What Is Baby-Led Weaning?
What Is Baby-Led Weaning?
July 7, 2022

What Is Baby-Led Weaning?

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What Is Baby-Led Weaning?.
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What Is Baby-Led Weaning?

As you settle into feeding your baby over the first few months of their life, it’s hard to imagine giving them anything other than formula or breastmilk. But before you can Google, “When can babies eat whole grapes?” (answer: basically never, you’ll be quartering those suckers until they leave for college), your little one will be pulling up a seat at the table and eating meals right along with the rest of the family. Learning as much as you can about how to introduce solids can help take the stress out of what often feels very overwhelming for first-time parents.

If you’ve done even a little research (or a lot of scrolling on social media), you’ve likely come across baby-led weaning. But what exactly is baby-led weaning? Is baby-led weaning safe? What are the best baby-led weaning foods? And when—and how—do you start?

This one-stop guide is your ultimate resource on everything you need to know about baby-led weaning.

What Is Baby-Led Weaning?

For many years, starting a baby on solid foods followed a fairly predictable script: start by spoon-feeding your little one purées, slowly progress to more textured foods and eventually land on small pieces of food (often called finger foods) that your baby can feed themselves.

Baby-led weaning turns this traditional route to starting solids upside down.

With independence at its core, baby-led weaning is a feeding method that skips purées and spoon-feeding and lets baby self-feed finger foods right from the start.

Baby-led weaning isn’t a feeding free-for-all; there are certain guidelines you’ll need to follow to keep your baby safe while eating. But it is a feeding method that can help your baby learn to explore all types of foods, encourage independence and be a part of the family meal.

Baby-Led Weaning vs. Purées

One of the biggest debates you may come across as you research BLW is if one way of feeding your baby—starting off with purées, for example—is “better” than another. Rest assured that this is a worry you can cross off your list right now.

“There is no one right or wrong way to feed your baby,” says Katie Ferraro, Registered Dietitian, mom of seven and the creator behind the popular baby-led weaning Instagram account Baby Led Wean Team. “As a dietitian specializing in baby-led weaning, I can certainly extoll the benefits of a baby-led approach, but not all parents may be comfortable with it or prefer traditional spoon-feeding and that is their prerogative.”

Pediatrician Dr. Tracy Agnese agrees. “Honestly, I really don’t think it matters either way. Do what’s most comfortable and easiest for your family,” she says.

Can you do baby-led weaning and purées?

For some parents, a hybrid approach of baby-led weaning plus purées works well—and that’s completely okay.

“It doesn’t have to be so black and white,” explains Dr. Agnese. “If your child is over six months old and you want to do a combination of BLW and purées, that’s totally fine.”

It’s also important to remember that even if you’re introducing solids primarily through baby-led weaning, feeding your baby puréed foods is also part of the process. “Purées are an important texture for babies to master—it’s just not the only texture babies can eat,” explains Ferraro. “You can honor the self-feeding principles of baby-led weaning and still offer naturally puréed foods like yogurt or oatmeal by using a pre-loaded spoon approach,” she says.

Benefits of Baby-Led Weaning

Baby-led weaning has several benefits, including helping babies learn to chew and feed themselves and simplifying the transition to solid foods.

“Baby-led weaning offers an opportunity to honor your baby’s inborn ability and desire to feed him or herself from six months of age and when demonstrating the other reliable signs of readiness to eat,” says Ferraro.

According to Jenny Best, founder of the baby feeding resource Solid Starts website and popular Instagram account, benefits of baby-led weaning include:

  • Helping babies become safe eaters. “Baby-led weaning rapidly advances oral motor skills babies need to become safe eaters,” explains Best. “For babies to learn how to chew food thoroughly, they need to practice with chewable food.”
  • Less transitions.“When baby starts solids with “real” food, there’s no transition that needs to be done later on, whereas with spoonfeeding of textureless purées, the parent will need to transition baby from spoonfeeding to self-feeding,” she says. “What our feeding therapists often see is parents that wait too long to transition from spoonfeeding to finger food/self feeding and it becomes a challenging experience for everyone involved.”

Ferraro adds that baby-led weaning actually simplifies the transition to solid foods. There’s no need to purchase expensive pouches, no time required to prepare separate baby foods and baby is given ample opportunity to practice the most important skill: learning how to eat.

Does baby-led weaning prevent picky eating?

Is baby-led weaning the magic solution to preventing picky eating? Unfortunately, no. But because a baby-led feeding approach often means exposure to a larger variety of foods, there is the potential to reduce picky eating down the road.

“There’s no way to prevent picky eating,” explains Ferraro. “Selective eating, picky eating, whatever you call it—it’s a component of typical childhood development.”

“With traditional spoon feeding, babies have around 10-15 foods they’ve tried by 12 months. And if you lose those foods to picky eating, that becomes a very challenging child to feed,” she says. “But if your baby has 100 foods by the time they turn one, and you lose 10 or 15 foods to picky eating, no big deal, right? The potential for “diet diversity” with the baby-led approach and its benefits extend into later childhood.”

Is Baby-Led Weaning Safe?

Whether or not baby-led weaning is safe is probably the most commonly asked question from parents who are considering this approach when starting solids. And it’s totally understandable, considering that making the jump from formula or breastmilk to solids can be intimidating enough—let alone going right to actual pieces of food.

“Choking in babies does happen, and it’s scary,” says Dr. Agnese. But when done properly, baby-led weaning is safe.

“The most common misconception around BLW is that it increases the risk of choking,” says Best. “In fact, when a baby cognitively decides to put food in their mouth, their brain is more ready to coordinate chewing and safe swallowing. The risk of choking is actually higher when a caregiver places food in baby’s mouth—the brain is not always ready for it.”

“Babies who start solid foods with a baby-led approach are at no higher risk of choking than are traditionally spoon-fed babies, provided that the parents and caregivers are educated about reducing choking risk.” reassures Ferraro, citing this study from the American Academy of Pediatrics and this one from the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics.

She also empaizes recognicing the difference between gagging and choking. “Gagging is different from choking and it is important for parents and caregivers to understand the difference,” Ferraro explains.

She recommends taking a refresher infant CPR course when your baby starts solid foods so you’re prepared in the event of a choking incident.

When To Start Baby-Led Weaning

While many pedatricians recommend starting purée solids when a baby is between four and six months old, you should wait until your baby is at least six months old to start baby-led weaning. According to Dr. Agnese, your little one should also be showing these readiness signs:

  • Baby should be able to sit up with minimal support and have good head and neck control.
  • Baby should show interest in foods, watching what you’re eating and looking like they want to take a bite.
  • Baby should be abe to grab objects with their hands and bring them to their mouth.
  • Baby shouldn’t be reflexively pushing food out of their mouth with the tongue. (This is called the extrusion reflex and usually goes away around four to five months old.)

“All babies demonstrate their readiness to start solid foods at different times, so there is no one size fits all schedule,” echoes Ferraro.

She also encourages parents and caregivers to remember that breastmilk or formula should continue to provide the majority of baby’s nutrition as they transition to solid foods.

“Our goal is that by age one, baby should be getting more nutrition from food and less from milk. It doesn’t happen overnight. Just like babies don’t magically wake up on their first birthday and know how to eat 100 foods, they also don’t know how to get more nutrition from food and less from milk without practicing,” she explains.

“I encourage parents to think of the “weaning period” (from six to 12 months) as baby’s opportunity to practice learning how to eat, and stop focusing on how much the baby is eating.”

Best baby-led weaning foods

When choosing the best first foods for baby-led weaning, there are three things to consider: a food’s safety, how easy it is for baby to self-feed and nutrition.

“We want to choose foods that are a low risk for choking but that baby can easily pick up with their hands,” explains Best. And from a nutrition perspective, she recommends to focus that are high in iron, as a baby’s iron stores begin to deplete between four and six months.

A few favorite first BLW foods may include:

  • Mango pits
  • Large broccoli or cauliflower florets (steamed), or other steamed veggies that are easy to hold
  • Beans blended into a paste on a teething rusk
  • Nut butters mixed into applesauce

As for foods to avoid, stay away from hard, round foods like nuts, whole grapes, raw carrots and round candies, cautions Dr. Agnese.

For BLW-safe food suggestions, check the Solid Starts free food database, a food resource created specifically for babies by a team of board certified pediatricians, an allergist, infant swallowing specialists, lactation consultants and licensed pediatric dieticiens.

How To Start Baby-Led Weaning

You don’t need a ton of specific baby gear to start baby-led weaning, but if your baby is showing all the readiness signs and you’re ready to begin, there are a few items you’ll want to have on hand.

  • Baby-led weaning high chair. “You want to look for a high chair that has a totally upright seat (no recline whatsoever), a footrest (or can be modified to have one) and that has a removable tray so baby can be part of the family meal from day one. After that, the best feature to look for is simply a chair that grows with the child so that you don’t need to be a new chair as your baby becomes a toddler, and then a preschooler,” explains Best.
  • Bibs. BLW is messy! A few bibs made from silicone or another waterproof, wipeable material are helpful to have on hand.
  • Tableware. Look for spoons that are easy for little hands to hold, bowls and plates with suction bottoms and small cups that appropriately sized for tiny mouths.

Check Babylist’s Best Gear for Baby-Led Weaning guide for more information and specific product recommendations.

Baby-led weaning sample schedule

“Practice makes perfect,” explains Ferraro. “The more time and space you give your baby to explore new textures, tastes and flavors, the more proficient they will become in self-feeding.”

While there is no one-size-fits-all schedule for BLW, Ferraro recommends the following:

  • Six to seven months old: offer solid foods one to two times per day
  • Eight to nine months old: offer solid foods two to three times per day
  • Ten months and up: aim to offer solids three times a day and mirror the family meal schedule if possible

SOURCES:

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