What is it?
Baby-led weaning is a fun and modern approach to introducing “solid foods” to your baby. You skip the traditional mush and pureed food, and let your baby feed himself real food at about six months, or as soon as he or she is ready to rock.
Don’t let the “weaning” part throw you off; that’s just the British-ism for introducing solid foods. You won’t actually be “weaning” your baby off of breastmilk or formula just yet. In fact, those will continue to be the main source of nourishment for your baby until his first birthday.
When do I start?
Like so many things, it depends on the child. Most babes won’t be ready to start until they can sit up unsupported and bring objects to their mouth—usually around 6 months old. It’s important to follow your baby’s cues, and consult with his doctor to pick the right time. My first baby didn’t fully embrace self-feeding until she was close to seven months. My second was feeding himself broccoli and cauliflower florets at 5 ½ months. Every baby is different!
Traditionally parents were told to start their babies on iron-fortified grain cereals (rice, oats, barley and so on), which does not lend itself well to a self-feeding approach. But these days, doctors are okay with a more flexible menu, starting with iron-rich foods (such as meat and meat alternatives), and quickly adding on fruits and vegetables, and eventually grains and dairy products such as yogurt and cheese. Even allergenic foods—like eggs, wheat, nut butters, fish and dairy products—can be introduced as early as six months old. About the only food that is truly “off limits” is honey, which should be delayed until after 12 months due to the risk of infant botulism. Be cautious with salt too.
There is really no magic to the order in which you introduce new foods, but however you do it, it’s important to add them in one at a time to spot any allergic reactions. My youngest child is allergic to wheat, nuts and eggs (you can read more about that here), and our one-a-day introduction made it easy to identify the culprits.
The really amazing thing about baby-led weaning is that, subject to the caveats above, you can basically feed your babe the same things you are making for the rest of your family. From the beginning! At 6 months, I steamed or roasted extra vegetables, set some aside before adding salt, and fed those to my kids. By seven months, they were eating pretty much the same meatballs, braised chicken, vegetable soups, pasta and whole grain muffins that we were eating!
Young babies do best with food served in matchsticks or french-fry shapes, or with a “handle” to hang on to (e.g. the stem of a broccoli floret); smaller chunks will get lost in their pudgy little fist. By nine months or so, babies start to develop a “pincer grasp” and food can be served in small chunks. Runny or mushy foods like yogurt, oatmeal and soup can be offered on a spoon—just let your baby grab the spoon and feed himself (hello, mess!) or hold the spoon and let your baby lean in to it. The idea is to let your baby control the pace of eating and the amount he eats. Baby leads the way!
Why do it?
There are so many benefits to baby-led weaning, both for you and your baby. For starters, it’s EASY! Why make things more complicated than they have to be? You can leave the blender and fancy baby food contraptions in the cupboard. With baby-led weaning you make one family meal, and share it with your baby.
If you can get over the MONDO mess (now may be the time to get that dog your kid was asking for!), it’s also super fun. Watching an eight month old enthusiastically devour a lunch of lamb shoulder, quinoa tabbouleh and roasted jerusalem artichokes (as mine did just the other day) is totally magical.
And while I don’t think there is any sure way to ward off toddler or childhood pickiness (dread!), this is probably as good as it gets. Rather than spend the first year of life eating bland mush or “kid food” (gasp!), babies learn how to eat and enjoy real food—food with different textures, spices, and fresh herbs, food with green stuff in it and sauce all over it. Even spicy food is fair game! There are no pressure or coercion tactics, or “here comes the little airplane flying into mouth” games, either. Baby decides how much and how quickly he eats. Mealtime is introduced as a joyful, social, shared and nourishing adventure, just as it should be.
What’s more, babies who are introduced to solids using a baby-led approach may have better hunger/satiety cues, and be less likely to be overweight as toddlers. Check out this study!
And finally, I find that this approach makes me so much more conscious not only of what I feed my baby, but also what I feed myself. By reading labels carefully, avoiding added salt and preservatives, and cooking simple food from scratch (which is what baby-led weaning forces you to do), you may find that you adopt a cleaner, better diet for your whole family!
What about choking?
This is probably the number one concern of parents considering the baby-led weaning approach. Many baby-led weaning advocates say that the approach makes choking no more likely than with spoon-feeding, and might actually make it less likely because babies learn to chew properly—right from the start—and are in control of how and how much food enters their mouth.
Of course, choking is always a risk no matter how you feed your baby, and the best way to protect against it is (1) supervise your baby while he eats, (2) cut food to safe and manageable sizes, and (3) avoid foods like raw apple and carrots, whole nuts, grapes popcorn and hot dogs. It’s not a bad idea to take a baby first aid course too. I did it when my first child was six months old, which equipped me to dislodge a metal hair barrette from her throat at 18 months old.
Can I do a combo of spoon-feeding and baby-led weaning?
Diehard baby-led weaners would say no, but I say: do whatever feels right! With my first baby, I did a mixture of both, particularly in the beginning and where I wanted to share some food that didn’t lend itself well to self-feeding (e.g. soup or yogurt). My second could probably eat yogurt with his palm (he is THAT hungry and excited about food), and has been able to manage a spoon since he was six months old, so he can feed himself even the mushiest of foods. And with both kids, I almost always spoon-fed when out and about, because I just could not face public-washroom-cleanups. Ugh. My own view is that baby-led weaning is more of a lifestyle than a hard and fast set of rules. It’s ok to adopt the parts that you like and that work for you and your baby, and to leave aside the parts that don’t. The key is to introduce a large variety of healthy food in a fun, social and low-pressure way. The rest is up to you. Have fun!
Looking for more?
Feel free to post any questions, concerns, helpful links etc. in the comments below.
You can also enter here to win a baby-led weaning library (Baby-Led Weaning and The Baby-Led Weaning Cookbook).
**And remember, I’m a mom not a doc and this is not a substitute for medical advice; always consult with your child’s doctor to get specific advice or guidance.