As a new parent, there are many life milestones you’ll need to lead your children through—taking those first steps, saying their first words and, of course, learning to eat and enjoy a wide variety of foods. However, when it comes to eating a healthy diet, should you step back and allow your child to lead the way instead?
Transitioning your baby from formula or breast milk to solid foods is easier said than done. One approach is the baby-led weaning method. While not always popular with the older crowd (so you may need to coax your MIL to give this one a try the next time she babysits), the United Kingdom-originated method is gaining popularity in the United States with new parents.
Here’s everything you need to know.
What is Baby Led Weaning?
Essentially, baby-led weaning (sometimes also called BLW or self-feeding), What to Expect explains, bypasses the idea that you start your baby with rice cereal and pureed baby food and, instead, takes them straight from formula or breastfeeding to “real” food. While, no, you won’t be plopping a steak dinner down in front of your little one at six months, the method does incorporate plenty of finger foods as soon as your child is capable of feeding themselves.
Baby-led weaning allows your baby to feed themselves the foods they want (safe foods, in safe quantities), at the rate they want, in the quantities they want. Babies are given free rein over a range of healthful items, so they’re more in control of their learning process, and you’re not frustratedly trying to shove yet another spoonful of pureed peas into their little mouths. If you’ve been dreading the spoon-feeding process, this is your alternative.
The Benefits of Baby Led Weaning
So why would you want to go this route versus sticking with the tried-and-true rice cereal that your mom used and that her mom likely used before that?
There are many benefits that come with baby led weaning.
No More Picky Palates
If you have the patience for baby led weaning, you can expect that you’ll end up with a toddler that has a far greater appetite for a broader array of foods. Say goodbye to picky eaters during those terrible twos. Since your baby will be trying and exploring foods on their own, they’re less likely to resist foods that are forced. Additionally, since their diet as an infant will be broader, they may be less likely to develop food allergies when they’re older.
No More Wasted Time
How many parents who’ve gone before you have told you their horror stories about hours spent with the baby in the high chair as they try and try and try again to get them to just please swallow one more bite of baby food? With baby led weaning, there are no more hours of wasted time. Just let your baby eat until they’re done. They’ll know when they’re no longer hungry.
No More Wasted Money
Baby food is expensive. Even if you make your own baby food at home, the gear and ingredients can be pricey. When you follow the baby led weaning method, you’re more likely to save cash as you simply give your baby a morsel of whatever the rest of the family happens to be eating for a meal. This holds true even when you go out for meals, as you can simply share your entree with your baby as suitable.
Helps develop motor skills
All that finger food encourages your baby to pinch, grab, pull and push. As they learn how to get that delicious food from their baby tray to their mouths, they’re learning fine motor skills that are necessary as they grow and as their brain develops.
Helps Develop Social Skills
Additionally, since babies are more likely to be eating the same food as the rest of the family, they get the added benefit of mealtime being a social time. Not only is this always valuable for growing infants, but it’s likewise a benefit for Mom or Dad, as they’re not forced to undergo a separate, isolated feeding before or after the regular mealtime.
Reduced Chance of Obesity
Since you’re not forcing your child to eat a set amount of baby food each day, they can choose to eat until they’re full. This reduces their chance of obesity.
A Healthier Relationship With Food
All too often, food and mealtimes become a power struggle between parents and children. This can lead some children to develop a poor relationship with food that can, in turn, lead to eating disorders. When food becomes about nourishment rather than power, as it is within baby led weaning, there’s a greater chance your child will develop a healthy relationship with food and meals, as they know that they’re free to eat a range of foods in quantities that feel right for them.
The Downsides of Baby Led Weaning
Of course, baby led weaning isn’t perfect. There are some other considerations you should take into account.
Your Baby Can’t Eat Everything
While babies can eat a wide array of foods when using this method, they can’t eat every single thing on your plate. While, previously, you could’ve maybe just pulled a jar of baby food from the pantry at random, with baby led weaning, you may need to pay greater attention to what your baby is eating and whether or not they’re getting proper quantities of all the vitamins and nutrients they need.
Things Can Get Messy
Of course, when you relinquish the spoon and allow your baby to feed themselves, things can get a tad messy. In addition to the obvious mess that’s going to be all over their hands as they feed themselves with their tiny fingers, the mess will spread to the high chair, the rest of their body and likely the surrounding floor as well. (Hey! It’s not easy learning to feed yourself!)
It Requires Attention
Since your baby will be feeding themselves, it’s important that they have strict parental supervision while they’re at it. Don’t just let them chow down while you scroll on your phone. While the risk of choking or gagging is small, it still exists, and your child should be watched accordingly.
Baby Led Weaning Isn’t Right For Every Baby
While baby led weaning is a great option for lots of families, it’s not a perfect fit for every single family. If your baby has any neurological or developmental issues, it could prove a challenge. As with every decision regarding your baby’s development, consider talking to your pediatrician about baby led weaning before starting the process.
Then, once you are ready to start, here’s how.
How to Start Baby-Led Weaning
The general consensus is that your baby is ready for solid foods once they hit six months of age. Again, not every single baby will be ready for solid foods at this age, but if your pediatrician gives the okay, you can give the solid foods a try.
Signs that your baby is ready for solid foods include the ability to sit on their own, spit items out of their mouth and hold and grasp items. If you have a difficult time keeping toys and other items out of your baby’s mouth, they’re likely ready.
Once you’ve determined your baby is developmentally ready for trying baby led weaning, you don’t need to make a big deal out of the change. Continue feeding your baby their breast milk or formula, and then simply offer appropriate finger foods during the family’s normal meal times. Don’t force it and let the baby choose to eat or not eat.
What to Feed Your Baby When Baby Led Weaning
So what’s okay or not okay for your baby to eat when you give this process the first try? Here are a few things to keep in mind as you choose their next meal.
Think About Your Baby’s Fine Motor Skills
Your baby needs pieces of food that they can grasp and pick up. While you might think it’s best to choose items that are portioned or cut very small to avoid a choking hazard, serving too-small pieces can actually make the feeding process more frustrating for your baby. If they can’t easily pick an item up and get it into their mouth, they may just give up.
At first, until those fine motor skills are fine-tuned, go with longer strips or bigger portions that they can easily grasp and gnaw their way through.
Go for Soft Foods
Your baby will learn to gnaw before they learn to chew (because no six-month-old has a full set of teeth), so opt for gnawable, soft foods that they can smush, smash and dissolve easily. Crunchy, hard foods are best avoided, as they can be choking hazards. Slippery foods are likewise choking hazards and include items like small fruits (grapes or cherry tomatoes) and hot dogs.
Vary the Colors and Textures
To keep your baby interested and excited about all the new options available at family mealtimes, try to vary the colors and textures of the foods you offer.
Steer Clear of Extra Salt and Sugar
While you might think salt and sugar are necessary for every meal, your baby doesn’t need either. However, herbs and spices are perfectly okay, so long as you don’t overdo it on the spicy factor too early.
Appropriate First Foods for Baby Led Weaning
Taking all of the above into consideration, you might want to offer your baby, depending on their age and motor skills.
- Green beans
- Sweet potatoes
- Cooked carrots
- Cooked broccoli florets
- Cooked cauliflower florets
- Cooked beets
- Cooked spinach
- Cooked apple
- Cooked pear
- Poached chicken
- Ground beef
- Ground turkey
- Cooked whole-grain pasta
- Whole-grain cereal
As you attempt baby led weaning, you’ll easily see how you can deconstruct your family meals to make them suitable for baby, too. For example, having a taco night? Feed your baby the diced tomatoes, ground (unseasoned) beef and black beans.
Some foods are potential allergens — such as fish, eggs, yogurt, cow’s milk and nuts — but are important to include in your baby’s diet so they don’t develop a food allergy later in life. Talk to your pediatrician about the best time to try these foods, and the proper way to go about it, as well as the signs of an allergic reaction in an infant, so you know what to watch for.
Tips for Baby Led Weaning
Think you’ve got a handle on this new-fangled feeding method? Take a few tips with you as you go.
Make Things Easy and Don’t Stress the Small Stuff.
There will be a mess, guaranteed. Your baby may not eat as much as you think they ought to. They may not love something the first time they try it. It’s all okay. Just offer them lots of different foods every meal time, and let them take the lead. That’s what the process is all about, isn’t it?
So don’t get frustrated and don’t make things overly difficult on yourself by trying to get the baby to use a spoon on Day 1 or by attempting to follow a super-strict feeding schedule. Let your child go at their own pace and discover their own food preferences.
Find Your Support System.
So your own parents may not be all on board with this relatively new method of teaching your baby to eat, but you can find other parents out there who are all about it. Find those folks, whether in person, in your broader social circle of parent friends, or online, so you can commiserate, share tips and go through the weaning process together.
Introduce New Foods Slowly
Avoid giving your baby a full finger-food feast right at once. To accurately test for any allergic reactions, you need to feed your baby one new food every three to five days or so. That way, if an allergic reaction does occur, you can easily pinpoint the culprit.