Baby-led feeding is the practice of giving your baby soft, palatable whole foods and letting her feed herself her first ‘bites’, while continuing to breastfeed. The theory is that babies will experiment and discover food at their own pace, as well as develop new abilities including chewing and keen hand-eye coordination.
Most babies start their journey with solid food by being spoon-fed their first mouthfuls of pureed food on a date determined by their parents. Some babies are considered a “good eater”, for others it is a struggle to keep the food in their mouth. Often families settle for separate mealtimes and different foods for adults and children.
What happens if you don’t do this? What if you let them learn about handling food at their own pace?
You may ask “What if he is not getting enough nutrition?” The reason baby-led weaning works so well (no matter how gradual) is that the baby is still breastfeeding (or bottle feeding).
“Breastmilk is a very complete food for at least the first six months of life. From 6-12 months, an ‘educational diet’ is recommended. This means that other foods gradually begin to provide for nutritional needs that milk alone can no longer provide, and your baby gets used to different tastes and textures as well. Breastmilk or formula should be the main source of calories up till the end of the first year, and should still constitute about 75% of his diet at 12 months (25% solids).” (Source)
Does Breastmilk keep up with the changing needs that a baby has?
Yes! “Breastmilk also changes in composition to meet the needs of your growing baby. The milk of premature infants is different from the milk of full-term babies, and the milk made for toddlers changes as your baby grows. For example, levels of certain antibodies in human milk actually increase as your baby grows older and nurses less. The theory is that this is a protective mechanism to reduce the toddler’s risk of illness during the weaning stage, when he is gradually being introduced to more solids and less mother’s milk. Breastmilk is the perfect food for your child, no matter how old he is.” (Source)
It is true, the need for iron increases after the first 6-9 months. Although breastmilk contains little iron (and formula does have more), the iron in human milk is absorbed much more efficiently than the iron in formula (60% versus 4%).
Baby-led weaning (BLW) is safe, natural, easy, and like most parenting ideas – it’s not new. Offering babies finger foods starting at 6 months is not revolutionary, but what’s different about baby-led weaning is that the baby ONLY has finger foods. “Weaning” is the gradual change that a baby makes from having breastmilk or formula as his only food to having no breastmilk for formula at all. This changeover takes at least 6 months. Something I’ve heard regularly from La Leche League Leaders is that solid food before 1 is play – all they need nutritionally is breastmilk. “This is what happens in BLW:
- The baby sits with the rest of the family at mealtimes, and joins in when he is ready.
- He is encouraged to explore food as soon as he is interested, by picking it up with his hands-it doesn’t matter whether or not he manages to eat any at first.
- Food is offered in pieces that are the size and shape that the baby can handle easily, rather than as purees or mashed food.
- He feeds himself from the start, rather than being spoon-fed by someone else.
- It’s up to the baby how much he eats, and how quickly he widens the range of foods he enjoys.
- The baby continues to have milk feedings (breastmilk or formula) whenever he wants them and he decides when he is ready to begin reducing them.” (from the book Baby-Led Weaning)
Why is some baby food labeled as suitable from four months?
Baby food jars are often labeled “Stage 1” or “Stage 2” and so on. Stage 1 is the very smooth purees and many labels state that they are suitable for babies starting at four months old. However, most health professionals now agree that four months is too young for solids. It makes sense that many parents are confused. Almost all countries of the world have signed on to the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. It restricts the promotion of any food or drinks for babies under six months old. The United States has not done this, so manufacturers are free to continue to label their products as “suitable from four months.”
What are the advantages of Baby-Led Weaning?
- It’s enjoyable!! BLW allows both the parents (it’s a much more hands-free experience than spoon-fed) and the baby to enjoy their meals. Babies look forward to eating; they enjoy learning about different foods and doing things for themselves.
- Learning about food. Babies who are allowed to feed themselves get to experience the look, smell, taste, and texture of different foods instead of all the tastes pureed into one. As they continue exploring, they can discover the different tastes in a chicken and vegetable casserole and they learn to recognize the foods they like.
- Learning to eat safely. As they explore the food and it goes into their mouth, it teaches babies important lessons about what’s chewable and what isn’t. She is feeling a piece of food in her hand, putting it into her mouth, and then learning to judge how easily different sized pieces of food are to chew and move around her mouth. This is important is preventing her from later on putting pieces in her mouth which are too big to be chewed.
- Appetite control. Eating habits that are developed now will last a lifetime. When babies are allowed to choose what to eat from a range of nutritious food, at their own pace, and to decide when they are full, then they are less likely to overeat when they are older.
- Eating out is easier. Baby-led weaning means there is using something at most restaurants that babies can have. Parents also get to enjoy their own food while it’s hot.
- It’s cheaper. The baby can eat the same thing as what is being cooked for the rest of the family. It’s much less expensive than buying ready-made baby foods!
- Babies always make a mess, but sometimes baby-led weaning is messier.
- Other people’s worries – that your kid is not getting enough to eat, that he will choke, etc.
How do you know if your baby is ready?
The World Health Organization (and many other authorities) currently recommends that all babies should be gradually introduced to solid foods at around six months. Follow your baby’s cues to see when she is ready.
True signs of readiness
- She can sit up with little or no support and is able to bring things to her mouth
- If she is gnawing on her toys and making chewing movements
- When she starts to put food into her mouth (or snatches at food off of your plate)
There are LOTS of foods your baby can start with once they have reach 6 months. Offer plenty of nutritious food (not highly processed or with added sugar or salt) from each of the major food groups at least once a day. Remember though, your baby is just exploring. It’s perfectly okay for them to bring a food to their mouth, try it, and spit it back out. Offer it to them again at another meal – they might go for it the 4th, 6th, or 10th time!!
Give your baby food in sizes and shapes they can manage (keep in mind his skills will quickly progress). I started with long, skinny finger-sized food – slices of avocado, cucumber, and apple. Below, he is trying sweet potato fries, orange slices, and veggie straws (okay, yes – a processed food).
Here’s a great list of foods to start with:
- Steamed whole vegetables (green beans, corn, sugar-snap peas, broccoli florets)
- Steamed, roasted, or stir-fried vegetable sticks – yep, my baby likes flavor!! (carrot, potato, zucchini, sweet potato, pumpkin)
- Raw sticks of cucumber
- Slices of avocado
- Chicken (as a thin strip of meat) – warm or cold
- Fruit, in slices to begin with, but you can also try whole (orange, grapefruit, apple, banana, peach, nectarine, mango, plum)
- Sticks of firm cheese
Foods to avoid:
- Choking hazards such as whole nuts (or large pieces), pits in cherries, small round fruits (like grapes and cherry tomatoes).
- Salt – it’s bad for babies since their kidneys are not mature enough to deal with it.They should have no more than 1 gram of salt per day.
- Sugar – it provides only empty calories and damages teeth before they even come through.
- Coffee, tea, and cola drinks
- Sweetened drinks and undiluted fruit juices
- Milk – shouldn’t be given to babies under a year as it is very filling and risk cutting down a baby’s appetite for breast for formula feedings (although they can be used in cooking or with cereals).
Eating at his own pace
Ain got his first two teeth just shy of 9 months, and I was still only offering solid foods to him once a day then. I probably should have been offering more, but he seemed content with what I was doing. At nine months I did start to kick it up a notch – offering him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, grapes (cut in half or quartered), eggs, whole blueberries. At 9 1/2 months I was offering food during lunch and dinner.
We had been working on getting Ain to sign more, and at almost 11 months he started clapping to sign more. Yay!! He could communicate if he was still hungry or full!!
Spoon – It was also at this stage that I started giving him a spoon to play with. It didn’t take him long to learn to keep the spoon up and guide it to his own mouth! (I started with sticky oatmeal, so it wouldn’t easily fall off the spoon).
At 11/12 months (after getting his two top teeth), he really stepped up the pace in how much he was eating. I was offering him 3 meals a day (sometimes a snack as well) and he was eating the most at dinner time it seemed.
In the end, each kid will be different in the pacing of how teeth come in, how much they eat, and how fast they try new foods. Just have fun and let them experience food!!