More and more new parents are trying baby-led weaning to get their infants started on solid foods. Moving beyond formula and breastmilk can seem like a challenge. After all, your baby is comfortable. You have a good routine. And, well, solid foods can bring on a lot of mess. Before you go the traditional route of spoon-feeding and endless purees, consider baby-led weaning. It might be just the ticket for you and your child.

What Is Baby-Led Weaning?

Baby-led weaning, or BLW as it is sometimes abbreviated, skips the jars of baby food and purees and jumps straight to finger foods. This approach is called “baby-led” because your baby decides what and how much to put in their tiny mouths. Instead of buying special meals for your baby, you’ll be feeding them whole foods that may even match the ones on your plate.

Of course, like any other method, there are upsides and downsides. Consider the following as you decide between the traditional method, baby-led weaning, or a combination of the two.

The Pros

  • You can introduce your baby to a variety of tastes and textures. Expanding their palate from a young age kickstarts healthy eating habits.
  • Babies will learn new motor skills like chewing (or gumming as it may be) and fine motor skills as they eat (and play) with their food. Boosting hand-eye coordination and dexterity certainly can’t hurt!
  • Baby-led feeding may reduce infant obesity, particularly in formula-fed babies. Because your baby is leading the process, you reduce the risk of overfeeding which can happen when parents are leading. They can learn to stop eating and pay attention to their own hunger levels.

The Cons

  • Did we mention this could get messy? Or sticky? Combine soft foods with babies learning how to grasp and hold things, and you, the floor, the table, and your baby will probably need more clean-up than usual.
  • You’ll have to spend some time monitoring nutrients. Choosing the right foods ensures that your baby gets enough vitamins and minerals, particularly iron.
  • Allergies are also a possibility. Although, recent American Association of Pediatrics studies do suggest that introducing allergens sooner can actually reduce their development.

When & How Should We Start?

If you’re interested in trying baby-led weaning, the natural next question is, “When can I start?”

When Your Baby is Physically Ready

Ideally, babies should be able to sit and hold their heads up before starting solid foods. This usually happens around six months. They don’t need to have their teeth in since their gums are quite powerful. Nor do they need to have mastered the pincer grasp—which usually occurs at nine months.

By six months, a baby will usually no longer have the tongue-thrust reflex that forces foreign objects out of their mouths. And their intestines will have more digestive enzymes than at birth so they can break down the new solids.

If your baby still needs more time to get to sitting, there’s no harm in waiting longer. While it’s called “weaning,” the meaning of BLW doesn’t mean a total cut-off and dramatic change in diet. Formula and breastmilk will still be part of their daily diet. The solid foods are incorporated, but they aren’t replacing milk entirely.

When Your Baby is Interested

Another sign that your baby may be ready to start this next feeding stage is if they show curiosity in your food. Interest and wonder are driving forces for baby-led weaning. Start slow and introduce them to soft foods. For some babies, schedules work and for others, schedules are no help. You’ll figure out what is right for you and your family.

As they begin exploring the new world of food, you may want to start each meal with a bit of formula or breastmilk. Early in the process, this can be helpful as some babies may get frustrated by new foods. No need to place food into a bowl or plate. They’ll probably just end up on the floor. So straight on the high chair tray, it goes.

You can also let them observe how you interact with food as well. Like crawling, some babies like to see an example of the activity before jumping in. This should be a fun, exploratory process. Treat each meal like an adventure for you and your kid.

How Can We Do This Safely?

The two big things to watch out for with this technique are choking and allergens. Particularly when you’ve just begun, supervising your baby while eating is key.

Choking Vs Gagging

First, it’s important to know the difference between choking and gagging. Gagging is a pretty common response in the first few weeks. Babies are getting used to these strange new chunks in their mouths and may cough a bit as they swallow. They may make some noises during this, so do your best to stay calm.

When your child is choking, they often look scared. They’re unable to breathe or make noise. You may also see some bluish skin.

How Can We Avoid Choking?

Avoid feeding your baby foods that are choking hazards. Examples include nuts, dried fruit, some harder raw fruits, big spoonfuls of nut butters, crunchy snacks, large chunks of meat or fish, fish bones, etc.

Make sure that the size of the food you offer is appropriate for the baby’s age. Handles can be helpful for babies to have more control. Keeping your baby upright in their high chair will help as well. Feeding them while they are crawling or playing can add extra hazards. Most importantly, keep watch and make sure that anyone who is feeding your baby does the same.

Signs Of An Allergic Reaction

From the American Academy of Pediatrics, there are a number of signals that your baby is having an allergic reaction:

  • Hives (red spots) or rashes may appear. Some skin irritation could simply be baby acne or from consuming more citrus-based foods. It’s caused by acid and isn’t an allergic reaction.
  • There may be general swelling both in body parts that touched the offending food or in other areas too.
  • Babies may have difficulty breathing. You could see sneezing, wheezing, or throat tightness.
  • Some babies have nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Diarrhea could also be an indication of food poisoning if something was spoiled or undercooked.
  • They may look pale and seem light-headed to the point of losing consciousness.
  • Sometimes it may be a sensitivity (think lactose intolerance) rather than a full-on allergy. If you have any concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician.

What Are The Best Baby-Led Weaning Foods?

When choosing foods for baby-led feeding, you’ll want to look for things that are soft and easily portioned into smaller pieces. When your baby is still in the gumming stage, food should be soft enough that you can mash them with your fingers. Aim for a nutritious, well-rounded diet. An easy way to do this is to give them food from all the major food groups every day.

You shouldn’t need to add salt, sugar, or any artificial sweeteners either. They’re less appealing to a baby’s taste buds. For some recommendations and cooking suggestions, check out 35 Best Foods For Baby-Led Weaning According To Doctors.

What Are Other Baby-Led Weaning Resources?

If you’re looking for more tips and tricks for baby-led weaning, there’s a wide world of nutritionists, parents, and chefs with advice for new parents.

Young Gums: Baby Food with Attitude by Beth Brantley is a great book for parents who want to combine the traditional spoon-fed methods with baby-led weaning. Many of the included recipes can be scaled up to feed the whole family. Even better, some of them just need one pan.

Solid Starts is a web resource and app developed by a team of parents, feeding therapists, allergists, nutritionists, pediatricians, and other professionals. The site includes recipes, guides, and nutrient cheat sheets. An app is also available with a subscription.

Baby-Led Weaning Cookbook started as one mom’s effort to chronicle her baby-led weaning journey with her baby. It’s since grown into a huge database of recipes and several recipe apps for babies, toddlers, and older children. Healthy, flavorful, and doable for any new parent is the goal.

Weaning Made Simple by Annabel Karmel, acclaimed pediatric nutritionist, breaks down the basics of weaning. The visual guide includes 100 recipes and tons of advice based on her experiences with thousands of children.

Last tip from us, get that camera out. Photos of your baby’s messy adventures into independence and eating will be a delight. Wondering what else you should be thinking about as a new parent? Finding child care help. When you’re ready for a break, Sittercity can help you find the child care that you and your baby need.

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