baby led weaning helps baby learn to chew and swallow when this reflex is still very close to the front of the mouth.
Of course, all parents should understand the signs of choking and knowing how to respond. Here is online education, but it’s always a good idea to contact your local hospital or community center to find in-person classes.
Will My Baby Get Enough to Eat?
Breastmilk (or formula) will make up the majority of baby’s nutrition from 6-12 months of age. The main purpose of solids in the first year is to introduce baby to new tastes and textures while teaching her to chew and swallow food.
If baby is gaining normally and thriving, then she is getting enough to eat. Baby-led solid feeding trusts that baby knows when she is hungry, when she is full, and what she needs to meet her nutritional needs. If she is struggling with low weight, you can certainly add in some smoothies, purees, or extra fats like avocado and butter. Baby led weaning doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Work with your physician to determine what is best.
Will My Baby Get Enough Iron Without Iron-fortified Baby Cereal?
Yes, if she is breastfed. The iron in breastmilk is absorbed at a percentage of 50-70 percent, while the iron in iron-fortified cereal is absorbed at a rate of 4-10 percent.
“Healthy, full-term infants who are breastfed exclusively for periods of 6-9 months have been shown to maintain normal hemoglobin values and normal iron stores. Breast milk is actually a perfectly sufficient source of iron.” — Kellymom.com
Formula fed babies may also get enough iron from iron-rich finger foods such as:
- Meat & poultry (especially beef and liver)
- Winter squash
- Sweet potatoes
- Sea vegetables
- Egg yolks
If there is a concern about baby’s iron level, have it tested before supplementing.
Tips for Baby Led Weaning
- Don’t let baby get too hungry. Hunger can create an unhappy experience for everyone. Be sure to nurse or bottle feed baby up to an hour before offering solids so that his tummy isn’t empty.
- Manage your expectations. Forget about expectations and let it be a learning experience. Baby probably won’t eat much at first, and that’s ok.
- Be patient. Babies can take a longer time when they’re in charge. As they get the hang of it, feeding time will be quicker.
- Embrace the mess. Many parents find a naked baby is easiest to clean up afterwards.
- Don’t cut food too small. Don’t serve small pieces of food. Instead, serve pieces of food large enough for baby to grasp easily. Some families find cutting food with a crinkle cutter or rolling pieces of food in oat flour can make pieces easier for baby to hold.
- Make food soft enough. If food can be smashed between your finger and thumb, it’s probably appropriate for baby.
- Don’t overwhelm. Avoid putting more than a few pieces of food on the highchair tray or table at once.
Remember: Progress Not Perfection
If the process is slow going or you find yourself overwhelmed, you can always do a hybrid approach to feeding. Some moms let baby gnaw on soft pear slices, but prefer to spoon feed foods like pureed meat or bone broth. I know some parents who make smoothies, which a baby can drink through a straw if the family is on the go. Just know that you can experiment with feeding approaches that work best for your family and lifestyle.
And if baby truly doesn’t seem ready, that’s ok too. Give it a week or two, then try again.
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How About YOU?
Did or do you practice baby-led weaning? Or do a combination of feeding tactics? Share with us in the comments below!