As babies get to about 6 months old, I often hear questions from parents about starting foods beyond breast milk or formula. Many parents opt for pureed fruits and vegetables along with rice cereal, which is perfectly fine. But another approach I like is called baby-led weaning.
Baby-led weaning skips over the pureed foods and introduces regular food from the start. Babies are encouraged to feed themselves from a variety of different food options (foods should be soft and easy for a baby to gum). This approach is called baby-led weaning because that's exactly what you’re doing — letting your little one choose what they want to eat.
Baby-led weaning should be done with your pediatrician's guidance and not before 6 months old. It should also be noted that weaning in this sense doesn’t mean moving away from breastmilk or formula, which will still serve as a main source of nourishment through your baby’s first year.
As I mentioned above, your baby should be at least 6 months old. Your child should also have good neck strength and be able to sit in a high chair unassisted. While most babies at this age will not have strong chewing skills, starting them with soft, gummable food will help develop them.
When I talk to parents and caregivers about baby-led weaning for their child, I’m happy to offer direction. To start, I tell them to start with soft foods that babies will be easy for their baby to swallow. You should be able to smash whatever it is you’re giving your baby between your thumb and index finger easily. Things like avocado, bananas, steamed carrots or sweet potato are great first foods. There’s no need to add salt, sugar or artificial sweeteners to the foods since they don’t add any nutritional value. Just as you would with pureed baby foods, start small and with only one food at a time for a few days to watch for any potential food allergies.
Some signs of allergic reaction can include hives, wheezing, vomiting or swelling of the face or tongue. If wheezing, paling or swelling of the face or tongue occurs, call 911 immediately. You should also contact your pediatrician if you suspect a food is not being tolerated. They can help you determine if further tests are needed or if a reaction is something outside of allergies.
Safety first: Your baby should never be left alone while eating and should only eat in the high chair as they are first being introduced to solids.
Mix it up: Some parents aren’t comfortable with only doing baby-led weaning, so mixing it up with pureed, spoon-fed foods and whole, softer foods is perfectly acceptable. A lot of babies will lick, gum and spit out finger foods as they get used to texture, so a mixed approach helps make sure your baby is getting some of the food offered.
Continue to nurse or bottle-feed, but eat at mealtimes: As I mentioned above, babies will continue to get the majority of their nutrition from breast milk or formula through about age 1, so continue to nurse and bottle feed as your baby needs. If you choose baby-led weaning, simply offer solids at mealtime, and let your baby decide if it’s time to eat.
Avoid choking hazards: Nothing crunchy, chewy, hard or too big to swallow. With babies younger than 1 year old, avoid foods such as:
Sharing is caring: Babies learn social cues from you, some of which can be observed at meal times. Include your baby by serving them foods that are good for sharing. Try steamed veggies and a protein like fish, or ground or shredded meats to start. If your pediatrician has approved baby-led weaning, there's no reason that your baby can’t eat the same foods right along with you.
Variety is key: After you’ve moved past the initial stages of introducing one food at a time, it’s great to offer your baby a variety of foods. Over time, this is likely to make your baby less of a picky eater and have more of an adventurous palate. I like to recommend that families eat the rainbow! It’s good for adults and babies. Think watermelon, roasted tomatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas, green beans, avocados, etc.
Self-regulation: When babies learn to feed themselves from a young age, they are better able to assess how full they are, which leads to better self-regulation down the road. A baby who is spoon-fed may keep eating because of the novelty of a spoon being offered.
Fine motor skills: At 6 months old, a baby is most likely able to pick things up with their whole hand. As baby-led weaning progresses, they improve their fine motor skills by being able to pick up things with their thumb and index finger or grasp baby-safe utensils such as forks and spoons.
Beware...it can get messy! Since babies are still learning about the world around them, touching, throwing and mushing new things are how they learn. But don’t let this discourage you from trying baby-led weaning. There are mats you can put under your child’s high chair for easier clean up, or if you have a dog, let Fido help with the crumbs that fall!
If you’re interested in trying baby-led weaning, talk to your pediatrician about what will work best for your family. If you have questions about this or anything else related to your baby’s well-being, talk to your pediatrician. We are always here for you.