Some parents enjoy the steaming, mashing and stockpiling of tiny little jars. Others would rather bypass the whole baby-food-making production—not to mention buying the pricey premade stuff. Think you and your baby would prefer to skip the purées altogether? If so, baby-led weaning might be right for you.
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 bypasses 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.
If your baby is about six months old 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.
Starting with 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 typically isn’t developed enough yet for small 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).
“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 give their baby the chance 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.
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 mealtime tantrums 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, she says. Her advice: “Do whatever works for you and your baby, provided that they’re getting all the nutrients they need.”