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The Basics on Baby-Led Weaning

Baby-led weaning may help avoid picky eating habits, sidestep mealtime tantrums and reinforce baby’s natural hunger and satiety cues, leading to a healthier relationship with food. Here are all the pros and cons and how to do it.

The Basics on Baby-Led Weaning

Photo: iStockphoto

As your little one grows, you might be pondering when it’s the right time to start incorporating solid foods into your baby’s diet. This stage is referred to as baby-led weaning (BLW), and it has the potential to help avoid picky eating habits, sidestep mealtime tantrums and reinforce baby’s natural hunger and satiety cues, leading to a healthier relationship with food.

Baby-led weaning can be done differently: some parents enjoy the steaming, mashing and stockpiling of tiny jars. Others would rather bypass the whole baby-food-making production — not to mention buying the pricey premade stuff. If, however, you’d rather skip purees altogether, baby-led weaning might be the right choice for you.

Ahead, we dive deep into the baby-led weaning process, covering all the upsides, downsides, and everything in between. And if you need recommendations for nutritious foods to support your baby’s growth, we can help with that too.

What is baby-led weaning?

Don’t be fooled by the name: Baby-led weaning is not a process for weaning your infant off the breast or bottle. “Baby-led weaning makes zero difference in the intake of breastmilk or formula, especially early on,” says Catherine Pound, chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s Nutrition and Gastroenterology Committee. It’s really a method of introducing your baby to solids that bypass spoon-feeding and purées in favour of your baby feeding themselves.

The term “baby-led weaning” was first coined by a popular UK parenting book about a decade ago, but it can be confusing in North America, where we think of weaning as stopping breastfeeding and bottle-feeding.

Canadian and American sources often refer to an introduction to solids that relies on baby self-feeding as “complementary feeding” or “baby-led feeding.” But that’s also not quite baby-led weaning, which is more of a purist approach to letting your baby feed themselves when it comes to solids rather than being spoon-fed.

baby grabbing different food CStorz / Getty Images

When do we start, and how?

If your baby is about six months of age and eyeing your breakfast omelette, there’s a good chance that they’re set to start solids. Other signs of readiness include being able to sit up without support and having good control of their neck and head.

Your baby should also display some budding hand and finger dexterity, says Pound, which is why advocates recommend beginning at six months rather than earlier when some parents start offering purées. “I don’t think a four-month-old has the coordination to handle solids,” says Pound.

overhead shot of a baby sitting in a highchair eating small pieces of broccoli while mom sits in front cutting up the pieces iStock

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Which foods are best to begin with?

Starting with finger foods that your baby can pick up easily is key. Your baby should be able to pick them up in the palm of their hand, as the pincer grip fine motor skill typically isn’t developed enough yet for small-sized pieces—think roasted sweet potato wedges, chunks of baked salmon and wide strips of ripe mango.

A simple omelette, cut into thick strips, is actually a great starter food. “In the beginning, the purpose of eating foods is to help your baby learn how to stimulate the mechanism of eating and swallowing and get iron intake into the infant,” says Pound.

To boost your baby’s iron intake, which is important for healthy brain development (and we know their body’s stores are running low by six months), focus on iron-rich foods, such as cooked chicken thighs, eggs and steamed broccoli.

Avoid choking hazards, such as grapes, nuts and small chunks of apple with the skins. When it comes to safety, you should watch your baby closely at all times, and parents should know the difference between gagging (which involves the sound you’d expect when they cough up food and is normal) and choking (where your baby may look panicked but not make a sound and can be deadly).

The Basics on Baby-Led Weaning Photo: iStock

What are the downsides of baby-led weaning?

“It’s really hard to do full baby-led weaning and get the right amount of iron into them,” says Pound. “That’s the biggest concern people have—that your baby won’t get all of the nutrients they need, at least at the beginning—so I recommend more of a mixed approach.”

Some parents and online discussion groups call this “modified baby-led weaning,” where iron-fortified baby foods, which require spoon-feeding, are also on the menu. For example, parents may spoon-feed an iron-rich baby cereal at breakfast time and allow their baby to experiment with chunks of banana at the same time.

Although this feeding method requires less prep time, it might make up for it in clean-up. New self-feeders can be seriously messy, which means that you may be wiping down your whole kitchen after every meal. It can also be tricky when you’re eating away from home.

Baby eating solids with food over face in baby chair with tray iStock

What’s so great about baby-led weaning anyway?

You can serve your baby what the rest of the family is eating (with some exceptions, of course). There’s no need to sweat over whether you’ve stockpiled enough purées in the freezer or remembered to buy more baby food jars.

If your baby has older siblings, you may find it easier to attend to them during meals, too (as well as get some bites in yourself!). Best of all, your baby is in control of how much they eat. Plus, they’ll get lots of practice with hand-eye coordination and chewing early on, which can’t hurt.

Some advocates of the baby-led weaning method claim that it can help avoid picky eating habits, sidestep tantrums during family meals and reinforce baby’s natural hunger and satiety cues. This can lead to a healthier relationship with food later on in life and even reduce the risk of obesity. So far, there’s no solid evidence on any of this.

“There really are no strong studies that support the benefits of baby-led weaning,” says Pound. But there’s no evidence to show that it’s a bad option either. Her advice: “Do whatever works for you and your baby, provided that they’re getting all the nutrients they need.”

mother holding son in kitchen while smiling iStock

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How can I ensure my baby is getting enough nutrition through baby-led weaning?

Paramedic and breastfeeding counsellor Katie McCann advises parents to strike a balance between solid food intake and milk feeds for babies, ensuring that they don’t prioritize solids over the more nutritionally dense milk, particularly during the initial stages of introducing solids.

“For the first year of life, a baby gets most of their nutrition from milk, whether it’s breast milk or formula,” says McCann. “That means that solid foods in the first year are considered complementary to milk.” Some foods McCann recommends are nutrient-dense options like soft fruits, cooked vegetables, iron-rich foods, and age-appropriate proteins.“However, it is crucial to continue breastfeeding or formula feeding alongside BLW to maintain a balanced diet,” adds McCann.

McCann advises parents to observe the baby’s growth, weight gain, stool and urine output, and general health to determine if your child is obtaining sufficient nutrition from baby-led weaning. She asserts that these are the most effective measures for assessing whether nutritional requirements are being fulfilled.

baby with a spoon in its mouth and yogurt all over his face iStock

How can I ensure my baby's safety during baby-led weaning?

To keep your little one safe during baby-led weaning, registered dietitian Tok-Hui Yeap, RD, CSP, LD, recommends checking if your baby is ready for solid foods before introducing them. “Your baby has to be able to sit with good trunk support, hold their neck upright, have the ability to move food from the front to the back of the tongue, and swallow safely,” says Heap.

If your baby is ready to start baby-led weaning, Yeap suggests making sure the food’s texture matches their eating skills at each stage to prevent choking. “Soft and easily mashed foods are best in the early stages of baby-led weaning,” explains Yeap. “You should steer clear of round, coin-shaped, sticky, crunchy, and hard-to-chew foods like hot dogs, whole or chopped nuts, crackers, chips, whole grapes, whole cherry tomatoes, and dried fruits.”

a tray of vegetables and cherries as a baby eats with a fork iStock

Can I combine baby-led weaning with traditional purees?

According to Yeap, blending baby-led weaning foods and traditional purees is perfectly fine. “We call this a hybrid or combination feeding method, which is the preferred feeding strategy pediatric dietitians and feeding therapists recommend,” says Yeap.

By using the hybrid or blended feeding technique, you can introduce your baby to a variety of foods with a range of textures and flavors while supporting the development of their oral-motor skills. “It also gives you added flexibility during mealtimes and helps you learn about your baby’s food preferences,” adds Yeap.

Baby eating solids in baby chair with tray iStock
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How do I prevent choking during baby-led weaning?

When babies start baby-led weaning, parents often worry about the risk of choking. Yeap recommends opting for soft foods that can be easily mashed to prevent this.

It’s also crucial to be present while your child is eating, so you can help remove any larger pieces of food from their mouth as required. “I also suggest that all parents should learn the first-aid response for infant choking or have a de-choking device at home in case accidental choking occurs,” adds Yeap.

Baby eating broccoli in baby chair with tray iStock

Can I start baby-led weaning if my baby was born prematurely?

According to McCann, the introduction of baby-led-weaning in prematurely born babies demands a slightly altered approach, as they might require extra time before exhibiting signs of developmental readiness. “Premature babies may need additional time before indicating readiness for BLW, such as sitting up unaided, expressing interest in food, and having the capability to grasp and bring food to their mouth,” notes McCann.

If you are uncertain about the right time to start baby-led-weaning for your child, McCann suggests seeking advice from your pediatrician for the best plan of action. “I recommend close monitoring and collaboration with a pediatrician and/or speech and language specialist to ensure that these little ones are developmentally ready for this feeding method,” adds McCann. “These specialists will be able to advise on oral motor development stages for premature babies.”

baby eating fruit in high chair iStock

Experts

  • Catherine Pound, chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s Nutrition and Gastroenterology Committee.
  • Katie McCann, Paramedic and breastfeeding counselor
  • registered dietitian Tok-Hui Yeap, RD, CSP, LD
This article was originally published on Nov 15, 2019

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