Your baby is about four months old, you are finally used to breastfeeding and following his feeding schedule, but like all things involving infants and children, a new phase is about to begin right when you are getting comfortable. It’s now time to start thinking about feeding your baby solid foods, and with a new trend in feeding emerging, you’ll need to decide how to go about it. Recently, many parents who are preparing to introduce solid foods into their infant’s diet are using an alternative approach called baby-led weaning.
Over the last 10 to 15 years, this form of feeding a baby has grown in popularity. It bypasses some of the traditional stages of nutrition for babies and starts with self-feeding. Forget the puréed, spoon-fed foods at four-months of age. Baby-led weaning involves exclusively breastfeeding or providing formula for the first six months of life, and then transitioning right to solid form, finger foods.
Although the evidence suggesting the positive outcomes of baby-led weaning is limited, parents are convinced that this method of feeding helps to promote healthy eating behaviors. And researchers believe that this approach was likely what mothers did for thousands of years, before they turned to specially prepared baby foods that are used in today’s modern feeding culture. (1)
What Is Baby-Led Weaning?
Baby-led weaning is an approach to feeding an infant that promotes his ability to self-feed finger foods and set the pace of the meal. You may be confused about what is meant by baby-led weaning because in the U.S. we use the term “weaning” to refer to the end of breastfeeding. But in England, where this approach was popularized, the word weaning refers to starting solids.
Unlike the traditional method of introducing infants to solid foods using puréed foods on a spoon, parents using the baby-led weaning method give their babies family foods in whole form. This approach is used to allow infants to self-feed, choose what foods they want and decide how much to eat in one sitting. It also allows infants to become part of family meal times from a very early age.
According to research published in Current Nutrition Reports, the growth of this alternative approach has become more popular after the World Health Organization changed their recommendation about when to introduce infants to solid foods. The standard used to be starting blended and smooth solid foods at four months, but in 2003 it was changed to starting at six months.
Advocates of baby-led weaning argue that physiologically, introducing solids to a four-month old is a very different experience than it is for a six-month old. By six months of age, the majority of infants have already developed the skills that are needed to self-feed, including the ability to sit up without support, bring foods to their mouth, and chew and swallow foods. (2)
It made sense to begin with puréed, spoon-fed foods when starting solids at four months, when infants don’t possess the reflexes and skills to eat finger foods, but if you choose to follow the WHO recommendation and begin at six months, starting with puréed foods isn’t necessary, according to parents who practice baby-led weaning.
And one study, conducted at the University of Glasgow in the U.K. , suggests that this is true. Researchers found that 68 percent of infants 4–6 months old were able to grasp food with their hands, while 85 percent of babies 6–7 months and 96 percent of those 7–8 months old were able to grasp foods. This data indicates that unless your child is developmentally delayed or has sensory sensitivities, he or she should be ready to manage finger foods by around six months. (3)
6 Benefits of Baby-Led Weaning
1. Encourages Self Feeding and Exploration
When you leave the feeding to the baby, he is able to explore the food more closely — looking it over in its natural form (instead of its puréed form), touching it, smelling it and tasting it on his own. Baby-led weaning also allows the infant to work on his chewing skills and hand-eye coordination, more so than he would when fed soft, puréed foods. This is one of the most important aspects of baby-led weaning for parents who choose the follow the method. (4)
2. Allows Infant to Follow Hunger Cues
Moms and dads who are practicing baby-led weaning love that their babies are able to follow their own hunger cues. When you start spoon feeding your baby at 4 months, it’s hard for him to tell you that he’s full and has had enough, or hungry and wants more. Usually, the baby will turn away from the spoon or keep his lips tightly shut to show he’s full. And when he’s hungry, he’ll open his mouth and look at the spoon. But these signs can be confusing sometimes, so parents find it helpful that with baby-led weaning, the baby is in charge — choosing for himself when to stop eating.
One study suggests that mothers who use the baby-led weaning method are less concerned about their child’s weight than mothers following a traditional approach to feeding. This is probably due to the baby’s ability to eat only what he needs to feel content, which helps to manage his weight. (5)
And another study, this one published in Pediatric Obesity, found that children who had followed a baby-led weaning approach were significantly more likely to be less food responsive and more satiety responsive, which suggests that they have better appetite control. (6)
3. Makes the Infant Part of Family Meal Times
Fans of baby-led weaning appreciate that it allows the infant to participate in family meals. The baby doesn’t have to be spoon-fed while you’re simultaneously trying to eat your meal. With baby-led weaning, he’s at the table with the family, picking up his own finger foods and feeding himself. This will teach him about the importance of family meal times and it will make him feel included. Fans of baby-led weaning believe that this nurtures positive attitudes about eating for the future.
4. Allows Babies to Receive a Wider Diet
Because baby-led weaning isn’t limited to select puréed foods that are first introduced in the traditional method of feeding, babies are potentially receiving a wider diet of family foods. Plus, once they are introduced to a specific food for the first time and don’t show any signs of food allergies, babies are offered an array of choices during their meals. This allows them to decide which foods they want to eat, how much to eat and at what pace to eat, too. (7)
5. Requires Less Work (and Money)
Moms, dads and caregivers spend a good amount of time preparing little jars of puréed baby foods when they first introduce solids. For those that prefer to make the foods themselves, instead of buying dozens of jars from the market, it requires some cutting, baking, sautéing, blending and packaging. Baby-led weaning advocates exclaim that this practice requires less work because the baby can eat the same foods that are being served to the family for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
BLW also requires less money. With this method of feeding, you don’t have to spend money on separate jars of baby food or foods that you can purée at home. Instead, you’re feeding your baby what you are already preparing for the family.
6. Delays the Introduction of Solid Foods
Parents who choose to follow the baby-led feeding method are delaying the introduction of solid foods until the baby is at least six months old. Ideally, until the baby reaches six months old, he is being exclusively breastfed, which also has its many benefits. Some research suggests that avoiding early introduction of foods may reduce the risk of the baby becoming overweight or struggling with childhood obesity.
A study conducted at Swansea University in the U.K. found that babies who followed the traditional approach to feeding were significantly heavier at 18–24 months than those who followed the baby-led weaning approach. Researchers found that for those who had followed the baby-led method feeding, 86.5 percent were of normal weight, 8 percent were overweight and 5.4 percent were underweight. This is compared to the babies following a traditional method of feeding, in which 78.3 percent were categorized as being a normal weight, 19 were overweight and 2.5 percent underweight. (8)
In addition to the benefits that delaying solids may have on weight gain, it also promotes exclusive breastfeeding for a longer period of time. Parents are encouraged to offer breast milk to their baby until he is at least 1 year old or longer. This promotes a healthy microbiome, boosts the baby’s immune system and supply the baby with vitamins and minerals that are necessary for his development. (9)
Related: Metal in Baby Food: Study Finds 95% Contain Heavy Metals
Best Baby-Led Weaning Foods & Recipes
It’s time to offer family foods to your 6 month (or older) baby. At this point, a lot of parents are asking “how do I start baby-led weaning?” Here are some tips to keep in mind when deciding what foods to start with and how to prepare them: (10)
- When you are first starting to feed your baby with this method, it’s recommended that you begin slowly and introduce only one food at a time. This will allow you to detect any food allergies as you go through different food groups.
- Start with one meal a day and go from there for the first few months.
- Offer your baby pieces of whole foods in a size and shape that he can grasp and feed himself.
- Opt for soft foods that your baby can easily smash with his fingers and pick up.
- Cut foods into strips or sticks so that your baby can easily grasp them with his hand and take bites.
- For slippery foods, like banana and avocado, leave the peel on the bottom so that your can grip the food and bite it more easily.
- Using a crinkle cutter can also help to make cooked veggies less slippery.
- Avoid foods that are a choking hazard, like raw vegetables, hard fruits (including raw apple) and nuts. Make sure to steam or roast hard fruits and vegetables before serving them to your baby.
- Make sure your baby is sitting up straight when he’s eating and always stay with him while he’s eating.
- Don’t worry if your baby isn’t eating a whole lot the first month or two of baby-led weaning. Remember that he’s receiving most of his calories and nutrients from breast milk or formula.
These are the best baby-led weaning foods to start with:
Steamed or boiled vegetables: pumpkin, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, green beans (remove skin), zucchini and beets
Soft fruits: Avocado, banana, baked apple slices (without the peel), and very ripe pears and melon
Meat: Flaked salmon, strips of chicken and grass-fed beef and soft meatballs
Eggs: Hardboiled or scrambled
Cheese: Soft cheeses
Bread: Slivers of lightly toasted bread (can be topped with hummus, nut butter or grass-fed butter)
Pasta: Cooked whole wheat or gluten-free pasta cut into pieces
Once your baby has successfully eaten and tolerated several types of foods, you can begin serving him mixed dishes. But you still need to make sure that the foods are small and soft enough for your baby to handle without choking.
This is a great time to start feeding your baby the meals that you have prepared for your family. Just make sure that they aren’t too spicy or salty, chop it up and let it sit so that it’s not too hot for your baby. This is also an excellent time to let your baby experiment with holding a baby spoon or fork. He probably won’t be able to use it properly for a while, but he’ll enjoy trying and getting used to it. And now you can mix foods that are naturally softer and smaller with finger foods, while he uses the fork or spoon to feed himself.
Here are some baby-led weaning recipes or combinations that you can serve once your baby has tried several types of foods individually:
- Blueberries (or soft fruits) with yogurt
- Oatmeal with nut butter and ripe pear
- Almond flour pancakes (chopped) topped with berries
- Chopped hard-boiled egg with avocado and cheese
- Minestrone soup with most of the liquid removed
- Chicken strips with lentils and steamed broccoli
- Beef strips with sweet potato and zucchini
- Baked fish with steamed green beans and carrots
Potential Baby-Led Weaning Drawbacks
- Increased risk of choking: The risk of choking is the most commonly raised concern with baby-led weaning among parents and healthcare professionals. When a child begins experimenting with putting foods into his mouth, this requires coordination of chewing, swallowing and breathing, which doesn’t always happen when he’s just learning to handle foods. One study found that 30 percent of parents reported at least one episode of choking with baby-led weaning. However, there isn’t enough research comparing choking in BLW and traditional feeding. Plus, mothers reported that when their babies were choking, they were able to expel the foods on their own by coughing. (11) A major aspect of baby-led weaning is learning the difference between choking and gagging. Gagging is a safety mechanism that brings large pieces of food forward in the mouth so that it can be chewed further. For infants, gagging is very common because the gag reflex is triggered more easily. By about eight months of age, the place in the mouth where the gag reflex is triggered moves further back in the mouth, so gagging becomes less common. Because of the gag reflex, infants just beginning to eat finger foods need to chew their foods well before they can be swallowed easily. If you notice that your infant gags on every food in the beginning, he may not be ready for solids quite yet. In this case, you can wait another week or two and try again, or start with puréed foods instead.
- Nutrient deficiencies: There’s research suggesting that babies using the baby-led weaning approach may be at a greater risk of iron deficiency because they aren’t being exposed to iron-fortified infant cereals. According to researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand, infants following full baby-led weaning appeared to have less than half of the daily dietary iron intake of babies following a traditional method of feeding. There’s also concern about babies following baby-led weaning being at a higher risk of zinc and vitamin B12 deficiencies. For this reason, parents are encouraged to include a variety of nutrient-dense foods into their child’s meals, especially foods that are high in iron, zinc and vitamin B12. (12)
- May not work for every child: In order to start BLW at six months of age, an infant must have the skills to self-feed. This means that he must be able to sit up on his own, grasp the food and put it into his mouth, then chew the food and swallow. If the child doesn’t have the ability to self feed, he’s at a greater risk of “failure to thrive,” which means that he’s not getting the calories and nutrients he needs to grow. In these cases, parent assistance is necessary in order to ensure that the child is eating enough for proper growth and development. (13)
- Baby-led weaning is an approach to feeding an infant that promotes his ability to self-feed finger foods and set the pace of the meal.
- Unlike traditional feeding methods that start when an infant is around 4 months old, baby-led weaning begins at around 6 months, when the baby is able to sit up, grasp food, chew and swallow.
- Advocates of baby-led weaning choose this method because it:
- encourages self feeding and exploration
- allows the infant to follow hunger cues
- makes the infant part of family meal time
- allows babies to receive a wider diet
- requires less work and money
- delays the introduction of solid foods
- To follow this feeding approach, infants are given soft, chopped finger foods that they can easily grasp and bring to their mouths. Some of the best foods to begin baby-led weaning include steamed or boiled vegetables, avocados, soft fruits like very ripe pears and bananas, eggs and soft cheeses.
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