My daughter is almost 10 months old and I can count on one hand how many times I’ve spoon-fed her food. She started eating solid food when she was a week shy of her 6 month birthday, when she grabbed a banana out of my hand and stuck it in her mouth, swished it around a few times and then swallowed it. Since then, she’s happily fed herself with no problems. I had been toying with the idea of trying “baby-led weaning” with my daughter, a self-feeding method of introducing solids to a baby, but hadn’t decided 100% whether we were going to go that route or not. When she took her first bite of that banana, and I witnessed first hand that she didn’t choke or throw up, I knew then and there that she would do just fine.
Now, before you give your special baby-food blender away and toss your ice-cube trays, realize that baby-led weaning isn’t for everybody (my son was happily spoon-fed for the first few months). It is not a “better” way to introduce solids–it’s a different way. Both methods (baby-led weaning and spoon -feeding) can work really well–it just depends on both the baby and the parents as to which method (or perhaps a combo) will work better. I also truly believe that both methods can be “baby-led”, especially if you pay really close attention to your baby’s cues and do not coax or force your baby to eat. Baby-led eating allows your baby to be in charge of whether and how much they eat. It gives them the opportunity to eat until comfortably full, which allows them to trust their inner cues when it comes to hunger and fullness. Experiment with both methods, being careful to follow your baby’s cues either way. Your baby will tell you fairly quickly whether or not he wants to accept food from a spoon or if he’d rather gum large chunks of solid food without any help.
If you are going the baby-led weaning route, I’ve learned (as a BLW newbie myself) a few tricks along the way:
1. Do not freak out when your baby gags: Your baby will likely gag. A lot. Babies have a great natural gag-reflex that will help them move food that has travelled too far to the back of their mouths, back to the front again so that they don’t choke. They may make a funny face and make a gagging sound, but if you wait for a few seconds, you’ll see that your baby is an expert at this and will not choke. Baby’s are developmentally ready to handle solid finger foods at 6 months of age (assuming baby wasn’t born premature), therefore it is very unlikely that your baby will actually choke on food. But it is still imperative that you take an infant CPR/First Aid course just in case (and for peace of mind). If you freak out when your baby gags, your baby will freak out because they will be scared. Try to stay calm (or at least look calm) and let baby do her thing.
2. Plan your family meals to be baby-friendly: The food that I typically make is quite flavourful, sometimes spicy and sometimes contains seasonings such as salt and pepper–things that 6 month old babies do not need. A baby’s kidneys are not mature enough to handle a lot of salt (sodium) or sugar, so it’s important to keep this is mind when you’re preparing and cooking food. I purchased the baby-led weaning cookbook, but decided not to use it because, after all, one of the reasons we went this route is so I didn’t have to create a whole different meal for my baby. So what I did instead was toned down the spice and the seasoning a lot. For example, I wouldn’t add salt and a pepper to our vegetable frittata (we could add it on afterwards if we wanted) or I would use fresh chicken and homemade pizza sauce on our pizza’s (instead of ham or store-bought pizza sauce). I would take out a scoop of stir-fried meat and veggies for my daughter prior to adding stir-fry sauce and I when I made homemade hamburgers, I would leave the seasonings out of hers. Remember that the same guidelines apply to baby-led weaning as with spoon feeding in regards to what to feed your baby. It’s important that you focus on iron-rich foods first (meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, eggs, iron-fortified grains) and progress onto vegetables and fruit and then whole grains and dairy after that (9 months for yogurt and cheese and 12 months for homogenized milk). Here’s some information on introducing allergenic foods to baby and on when and how to transition baby to cow’s milk.
3. Buy an easy-to-clean high chair and plastic bibs: Baby-led weaning is definitely messier than spoon feeding. We invested in a new highchair for our daughter, as I found that hand-me-down that we used for my son was hard to clean. You don’t have time to clean a highchair for 15 minutes after each meal or snack, so make sure that the high chair is easy-t0-clean (I find plastic is best, and we remove the cushy cloth lining too). Buy a few plastic bibs that you can rinse quickly and that have a pocket that catches food (our daughter will just scoop fallen food out of the pocket). You even might want to think about putting a small tarp down underneath your baby’s highchair so that you don’t have to clean your floors several times a day. Friends of ours do this, and clean it off at the end of the day. Genius.
4. Think BIG: You may be tempted to cut your baby’s food into teeny tiny pieces so that they don’t choke. Unfortunately, baby’s don’t have the fine motor skills to pick up tiny pieces of food and bring them to their mouths until they are around 8-9 months old (or older). This is why it’s so important that you make baby’s food pieces large enough that they can grab onto them. A homemade potato wedge or half of a skinless, boneless chicken thigh cut length-wise, or a slice of pear (peeled) are examples of appropriate sized pieces of food. A piece of whole grain toast with some butter on it cut into thick strips would be appropriate too. Your baby should be able to pick up their food, bring it to their mouth, and gnaw on it. It is normal for baby to “miss” their mouth or drop their food, but as long as they can bring it to their mouths, it is likely appropriate in size. It is still very important to avoid foods that pose a risk of choking for the first year of life, such as hard fruits and vegetables (ie. raw carrots), stringy foods (ie. celery), nuts and seeds, whole grapes, a gob of peanut butter (I thinly spread on toast strips), and wieners and popcorn.
5. Go with the flow: Your baby may absolutely LOVE self-feeding right from day one, and she may go through periods where she’d rather be spoon-fed. My daughter for the most part has thrived with baby-led weaning, but she went through a period when she was teething, where she wanted to be fed pureed food with a spoon (presumably because it was softer and didn’t hurt). When and if you do feed pureed food, either make it yourself (best choice) or choose organic options from the grocery store. Know that it’s completely normal for your baby to reject a food, spit it out or throw it. It may take up to 20 exposures for a baby to accept a food so keep re-introducing the food pressure-free. Include baby in family meals (this is the beauty of baby-led weaning) and give him/her the food that the rest of the family is having (assuming it isn’t a choking hazard). Know that most of the food may end up on the highchair, on the walls or on the floor, and this is ok. Your baby is getting most of his/her nutrition from breastmilk and/or formula until one year of age. Have fun with it!
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like this post that I wrote on baby-led weaning vs. spoon feeding and how to create a healthy eating environment for your baby.