When my son Colin was a baby, many of my friends and family inquired about the way we fed him. They were accustomed to baby food as purees, often in jars from the grocery store. Instead, Colin was fed whole foods in thick, finger length slices and was given many of the very same foods that the rest of us ate for our meals. The short answer to their question: Baby Led Weaning. The longer answer? Keep reading!
What is Baby Led Weaning?
I admit it – when I first heard the term, I scoffed. I had already purchased a baby food maker and was excited to shop for fresh, organic fruits and vegetables. My curiosity got the best of me one evening, though, as I read a post about baby led weaning on one of the parenting forums I follow. I delved a little deeper with my own research, and I was both intrigued and hooked. I knew I had to try it with Colin, and since doing so, we’ve never looked back. We now have another son who has been fed with this method, and the results are great.
Baby Led Weaning in simple terms means skipping purees and utensils (used by you) and thereby allowing your child to feed themselves whole foods from the very beginning. It also means delaying solids until around the six-month mark, when your child shows signs of readiness. These signs include the following:
- Showing interest in food and meal times, often by staring at you intently as you eat. Though Colin started doing this around five months, he wasn’t yet any other signs.
- Sitting without support. I’ll admit that Colin didn’t do this until around seven months.
- The tongue thrust reflex disappears. This is a big one. When parents spoon feed their four-month-old baby a puree, the baby will usually push the puree forward and out with her tongue. Most of the puree winds up all over the baby rather than in her mouth, which is yet another sign that she’s not ready for solids. This frustrates many parents, but it shouldn’t – it just means you should wait a little longer!
- Turning away from the breast or bottle, thereby showing you that he is full.
- Doubling his or her birth weight, which naturally occurs around the six-month mark.
Some babies will be ready sooner, while others might not be ready until months after their half birthday. That’s ok! Your baby is unique, and she will show you when she’s ready to partake in the adventure of solid foods.
Won’t my baby choke? Doesn’t my baby need purees first?
You might be shocked to hear this, but the answer is no: babies do not need purees. In fact, you will be surprised what your baby is capable of on his own, using whole foods. The answer is simple: knowing the difference between gagging versus choking. When your baby is young, the gag reflex is at the front of the mouth and is therefore triggered very easily. Baby Led Weaning does trigger the gag reflex sometimes when the baby is gumming and experimenting with food, but that’s actually a very good sign. The gag reflex is a safety response that tells the baby, “this piece of food is a little advanced for you, let’s bring it back to the front of the mouth.”
For example, Colin gagged about a handful of times initially. Each and every time, he brought the culprit – usually a larger chunk of food – to the front of his mouth. He then proceeded to chew it further or spit it out altogether. Purees actually increase the risk of choking because of their smooth texture. The baby learns to simply swallow them, so when you are transitioning to chunks and more textured food, the baby proceeds to swallow these, too. This increases her risk of choking. As long as the baby is fed foods that are appropriate in type and size, Baby Led Weaning is perfectly safe. Your baby should also never be left unsupervised with any food.
Don’t Babies Need Food?
Not exactly. The baby’s primary source of nutrition for the first 6-12 months of life should be breast milk or formula. Baby led weaning allows your baby to explore food initially. It isn’t until eight or nine months that they begin to eat more purposefully and realize that food does, in fact, fill you up! As long as you continue to give enough breast milk or formula, the baby will continue to grow perfectly. You don’t want to rush her to eat more than she’s ready for. Just be sure that your baby is also getting the correct supplements for his or her age in addition to breast milk and formula.
My Baby Doesn’t Have Teeth – Is Baby Led Weaning Still Ok?
Usually it is best to steam vegetables to make them soft and allow the baby to gum them. You don’t want to make them too soft, though. Those gums are tougher than you realize! If you don’t believe me, stick your (clean!) finger in there. Babies are also very capable of chewing without teeth. Think about it: babies get their front teeth first. Their molars, which they use to chew, don’t come in until the baby is closer to a year old, often later. Babies are manipulating food way before then.
I Still Don’t Understand The Benefits
There are actually many benefits to Baby Led Weaning, ranging from health aspects to convenience:
- You’ll save time. Your baby eats what you eat, so there is no need to prep purees or any extra meals. Whether you are a working mom or at home with your children, more time is a concept we can all appreciate.
- You’ll save money. Pre-made baby food is pricy!
- Decreased choking risk, especially as you transition to other foods.
- Your baby is in control. Developmentally, babies and toddlers love to explore and are highly curious about their environments. At around six months of age, babies are developmentally ready to grab the food themselves, making them much more likely to enjoy new foods, tastes, and textures.
- Your baby will get to know his or her internal hunger cues. This was one of the main philosophies of baby led weaning that really sold me on the concept. It is really appealing to me to feed my son in a way that will teach him to know when he’s really full. As adults, we often tune out – or lose touch with – our internal hunger cues. With Baby Led Weaning, the baby is in control. He is the one in charge of grabbing his food or leaving it alone on the tray. When we spoon feed babies, we as the adults are in charge of both the amount of food we are giving, as well as the rate we are giving it. There are many studies that believe poor eating habits likely stem from infancy and childhood.
- You will be healthier. You’re giving your baby the same foods you’re eating, so you’re more likely to be encouraged to choose healthy, less processed foods.
- Your baby’s palette will be broader. Introducing him or her to new tastes and textures from a young age will encourage your baby to reach beyond the greasy kid staples of pizza and grilled cheese.
- You’ll enjoy a hot meal. Having your baby feed themselves means that you get to eat your meal simultaneously – while it’s still hot.
Things to Watch For
Baby Led Weaning is natural, but there are some rules and guidelines for safety and health purposes. First, avoid foods that are the shape and texture of cherry tomatoes, hot dogs, and grapes for obvious choking reasons. Finger length chunks are great to begin with! Watch the salt content of your food, too. Babies shouldn’t have more than 1g of salt per day, which is a pretty small amount. Honey is also contraindicated in infants until at least a year of age. Speak with your provider about when it’s best to introduce eggs and nuts, especially if you have a history of allergies.
Are You Still Skeptical?
That’s perfectly fine. Baby Led Weaning might not be for you! If you want more information, though, I highly suggest the Baby Led Weaning book and cookbook by Tracy Murkett and Gill Rapley. They really do a great job outlining everything you need to know. There are also many forums for those interested where you can ask questions, as well as a Facebook group. If you love the idea of baby food, easy recipes for busy moms are a lifesaver. As always, be sure to discuss Baby Led Weaning and any other feeding methods with your pediatrician before trying it at home.
Have you tried Baby Led Weaning? We’d love to hear about your experience!
Jessica is an East Coast girl recently transplanted to Austin, Texas. She is an OB-GYN RN, freelance writer, and content manager in between her time at home with her three busy kids. You can follow her antics on Instagram and on her blog Motherhood Written, where she blogs about the fun and messiness of parenting with a nine-year age gap.