More Than Just Milk: How to Start Baby-Led Weaning
Is your baby ready to expand his palate beyond just milk? Are you in a hurry to start introducing solids into your baby’s diet? If so, consider a natural and respectful technique called baby-led weaning.
I’ve just made myself a nice steaming mug of coffee, but before we start, I need to tell you something important:
My advice on this blog should never replace the opinion of a medical professional. Please speak to your family doctor or pediatrician about baby-led weaning before starting.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what baby-led weaning actually is.
What is baby-led weaning?
Baby-led weaning, or BLW, is a respectful method of introducing solids to your baby’s diet. Your baby will still drink the same amount of breast milk or formula, and mini meals of solids are added in addition to the milk (as opposed to merely replacing milk feedings).
When you use baby-led weaning, you take advantage of your child’s natural desire to eat solid foods. Follow the interest of your child and adapt the normal foods of your family’s plate so that your child can start to sample more and more diverse flavors and textures.
When to start baby-led weaning
We often want to know, When is the exact age I can start baby-led weaning for my son or daughter? If you ask the internet, you’ll see that it’s around 6 months of age. BUT WAIT.
- Can your child sit up straight on his own?
- Can your child pick up an object and bring it to his mouth?
- Does your child show interest in solid foods? (trying to grab what you are eating)
If you can answer “yes” to ALL of the above questions, you’re good to start baby-led weaning.
The reason we usually say wait until 6 months is because at that age, most babies can reliably sit up straight without help and can bring objects to their mouth with their hands.
You might be asking yourself, Do I need to wait for my baby to have teeth? The answer is no! Babies can chew with their gums. They do not need teeth before learning to develop the chewing motion.
Can I still spoon-feed?
The short answer is yes! Baby-led weaning is not an all-or-nothing option (unless you want it to be). You can absolutely combine spoon-feeding and baby-led weaning. I combined both with great success for C. It was an easy way to let her practice self-feeding by learning how to bring food to her own mouth with a spoon.
The long answer is: I began with spoon-feeding solids to C when she was 4 months old at the recommendation of her pediatrician. He put it this way:
As a medical professional, I have access to all the latest research. I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t tell you that the latest research suggests that the more foods introduced between the ages of 4 and 6 months, the less chance the child will later develop allergies to those foods. It’s for this reason that I recommend you trying to introduce as many different foods as possible to your baby during this 2-month window, provided that your baby is showing interest and not refusing.
At 4 months of age, C could not sit up on her own, which is very important for babies when eating solid foods (when we are talking about solid foods for babies, the mush counts as solid—basically anything more solid than milk). So I put her upright in her car set, strapped her in, and spoon-fed her that way. You can also hold your baby upright on your lap.
Tips for successful baby-led weaning
If you are ready to start baby-led weaning, here are my tips for success.
1. Set up your space
There are several different options to set up your space for baby-led weaning:
- Use a high chair. You don’t need bells and whistles. It just needs to be sturdy and safe. Pro tip: Get one you can easily wipe down—the fewer cushions, nooks, and crannies, the better!
- Use a booster seat in your regular chair. Adapt your existing chairs for baby with a booster seat. Baby can eat at the same level as you.
- Use a Montessori-style table and chair. Adapted to your child’s size, it’s his own furniture for mealtimes.
- Hold your baby in your lap. With your baby’s back to you, you can sit in your own chair while your baby eats at your table.
I found the most practical solution was the high chair. There is a school of thought that this is the least respectful option for the baby, however I felt most comfortable knowing that C couldn’t somehow fall or climb out of it if I had my back turned to, say, get another spoon. Obviously if she was giving me signs of discomfort or absolute unwillingness to sit in her high chair, I wouldn’t have forced her into it.
A booster seat would have been the next best thing, but I couldn’t find one that would really fit well with our kitchen setup.
The Montessori-style setup also wasn’t practical for our family for several reasons. First, our dog would have greatly enjoyed eating from C’s food. Second, while it’s the perfect size for a small child (that’s sort of the whole point), it’s quite uncomfortable for an adult to have to get down to that level to assist in feeding. Third, I don’t think I would have had the patience for C to get up and walk away without eating. At least in the high chair, she was focused on the meal, because it became a very strong cue for her to know that we had arrived at a time in our daily routine when it was time to eat.
I’ve seen other mamas have great success simply holding their babies in their laps. It just wasn’t a comfortable position for me, especially when food and bowls went flying. I also really liked the high chair to position myself directly facing C. I felt we had more of a connection during mealtimes this way. We made eye contact and had a “conversation.” It was a great way to also introduce the idea that mealtimes should be social events.
2. Start with these soft foods
They can either be in small, very soft bits that your child can pick up with small utensils, OR for finger foods, try to use longer pieces so your child holds some in her hand and has to practice biting off from the end (think slices, wedges, spears).
- Cooked green veggies, such as broccoli heads or green beans
- Roasted squash and root vegetables cut into strips (pumpkin, potato, carrots, etc.)
- Sticks of soft, very ripe fruit (banana, strawberry, apples, peaches, etc.)
- Mini quiches or slices of hard-boiled egg
- Baked or steamed fish
- Very tender meat cut into strips
- Soft plain pasta
- Slices of bread (can be soft or hard—C liked biting on hard bits of baguette when her teeth were coming in!)
This list is certainly not exhaustive. What you ultimately start with will depend on your family’s usual diet preferences and the availability of certain items, such as seasonal produce.
The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has a great baby-led weaning resource with ideas and recipes by age and by meal type. I highly recommend you checking it out. It gave me so many ideas and confidence that I could make meals that our whole family could enjoy!
3. Observe your baby
Remain with your baby as he eats. Pay attention to his preverbal cues. Does he seem to like what he’s eating? Offer more. Does he reject it? Follow his lead.
Please inform yourself about baby CPR before getting started. Choking is a rare but not impossible danger. If your baby shows any signs of discomfort or choking, perform baby CPR.
4. Harness the power of suggestion
If I want C to eat something, I eat it in front of her. She usually tries to grab my food. I offer some to her. She tastes it—sometimes she likes it, sometimes she doesn’t. Over time she develops an appetite for it.
Use the power of suggestion to your advantage! At this age, your baby wants to follow what you do. Make the most of it!
5. Be patient
Never bribe or try to force your child to eat something. The power behind baby-led weaning is that your child is developing an intrinsic desire to vary their palate.
Don’t feel disappointed if your baby rejects something you make. Trust me, it will happen A LOT. Respect your baby’s natural ability to regulate food intake based on hunger, and know that his tastes will change over time.
Keep introducing new and different foods and keep it a positive experience.
Benefits of baby-led weaning
Why do I recommend baby-led weaning? It’s a simple, natural way to introduce solids to your baby. Plus, you will enjoy the following benefits:
No more mush!
Tired of pureeing everything? Me too! Using baby-led weaning means you don’t even have to COOK everything. Take a soft piece of bread, a ripe piece of fruit, and a yogurt and you’ve got a meal.
Respectful for baby
Baby-led weaning intentionally respects your baby’s own pace in discovering solid foods. You’re still controlling for safety (by using proper seating and also properly cooking food if needed), but your baby can explore new textures and flavors based on his interest.
No one is deciding for him how much he should eat; rather, he is honing his natural response to hunger. He is choosing to eat with his fingers, or to try the utensils. In his own time (lots of time!) he will have learned how to eat like an adult through independence and the trust of his parents.
Healthy for parents, too
Because I care about what my baby eats, I found that using baby-led weaning drastically changed our diet as parents, too—a bonus! My goal is to cook all C’s meals at home—no more store-bought mush! But this means I need to make my meals healthier, because I am sharing my plate with my daughter. Choosing lean meats as well as using less salt and loading up on more fruits and veggies is a natural way for everyone in the family to eat a balanced diet. Win-win!
Ready to start baby-led weaning?
It can be really fun to watch your child discover the pleasures of different flavors and textures! Especially in young babies, you will see some pretty awesome facial expressions as they try new things.
Now that you know all about baby-led weaning, are you ready to start? Let me know about your experience in the comments below!-Jessica