There’s no “right” way to introduce solids, but these 5 practical tips for baby-led weaning (BLW) will set you and baby up for feeding success!
More and more parents are using the “baby-led weaning” approach to starting solids, which means they start right at six months of age with finger foods, and skip purees and spoon feeding.
It’s important to know that there is no single “right way” to introduce solids to your baby, whether you want to start with traditional spoon-feeding or try baby-led weaning). I support either way (or a combo) wholeheartedly. I just believe that it’s important that baby be introduced to a wide variety of tastes and textures within the first couple of months of starting solid foods, and that all feeding be led by baby’s cues (aka responsive feeding). Babies need to learn to trust their bodies when it comes to eating and to self-regulate their appetite. The best way to help them do this is to let them lead and not pressure or coax baby to eat.
There are many potential benefits to baby-led weaning, including improved dexterity, early oral-motor skill development, self-regulation, ease for parents, decreased picky eating and more.At the same time, it can also be a little bit scary and nerve wracking—especially for new parents—largely because of the perceived risk of choking (click here to read more about choking and baby-led weaning.)
Don’t worry—I’ll walk you through everything.
Here’s what you’ll find in this post:
- If you feed your baby purees, you’re not a baby-led weaning failure
- Your baby will gag… and that’s ok!
- Your baby can’t eat exactly the same thing as you
- The types of foods (not just textures) matter
- What to look when buying packaged food products for baby
- Should I be worried about rice in baby products
- Feeding is going to get messy! And that’s ok 🙂
- Teeny tiny pieces aren’t going to work. Here’s why.
- Appropriate shapes, textures and sizes month-by-month
If you feed your baby purees, you’re not a baby-led weaning failure
The truth is, there’s no “right” way to introduce solids.
What might work really well for one baby, might not work so well for the next. For example, my oldest son, Ben, preferred to be spoon-fed most of the time, whereas my daughter, Lylah, only ever wanted to eat finger foods.
I was also a lot more relaxed by the time she came, and felt more comfortable with baby-led weaning. With my youngest, James, we used a combo of baby-led weaning and purees, depending on the day and meal.
Both methods 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 don’t coax or force your baby to eat.
Baby-led feeding 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.
If you’re thinking about going the baby-led weaning route, there are five things you should be aware of before you start:
1. Your baby will gag… and that’s ok!
Your baby will likely gag. A lot. Babies have a great natural gag-reflex that helps 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.
Babies are developmentally ready to handle solid finger foods at six months of age (assuming baby wasn’t born premature), so it’s 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. Your baby can’t eat exactly the same thing as you
One of the perks of baby-led weaning is that your baby can eat the same meal as the rest of the family. Sort of.
The food that I typically make is quite flavourful, sometimes spicy and usually contains seasonings such as salt and pepper—things that six-month-old babies don’t need.
A baby’s kidneys are not mature enough to handle much added salt (sodium) or sugar, so it’s important to keep this is mind when you’re preparing and cooking food.
There’s no need to purchase a special baby-led weaning cookbook if you don’t want to. Instead, you can do what I did and just tone down the spice and the seasoning a lot. Here are some examples of how I “baby-proofed” our family meals:
- Hold the salt and pepper when preparing a meal and add it in after you’ve served your baby
- Use fresh chicken and homemade pizza sauce on our pizza’s (instead of ham or store-bought pizza sauce)
- Scoop out stir-fried meat and veggies prior to adding stir-fry sauce
- For homemade hamburgers, leave the seasonings out of some of the meat mixture.
If you’re looking for a great resource for new Baby Led Weaning recipes, check out my colleague Jennifer House, RD’s book A Parents Guide to Baby Led Weaning.
3. The types of foods (not just textures) matter:
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 and foremost (meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, eggs, iron-fortified grains) but feel free to introduce steamed vegetables and soft fruit, whole grains, full-fat yogurt and cheese too (but I recommend waiting until 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. And if you’re looking for an amazing and safe way to introduce allergenic foods into babe’s diet, you must give Ready, Set, Food! a try! It’s the only product that dissolves easily in breastmilk and formula, so you don’t have to wait until your baby is eating solids.
Whole foods should be the focus, in order to maximize nutrition, and close attention should be paid to ingredients lists when at the grocery store.
There are so many baby and toddler food products out there now—many of which are highly refined and processed (and unfortunately, but not surprisingly contain a lot of sugar and/or salt), so it can be hard to know which ones to choose.
What to look when buying packaged processed foods for baby
As a dietitian, I was quite particular about what types of food products I’d feed my babies, and did my best to stick to whole foods first and foremost. When buying food products at the store, make sure that the ingredients list is short, recognizable and contains whole foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Watch out for any added sugar too or salt–babies don’t need these. Compare two or three similar products and choose the one that has the shortest and most recognizable ingredients list. My favourite brand is Baby Gourmet – this baby food company works with dietitians (such as myself) and I trust their products and innovation. Many baby-led-weaning friendly packaged foods contain rice. In fact, the first ingredients in many packaged finger foods (like baby crackers, baby cookies, baby puffs) is rice.
Should I be worried about rice in packaged food products?
Parents should be aware that rice-containing foods (such as infant rice cereal or infant puffs) do contain arsenic, as well as other metallic elements such as mercury and cadmium. Unfortunately, the rice plant is really effective at soaking up these elements out of the soil and ground water. To make matters worse, the rice plant is very efficient at absorbing inorganic arsenic (a form of arsenic that lacks the organic element carbon), which is much more harmful to humans than its organic counter-part. And unfortunately for health-conscious parents, brown rice has even higher concentrations of arsenic than white.
Now… don’t panic if you’ve been serving your infant rice cereal or rice-based finger foods. The occasional serving (once or twice a week) of rice cereal or rice-based finger foods, or whole rice, is likely completely fine when included in an otherwise balanced and nutritious diet. Should you serve rice puffs or crackers to your baby daily? Probably not. Here are some non rice baby snacks that I love here and here.
Most of the time, stick to real whole foods prepared in a baby-friendly way.
4. It’s gonna get messy
It’s no secret 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 (I love these ones) that you can rinse quickly and that have a pocket that catches food (our daughter will just scoop fallen food out of the pocket). Another option? Shirtless!
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!
5. Teeny tiny pieces aren’t going to work, especially in the beginning:
You may be tempted to cut your baby’s food into teeny tiny pieces so that they don’t choke. Unfortunately, babies don’t have the fine motor skills (particularly, the “pincer grasp”) to pick up tiny pieces of food and bring them to their mouths until they are around eight or nine 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 (but soft enough that they’re safe).
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’s 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), wieners and popcorn.
Appropriate shapes, textures and sizes at every age
Whether or not you choose to be a strict baby-led-weaner or do a combo of BLW and spoon feeding (which is what I did), it’s important to know what size, texture and shape of food is appropriate at each stage. Through the ages of 6 to 12 months, you can expand the textures and sizes of foods that are suitable to serve. As babies grow, they slowly develop more mature chewing and swallowing skills, as well as better finger dexterity and fine motor skills. This helps them handle firmer, smaller pieces of food. As you watch your baby eat, you will notice changes in the size of pieces that they can pick up.
Every baby develops at a slightly different rate, and that’s okay! While one baby might be ready to pick up small peas and blueberries by 9 months, another might not be ready until 11 months. These suggestions are just a loose guideline of which textures and sizes of food to offer at each age and stage. Of course, pay close attention to your own baby to know what’s right for them.
As your baby becomes a more confident feeder, move to the next stage. By the time they turn one, your baby will be self-feeding like a pro—you got this!
6 TO 7 MONTHS
- Meat and poultry: Minced; pureed; slow-cooked and shredded; or meatballs or patties.
- Low-mercury fish: Deboned, then soft-cooked or pureed fish.
- Eggs: Hard-boiled and mashed; omelets cut into strips; or scrambled.
- Legumes: Cooked and mashed or pureed beans, lentils and chickpeas. Silken or mashed firm tofu.
- Cheese: Thinly sliced or grated
- Nut butter: thinly spread on toast strips; or stirred into infant cereal
Fruits and vegetables:
- Soft fruits: Peeled and cut into large strips – try avocado or ripe pear.
- Bananas: Leave half the peel on to help baby’s grip.
- Hard fruits and vegetables: peeled and steamed until soft, then mashed or pureed (4), or cut in large strips as finger food. Try green beans, carrots, zucchini or apples.
- Whole grains: Cooked and spoon-fed quinoa or oats.
- Whole grain bread: Toasted and cut into strips.
- Iron-fortified infant cereals: Mashed with breastmilk or formula .
8 TO 9 MONTHS
Continue to serve any of the foods from 6-7 months, and progress to these textures when your baby seems ready:
- Meat, poultry and fish: Medium-sized, soft-cooked pieces.
- Legumes: Lentil or bean patties (see my homemade lentil patties here).
Fruits and vegetables:
- Soft fruits: Medium pieces of soft or steamed options such as raspberries , kiwi, or peach
- Raw vegetables and fruits: peeled and grated apple or carrot
- Large-flake or steel-cut oats: Thicker than baby’s first iron-fortified baby cereals
- Pasta: Bite-size cooked shapes, such as penne or macaroni
- Firmer grains: Farro or barley
10 TO 12 MONTHS
Continue to serve the foods above, and progress to these textures when your baby seems ready. Now that baby has better dexterity, pieces can be smaller.
- Meat, poultry and fish: Smaller pieces of pulled roast chicken
- Legumes: Cooked whole beans or lentils and cubed firm tofu.
- Dairy: Cheese cubes.
Fruits and vegetables:
- Hard vegetables: smaller pieces of raw peeled cucumber or steamed carrot coins
- Dried fruit: Cut apricots or whole raisins.
- Fruits: Raw small pieces, such as sliced grapes and small whole blueberries
- Pasta: Offer as part of mixed meals, such as ravioli, spaghetti and meatballs, or soup.
Remember to 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 purees, either make them yourself or choose nutritious, whole-food-focused 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 much of their nutrition from breastmilk and/or formula until one year of age. Have fun with it!