Baby-led weaning: What you need to know

Instead of spoon-feeding, let your baby take the lead with solids. Here's how.

Photo: Jerzyworks/Masterfile
Photo: Jerzyworks/Masterfile

At just shy of six months, baby Cecily reached for a spear of steamed broccoli on her dad’s plate, so he plopped it on her high chair tray. Until then, Cecily had been completely breastfed. “She just picked it up and put it in her mouth,” recalls Cecily’s mom, Kerry McGladdery Dent, from London, Ont. They decided this approach to introducing solids—known as baby-led feeding—made more sense than starting with spoon-fed baby purées.

In the UK, where the baby-led feeding philosophy first gained popularity (largely due to a 2008 book by Gillian Rapley), this practice is also known as baby-led weaning. (The Brits use “weaning” to mean starting solids, not quitting breastfeeding.) Baby-led feeding involves waiting until your little one has developed the ability to sit independently and grab a soft, fry-shaped stick of table food—such as a piece of cooked sweet potato or a strip of beef—and letting her gum away, regardless of whether she has teeth. (Many babies reach this milestone around six months, the age the World Health Organization recommends introducing foods other than breastmilk or formula.)

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Advocates say that infants who start solids with baby-led weaning are less likely to become overweight and are more likely to develop a taste for healthy foods. “We do see kids who aren’t exposed to textured foods for too long, who then can’t handle anything with texture,” says Suzanne Breton, an occupational therapist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. With baby-led feeding, she says, kids could develop oral motor skills faster.

However, studies supporting the health benefits of baby-led weaning are few, with small sample sizes and little long-term data.“The research is very new, and I don’t think we can draw any conclusions,” says Jennifer Buccino, a registered dietitian at the Hospital for Sick Children. She explains that the findings could be due to other factors. (To date, all trials have tracked babies whose parents were already opting for the baby-led approach.)

For McGladdery Dent, who had to eat every bite she was served as a kid, a big selling point was that Cecily would be in charge. “I liked the idea that from day one, we’re letting her be independent about her food choices.”

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Baby-led weaning does require a few important safety measures. Ensure your baby is supervised and sitting in a high chair in order to prevent choking. Also, iron-rich foods, like meat or tofu, should be on the menu regularly.

At the other end of the baby-food spectrum are the soft foil or plastic pouches of purées that can be sucked directly from the package or squeezed onto a spoon attachment.

“They’re great when you’re on the go,” says Jennifer Cox, a mom of one in Montreal. But the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry warns that suck-able packs (both the disposable and reusable kinds) pose a cavity risk similar to sippy cups and drinking boxes. If kids nosh throughout the day, the natural starches and sugars in fruit and veggies can spur tooth decay. Then there’s the potential for chugging it back too quickly, which could cause overeating.

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“If children are sucking on those things all the time, they’re not going to develop proper oral motor skills or learn to eat from a spoon,” adds Breton.

The two approaches aren’t necessarily incompatible. Many baby-led feeding parents, like Jenn Hardy, a mom of two in Montreal, pack squeezable pouches in the diaper bag for no-mess snacks. At home, however, her baby shares the same meal as the rest of the family.

This type of feeding has yielded another, unforeseen perk for both Hardy’s and McGladdery Dent’s families: better food choices. “My husband and I eat healthier because we want to make sure Cecily’s getting enough fruit and vegetables,” says McGladdery Dent. “She has a broader palate than I do.”

This article appeared in our May 2014 issue with the headline “Skipping purées,” p. 50.

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