There are many benefits to baby-led weaning. But make sure you know these things before you begin!
This post was written in partnership with my friends at Baby Gourmet Foods. As always, all opinions are my own!
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.
And for good reason!
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.
(You can read more about choking and baby-led weaning here.)
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.
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).
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.
As a dietitian, I’m quite particular—always analyzing the ingredient list to know exactly what my baby (and kids) are eating, and always stick to foods with a short, whole-food-ingredients lists, with no added sugar and minimal salt, additives and preservatives.
I love Baby Gourmet products for this reason. Their ingredients are real and nutritious (not to mention, organic), and they’re always looking for new ways to widen babies’ palates and love of food (while making life easier for parents too).
They’ve just come out with a cool new product that aligns perfectly with baby-led weaning: Puffies! Not only are these little heart-shaped puffs perfect for wee little hands that are learning to pick up foods (they easily stick to wet little hands!) but they’re also made with quinoa, which adds the goodness of protein, fibre, and lots of vitamins and minerals.
They’ve also snuck in one billion live probiotics into each serving, which can help with baby’s digestive health and immunity!
They provide just enough texture to help baby learn some oral motor skills, but also easily melt in their mouth and come in two flavours—Cheddar Broccoli and Strawberry Beet—and are delicious too!
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 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!
5. Teeny tiny pieces aren’t going to work:
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 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.
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 most of his/her nutrition from breastmilk and/or formula until one year of age. Have fun with it!