When it’s time for your baby to start exploring solid foods, it can be overwhelming when you learn there’s more than one way to approach it. Recently, baby-led weaning has become popular among new parents introducing solids to their kids. If you’re not sure what it is or where the idea came from, you’re definitely not alone. Traditional weaning, or introducing simple runny foods (purees) as your child’s first solids, is still the recommended method here in the US. But, there is another option.
In many countries, purees are skipped altogether in favor of extended breastfeeding or baby-led weaning. Baby-led weaning is just the name for letting your child learn how to feed themselves from a very young age. Typically, families that choose to follow the baby-led weaning approach offer their kids the same food the rest of the family eats (sometimes, foods are altered for spice-level and allergens and size). Though this certainly doesn’t work for everyone, some families love having a method for baby mealtimes that fits seamlessly into their own.
Baby-led weaning is said to have a host of benefits, but it can be a little confusing to get started. If you’re wanting to explore a new method of starting your baby on solid food, being prepared and adjusting your mindset can go a long way in your child having a successful baby-led weaning experience. Here are some guidelines on what you need to know and where to start.
Benefits of Baby-Led Weaning
The benefits of baby-led weaning can be pretty incredible. Since the baby has to use their own hands and fingers to pick up their food and bring it to their little mouths, they get a lot of practice in eye-hand coordination and dexterity. As their pincer grasp emerges, their fine-motor skills really get a chance to develop strongly. Baby-led weaning also helps oral-motor coordination, like chewing, swallowing, and tongue placement. Many parents say this really works to reduce gagging and choking in toddlerhood because babies have much more practice in using their tongues and mouths with real food.
The biggest draw for most parents is the way baby-led weaning helps to develop healthy eating habits. Since baby-led weaning offers babies an opportunity to explore tastes, texture, and aroma of a variety of foods, rather than just purees, many grow to be more adventurous eaters as toddlers.
Baby-led weaning also offers babies a very early (and important) lesson in self-regulation — they learn to stop eating when they feel full. Since these babies are self-feeding, they can’t really over-feed as they can when being fed purees. This is said to be a key factor in preventing obesity later on.
Though there aren’t many research studies on the subject of baby-led weaning, talking to parents you know who have practiced baby-led weaning can give you insight on what the experience is like. Of course, every baby is different, so every family will have a different experience. Here are a few tips on how to get started.
1. Wait Until Your Baby Is Ready
Babies should be at least 6 months old and able to sit up unassisted before starting baby-led weaning. They should have strong neck control, as well. Being at least 6 months old means they will have likely grown out of their tongue-thrust reflex, which pushes foreign objects out of their mouths. This will all help to make for a comfortable and safe experience for them in their high chair. If they don’t feel secure sitting at their eating space, there’s a good chance they won’t be interested in eating.
2. Be Patient
As parents, we get so excited about the next milestones in our baby’s developments, which is perfectly natural. But, we have to remember that they grow and learn at their own pace and watching that whole process unfold is a gift within itself. Though you might start offering finger foods to your little one at 6 months, they might not actually eat anything for a couple of months (my kids started actually ingesting at around 8 or 9 months old).
Because babies’ primary source of calories and nutrition should be breastmilk or formula until they are 12 months old, this is completely fine. The process of exploration and discovery in baby-led weaning is integral to its success, even if it feels slow and dull, at times.
The process of eating is a natural and an expected part of our day — there’s no need to praise, pressure, or scold during any of it. Encouragement and support are all your little one needs.
3. Always Watch Your Baby While Eating
Babies are babies, and so, they should always be watched when eating to ensure they are safe. Gagging is a safe and natural reflex babies have to push food out that is too challenging to eat (babies’ gag reflexes are towards the front of their tongue, not the back, like ours), and babies are wired to learn from this reflex. If you react strongly, she will too. Allow them a few moments to work it out themselves, but also trust your gut on when to intervene.
Seeing your baby explore and grow to love the foods your family enjoys is a lot of fun. Pulling their high chairs up to the table and including them during family meals also helps babies learn how mealtimes work, understand how utensils work, and sets them up for a foundation of fun, enjoyable mealtimes.
4. Start With Soft Foods
Ripe fruit, cooked egg yolks, flaky fish, moist, shredded, or ground meat, well-cooked pasta, and vegetables are all great first food options. High-calorie foods and those with protein and healthy fats are all recommended by most experts. Take care to not add salt and be light on spices with your baby’s food, but as they grow, being more adventurous is half the fun.
Prepare these foods in a way that makes them easy to grasp. At first, before your baby’s pincer grasp is strong, they will be substantially-sized pieces — large chunks and wedges, long, thin strips, or foods cut with a crinkle cutter are easiest for tiny hands to manage.
Tossing slippery foods, like avocado, in a bit of baby oatmeal or crushed cereal, can make them easier for baby to pick up and hold.
Remember to stay away from choking hazards, like grapes, dried fruits (raisins), raw vegetables, popcorn, hot dogs, and sticky nut butters. Anything the size and shape of a coin is a no-no.
5. Prepare For A Mess
As you might have guessed, babies learning how to feed themselves is not really a neat and tidy experience. The truth is that exploration and discovery for babies often lead to an epic mess. Having a sturdy, easy to clean high chair definitely helps, as do long-sleeved bibs. But, there will be mess — lots of it. This is something to come to terms with, as it is just a part of the whole baby-led weaning experience.
But, seeing your baby’s face as they taste their first mango or enjoy a bite of your special lasagna certainly makes up for it, times a thousand.