What is Baby Led Weaning?
Baby Led Weaning is a process of allowing your infant to self-feed solid chunks of food cut up & prepared in line with their development and abilities, as they request & show interest, instead of spoon-feeding specific amounts of pureed foods.
When my firstborn turned 6 months, I jumped at the chance to start feeding her “baby food”. What an exciting time! I went by the book – I stocked up on rice cereal and jarred banana and apple puree. I mixed the rice cereal with breastmilk, according to the directions, and, well… she absolutely hated the rice cereal. I tried different textures, different times, different spoons. She wanted nothing to do with being fed rice cereal and I wasted precious pumped milk on the experiment. Ditto the banana puree. The apple was a bit more of a hit, but she wouldn’t eat much more than a few small highly fussed over bites before wanting to grab the spoon, see what I was eating, try to get what I was eating, throwing the spoon, or grabbing the bowl. Eating time was met with general crabbiness. Personally, I found that whole open jar of baby food to be really daunting – how much should I take out this time – how long has that other jar been in the fridge, will she finish it this time? Honestly, I don’t believe we ever finished a whole jar of baby food – whether she didn’t like the taste or just wasn’t into being made to eat – we threw out a lot of half-eaten jars of puree those first few months. I felt like I was failing at feeding. Breastfeeding was EASY compared to this! How much, what kind, trying to balance her diet – I couldn’t give her ONLY apple puree, could I? Then, one day, we were sitting down to eat. I had sweet potato puree, pea puree, and apple puree open. Adam and I were having pizza. I was trying to manage my pizza with one hand, feed the baby with the other. Adam was helping with entertainment and distraction but she was refusing his spoon and antics, spitting the food back out, reaching for the pizza, and knocking everything off her tray. In desperation we handed her the pizza crust, and voila! Peace descended. She gnawed away happily on the crust for the rest of the meal, (not choking!) and thus – we discovered baby led weaning, and ditched the purees in favor of “real food”. Now, I don’t recommend pizza crusts as a first baby food. There are far better options for feeding babies, which I will detail below. But I wanted to illustrate that babies are capable of feeding themselves, and, when given the opportunity, in my experience, are far happier and satisfied.
(my 1st, letting me know she wanted to do it herself)
After some research, and a lot of experimentation, we found baby led weaning to be a really helpful way to introduce our children to different foods a little at a time, while reducing the pressure on us to make sure they were eating a specific amount of premade baby food at each sitting. We’d simply take whatever we were eating for each meal, and set a bit aside – cut and/or prepared in developmentally appropriate ways for baby – and let them discover eating with their own hands and mouths, while we ate alongside of them.
Why let baby lead?
Breastmilk (or formula) is a baby’s primary diet for the first 12 months; babies can thrive on breastmilk alone in the first year. All other food introduced in the first year is mostly about baby experiencing new tastes, textures, practicing motor movements, mimicking adult behaviors, and observing and participating in the rituals of mealtime, and far less about nutrition. Baby led weaning allows baby (and parents) to take it slowly, fully enjoy this process of experimentation and exploration without the pressure, stress, and worry of “how much”, “what”, and “when” that often comes with the transition from milk only to milk & solid food. Baby only eats what she’s hungry for, and breastfeeding makes up the rest.
Allowing baby to choose which foods to eat, instead of deciding what & how much for her, gives her control over her own body. It is similar to, and an easy transition from the idea of breastfeeding on cue. With baby led weaning, baby is encouraged to continue to learn to listen to her body’s hunger signals – to eat when she’s hungry and stop when she’s not. This is such an important message which will serve baby well throughout life.
Baby led weaning relieves some of the pressures associated with starting solids. Often in puree spoon feeding, parents are made to feel they need to feed baby a specific food, at a specific time, in a specific amount. The thing is, babies, like all people, aren’t always hungry at specific times, and don’t always want what’s offered. If baby doesn’t finish or isn’t interested a prescribed amount of (often expensive, particularly if organic, like I bought originally) jarred puree, it can lead to parental anxiety over “is she eating enough?” (think back to when baby was tiny you may have stressed over how much milk baby was getting, how many ounces, when, etc.) or anxiety over how much you have purchased and are (or aren’t) using (think: should I refrigerate this amount, is it safe to reuse, when should I try this again, I spent a lot on this and she really doesn’t like it but I have 5 more jars in my closet).
Anxiety surrounding food and eating – even when recognized as unnecessary – can lead to parents trying to persuade baby to eat by tricking or bribing or begging. Even if none of those overt actions are employed, adding anxiety to the dinner table is never a good thing. Worry over eating isn’t going to improve the outcome, is likely to make mealtimes decidedly un-fun, and runs the risk of creating subconscious anxieties about food in children. Anxieties, which I believe can lead to all kinds of food and body issues later in life.
With baby led weaning, you offer what you’re already preparing for yourself or the rest of your family – prepared/cut up accordingly to baby’s age and let baby take the initiative. If baby wants to eat, he does, if he doesn’t, he doesn’t. No mostly uneaten open jars to toss, no stressed mom who didn’t get to eat anything at dinner because she was trying to fill baby’s mouth with pureed peas (and then reinsert the spoon with the peas which have dribbled back down the chin – yuck).
Baby led weaning can save money as you don’t need any special equipment or utensils:. No baby food grinders, no baby food savers, no baby spoons, no “guaranteed not to spill” baby bowls. All you need is a knife for cutting pieces of your own food, a fork for mashing (if necessary), and a willing baby.
In my experience, babies who are given the option of what to eat and how to eat it are more likely to be happy and interested in meal times. They see and understand that what is on their plate is what’s on everyone else’s plate – they are part of the larger picture. They have things in their hands which they have put there themselves, they are able to bring their own food to their mouths, to practice picking up small and large items, and master chewing and swallowing. It is a way to gently foster independence and self esteem – allowing baby the freedom to eat himself, and stop himself sends the message that you believe he’s trustworthy, and teaches him to trust himself in the process.
When do you start solids?
It’s important that your baby is ready for solids before you start any method of feeding other than breast or bottle feeding. Recent studies have show that solid food should not be introduced before 6 months of age. Several health organizations agree that babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months, like the World Health Organization, American Academy of Pediatrics, and Health Canada. The reasons for delaying solids include giving baby greater protection from illness (via the immunologic properties in breastmilk), giving baby’s digestive system enough time to mature, decreasing the risk of food allergies, preventing iron-deficiency anemia, and protection from obesity. For details on these benefits and the studies backing them up, please see KellyMom.com’s article, Why Delay Solids?
Once baby is six months of age, there are several signs of readiness, which, when observed in conjunction with baby’s age can help you determine if it’s a good time to start offering something in addition to breastmilk or formula. Dr Sears has a well-outlined list. These signs include sitting up without support, no longer having a tongue-thrust reflex, reaching for and mouthing food when others are eating, and the development of the pincer grasp (picking up items with thumb & forefinger).
If your baby has reached six months of age, sits up well by himself, is interested in what’s on everyone’s plate and what’s going into your mouth at mealtime, is no longer thrusting his tongue out, and seems hungry after a full milk feeding, then it may be a good time to start baby led weaning.
Keep in mind, you can start solids, and then stop at any time if baby loses interest, doesn’t like it, or loses interest in breastfeeding. Remember that breastmilk is far more nutrient dense than any solid food you offer baby at first, so breastfeeding should always be a priority in the first year, over any solid food. If your less-than-a-year old baby is losing interest in breastfeeding in favor of eating solid foods, it is a good idea to be sure she’s had a full belly of milk before solids, to ensure she’s getting all the benefits of breastmilk which are necessary in the first year.
How do you start?
So, baby is ready to start, and so are you. How do you DO this baby led weaning?
Remember when starting solids, always offer the breast or bottle first, before attempting to offer other foods to be sure she’s getting enough of what she really needs. Also, a satisfied baby is more patient and open to learning new things. I found introducing foods to baby when everyone else was sitting down to eat was the best time to start. Remember, in the first year, the social mimicking aspect of eating is important! Baby is learning a lot by watching others eat.
Some foods are better than others when it comes to first foods to offer to a newly eating baby: those which are nutrient dense, mild in flavor, and not typically allergenic are best. Some foods also lend themselves well to baby led weaning – those that are naturally soft (or easy to make soft), and/or easy to cut into pieces which can be handled by small inexperienced hands and mouths.
Why does nutrient dense matter? Foods that are nutrient dense mean they contain a lot of naturally-occurring vitamins, fiber, and/or protein in a small amount. Baby has a tiny tummy, and small amounts of food fill her up quickly. Since solid foods are the start of weaning, and are taking the place of some very nutrient rich breastmilk, it’s best to make sure the foods she’s getting full on are nutritious, not just empty filler. For example, baby rice cereal, which many mainstream guides will tell you is a good first food (due to mild flavor, texture, and low-allergenic qualities), is also low on fiber and protein and high on carbs, so while it fills baby’s tummy, it’s just an empty filler. I liken it to a hungry adult filling up in between meals with a snack of potato chips instead of an apple with peanut butter – it might taste good, but it doesn’t provide you with any nutritive benefits. Instead of filling baby’s tummy with rich breastmilk, you’re filling it with skimpy rice cereal and that’s not a good tradeoff in the first year when baby grows so much.
Don’t fret! There are plenty of foods which are good first foods that baby will like AND are nutrient-dense. The following foods were big hits with my two babies, and have good nutrition behind them as well. I recommend buying organic whenever you can, to expose baby to as little pesticide residue as possible. (You may notice that all the foods listed are vegetarian - this is in line with our family's eating habits; a vegetarian diet is a healthy and balanced way for children to eat, but doesn't mean you can't introduce animal products to your baby as part of baby-led weaning.):
Avocado – naturally high in vitamin C, vitamin E, fiber, fat, protein, potassium, and copper. A ripe avocado can be peeled, and sliced into large strips or chunks. Babies with and without teeth can easily pick up, suck, and mash avocado with ease. It’s a perfect first food. My daughter adored all things avocado once we started baby led weaning, and even now, at age 6, she’ll ask for sliced avocado as a snack.
Oatmeal (rolled oats, not baby cereal) – naturally high in fiber, protein, iron, manganese, and selenium. It can be prepared slightly thicker than usual, and rolled into balls easy for small hands to pick up. For added nutritive value, I would add a bit of flax seed oil, probiotic powder, and molasses (high in iron) after cooking. My babies liked to eat this from my spoon and from the tray or a bowl with their fingers.
Sweet Potato – naturally high in vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, and fiber. It can be prepared by either boiling or baking (and then peeling) until soft, then cut into strips or chunks. It is naturally sweet and a baby favorite!
Banana – naturally high in Vitamin C, potassium, B6 and fiber. Prepare by simply peeling and offering to baby whole, or cutting into strips or circles.
Squash – naturally high in vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium. Prepare by boiling or steaming, then serve in slices or mashed dollops on the tray/table.
Carrots – naturally high in vitamin A. Prepare by boiling or steaming until soft, then serve in long slices or mashed dollops on the tray/table.
For preparation with baby-led solids, I follow baby’s abilities. When baby is not as accurate with hand to mouth coordination, her chewing and swallowing ability will likely follow suit. At this time, I found it best to offer larger pieces of food that she won’t put all the way in her mouth – large slices of avocado, strips of banana, big chunks of sweet potato that she can palm, that when they DO get into her mouth, will essentially “melt”. Soon she’ll master bringing something up to her mouth accurately to suck on. If baby doesn’t have any (or very few) teeth, I also felt comfortable offering hard items that she wouldn’t be able to get all the way into her mouth, but were too hard to break chunks off of – like a large carrot (not the baby carrots), or a frozen bagel. Also during the early stages, I’d offer dollops of naturally soft foods requiring little chewing (either placed on the tray/table or on a spoon baby could pick up) like:
Hummus** – naturally high in vitamin B6, folate, vitamin C, iron, calcium, fat, and protein. Hummus is really easy to make homemade - here's my husband's hummus recipe (just skip the jalapenos & salt for baby!) This was my son’s first food – and still his favorite to this day! As baby gets older, it can be a great way to help introduce new foods – by offering hummus along with the new food as a familiar tasting dip.
Applesauce – naturally high in fiber and potassium – you can make this yourself really easily, and I liked not to mash the apples, but rather serve to baby as soft chunks.
Guacamole – see avocado, my favorite, above. Guacamole is an easy way to serve the uber-nutritious avocado, while introducing baby to new tastes.
Over the years of experimentation with baby led weaning, I discovered that pretty much any food with few exceptions, can be safely prepared for baby to feed himself. For example, even typically choke-able foods like grapes, can be peeled and cut. Peas can be pushed down with your finger to be less round & rolling, yet still allow baby the ability to develop pincer grasp and success at picking up on his own. If food is big enough not to be put all the way in baby’s mouth, it can be harder in texture – so that baby can scrape bits off with his teeth. If foods are small enough to fit all the way in baby’s mouth they should be soft enough for him to smoosh and manipulate easily with his gums. As baby gets better at picking things up, bringing them to his mouth, chewing, and swallowing, the pieces you present can get smaller. When I started introducing smaller pieces, I made sure to start out softer, until I saw that baby had a good handle on manipulating, chewing, and swallowing the smaller pieces. Then I was able to vary the texture a bit (cooking the veggies a bit less soft). If baby wasn’t able to chew something down, I found they would often spit it back out. Once they approached twelve months, they were eating mostly anything we were eating - pasta, rice, veggies, tofu, fruits; just cut to fit their hands. Once we all got the hang of it, following baby’s lead with with baby led weaning was really easy!
What about choking?
When baby is given the opportunity to naturally develop chewing and swallowing abilities without pressure or speed, choking isn’t an issue. If something doesn’t sit right in baby’s mouth, her gag reflex will kick in, and her hands which are holding the food or spoon herself will naturally pull back (and out) the offending item. When someone else is feeding baby on a schedule or repeatedly over & over (open wide!) smooshy foods which don’t require any chewing or manipulating, baby doesn’t have a chance to develop those skills; the development of moving things around slowly in the mouth and learning to chew are bypassed. When baby foods with a bit of texture are introduced to a baby who hasn’t developed the ability on their own to chew (via constant spoon feeding), the danger of choking is more prevalent. Obviously, common sense in food preparation and supervision is necessary whenever feeding a baby. But in my experience with baby-led weaning, neither of my children has ever choked while baby led weaning. Yes, they gagged a few times, but they were always able to clear their own mouths, and eagerly went back to try again until they mastered it. Like any skill (sleeping, walking, talking), giving children the proper tools and guidance then allowing them to develop on their own timeframe is the best approach.
Baby led weaning doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing way of feeding your baby. I always kept a few jars of organic puree in my cabinet – especially those foods which were more difficult to purchase or locate in baby-friendly ways, like prunes – for times when my babies seemed to want more to “be fed” than to feed themselves. Babies are just small humans – individuals with their own opinions. Sometimes they may want you to feed them, sometimes they want to feed themselves. Using baby led weaning as part of your parenting tool box gives you more options, can be less stressful for everyone involved, and is a healthier way to approach mealtimes. Enjoy!
** Note: Some children (like my first) have food sensitivities or allergies, so it is wise to stay within the recommended guidelines for introducing new foods. Here is a good reference for determining allergenic foods (Dr. Sears Most & Least Allergenic Foods) I kept a detailed food diary with my first, and we introduced only one new food every few days, and recorded any reactions.
I am not a doctor or a medical professional. The advice in this article is my own personal opinion and not to be taken as medical advice. Please talk to your doctor if you have any specific questions about allergies or baby feeding.