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Baby-Led Weaning: Which Foods to Feed Your Infant

08 August 2022

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When your baby transitions from milk or formula to solids, baby food purees are typically the first item to grab off the shelves at your local grocery store. However, many parents use baby-led weaning, a process that involves infants learning to feed themselves, as a way to introduce solids.

If you’re unfamiliar with baby-led weaning or simply want to learn more about this feeding method, this blog will provide information on when and how to start baby-led weaning and which foods to feed your infant.

What is baby-led weaning?

Baby-led weaning, also called baby-led feeding, is a concept that involves infants learning to feed themselves as opposed to the typical method of a parent spoon-feeding pureed fruits and vegetables.

The word “weaning” can be a bit confusing in the way it's used. Typically, most people associate weaning with breastfeeding and the process of guiding your infant off breast milk. However, several years ago, the phrase baby-led weaning became popular in other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, as a way to introduce foods to infants. To be clear, there is no weaning involved. Breast milk or formula still remains the main source of calories and nutrients, as baby-led weaning is used to get infants comfortable transitioning to solid foods in the near future.

Regardless of word choice, the idea of baby-led weaning is simple: your infant – not you – controls what they eat, when they eat and how much they eat. Instead of being spoon fed by a parent, your baby self feeds. They lead the way. 

Baby-led weaning vs purees

In the past, pureed baby foods were typically the first step in introducing solids to your infant. This included jarred foods or rice cereal mixed with breast milk or formula.
Eventually, parents would graduate to more textured foods – all while still feeding with a spoon – until allowing their toddler to eat solid foods on their own around 12 months old.

By contrast, the idea behind baby-led weaning is to foster independence. By putting them in control, your baby can eat what they want with the idea of becoming a more adventurous eater. The freedom of eating foods on their own can encourage infants to develop a wide-ranging palate. 

It also helps develop fine motor skills. Baby-led weaning allows them to pick up food, bring it to their mouth, chew the food and swallow the food all by themselves. This process is a stark contrast to spoon feeding in which pureed foods are already easily digestible.

Baby-led weaning is also fun – both for parents and children. Tasting different flavors and feeling different textures help them explore food. By feeding your baby what you eat, it allows your child to bond with you at the dinner table. It’s also fun to see your child explore and get messy with different foods. Typically, when they’re happy, parents are happy, too.

When to start baby-led weaning

There is no set timeframe on when you should start baby-led weaning. Instead, it depends on when your baby meets certain infant milestones. Typically, this is generally around 6 to 7 months old. 

Why this age range? There are many reasons, most of which deal with physical development. By this age, about 85 percent of babies (96 percent by 7 to 8 months old) typically can sit up unassisted or with little assistance, can reach for food, bring it to their mouth and no longer have the extrusion reflex, also called the tongue-thrust reflex. This reflex helps push the tongue toward the front of the mouth when taking a breast or bottle. However, babies can’t eat solid foods if this reflex still exists, as the tongue will push food out.

First foods for baby-led weaning

One of the main benefits of baby-led weaning is the wide-ranging food options you can offer your child. In general, most ripe fruits, soft vegetables and tender, shredded or strips of meat are all great places to start.

Most fruits can be served raw, such as bananas, peaches, mangos or avocados, although you should bake apples to soften them and avoid choking hazards. Vegetables can be baked, boiled or steamed to soften them. Most babies don’t have teeth when they start baby-led weaning, so serving them soft foods ensures their gums can mash up the foods before swallowing. Test these foods yourself by squeezing them between two fingers – they’re safe to eat if they mash easily.

When planning meals, select foods that your child can pick up easily – think foods that have a few flat surfaces instead of round food. Cut foods in sticks or strips the size of your pinky finger. They should be able to fit in their fist.

Here are some examples of foods to try:

  • Avocado spears
  • Baked apples
  • Banana
  • Beans
  • Boiled or steamed green beans
  • Boiled peas
  • Chicken or beef, shredded or cut into strips
  • Chunks of scrambled eggs
  • Cut up white potatoes
  • Kiwi
  • Mango slices
  • Melon slices
  • Pasta
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Plums
  • Roasted or steamed squash
  • Roasted or steam zucchini
  • Roasted sweet potatoes
  • Seedless watermelon
  • Steamed or roasted broccoli 
  • Steamed or roasted carrots
  • Wheat toast, sliced into strips

Foods to avoid

Infants and toddlers have a small airway (trachea), which increases their risk of choking. Small, firm objects tend to be the likely culprits of choking, so it’s important to avoid feeding your baby any foods that fit this description.

Here are some examples of foods to avoid:

  • Carrots
  • Crackers
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Chips
  • Cubes of deli meat
  • Cut up hot dogs
  • Nuts
  • Popcorn
  • Raw apples
  • Whole berries
  • Whole grapes

Some of these foods should only be avoided in their whole form. In other words, it’s safe to serve blueberries or blackberries as long as you slightly mash them up so they don’t get stuck in your child’s airway.

You also shouldn’t feed your baby any foods with salt, sugars or other added ingredients. The goal is to introduce healthy, nutritious foods at first – not cookies, chips and other processed foods.

How to start baby-led weaning

Once your baby displays the signs they are ready for solid foods, all you need is a high chair or other assisted sitting device to feed them. Then place the food in front of them and sit back and watch them eat.

This can be a slow process at first, so be patient and avoid the urge to intervene if they aren’t eating much. It’s all part of the learning curve, and it’s common for more food to get on their face or clothes than in their mouth. And for the parents who are concerned about choking, remember there is a difference between gagging and choking. Gagging is a normal reflex babies use to prevent choking – the reflex pushes food toward the front of the mouth so it can be chewed more.

While it may seem the choking rise is higher with an infant eating solid foods on their own compared to pureed foods, research shows there isn’t a noticeable difference between the two. It still may feel nerve-racking at times, but you should know baby-led weaning is still a safe way of feeding if you use the correct foods and supervise your child.

Whenever you start baby-led weaning, try to feed twice a day. These feeds should occur about an hour after drinking breastmilk or formula. If too much time passes between feeds, you run the risk of your baby being too fussy to eat solids. If not enough time passes, your baby may not be hungry.

Although baby-led weaning is about picking up solid foods, there aren’t rigid rules to follow regarding the use of pureed foods. It’s perfectly acceptable to get your baby acclimated to baby-led weaning by using purees pre-loaded onto a spoon.

For example, place mashed sweet potatoes on a spoon and hand the spoon to your baby. It may not be as independent as picking up whole foods, but the act of feeding themselves still applies if they bring the spoon to their mouth on their own. If you plan on using this method, try foods like oatmeal, mashed bananas or applesauce.

Baby-led weaning resources

While baby-led weaning may be the right choice for some parents and babies, it may not be the best approach for others. Some parents have anxiety about gagging or choking and may be concerned about their child’s weight gain. Plus, the process of allowing your child to feed themselves usually takes longer for each meal and the associated messiness can make cleaning up more time consuming, especially when a bath is involved. In these situations, baby-led weaning may not be for you.

For baby-led weaning resources, try the Solid Starts app, which allows you to search for foods, see how to cut them for your baby at certain ages and look up other information on infant feeding. Additionally, the BLW Meals app features more than 250 recipes to try at home with your baby.

Consult your child’s pediatrician before making any dietary or feeding changes. To plan ahead, consider discussing any potential alterations at your baby’s 4-month checkup. Then, at your 6-month appointment, your pediatrician can gauge where your child is at in terms of head control, the ability to sit and the ability to bring food to their mouth.

Don’t have a pediatrician yet? Schedule an appointment today with one of the experienced pediatricians at INTEGRIS Health.


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