Are you curious about baby-led weaning? Here's the scoop on the newly popular approach to starting solids that favors table foods over purees.
If your social media feed is filled with 6-month-olds happily munching on spears of avocado or feasting on big pieces of meat, you're watching baby-led weaning in action. The concept—which has your baby eating modified versions of what the rest of the family is eating—has gained momentum recently as parents have realized that it's an easy way to introduce solids, and it can have lifelong health benefits.
"Some research suggests that kids weaned using this approach are less likely to be picky eaters and can potentially have fewer problems staying at a healthy weight," says Natalia Stasenko, MS, RD, CDN, and the co-writer of Real Baby Food. They also might start walking and talking earlier.
But for a parent who's never thought to hand over food to their baby without chopping or mashing it, it can seem a little daunting—and like a big choking hazard. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you plan to ditch the pureed baby food.
Look for signs of readiness
Generally, a baby is ready to start solids when he can sit up mostly unsupported, shows interest in the food you are eating, and has lost the thrust instinct, so his tongue doesn't simply push food back out of his mouth. Typically, this happens when your baby is around six months old. "If your baby isn't able to sit straight, even with a few cushions on both sides of the high chair, it may be worth waiting a week or two," Stasenko says.
Babies who start off self-feeding won't actually eat a lot of food for a while, so food will primarily be a fun way to explore flavors and textures; breast milk and formula will continue to fill their bellies. "They need time to master grasping, hand-eye coordination, and to gain some chewing skills," Stasenko says. If a baby was born prematurely or has any developmental delays, they might not be ready to self-feed starting at six months. There are also some full-term babies who are right on track developmentally who just aren't as interested in food as others.
Know how to prevent choking
"The best way to prevent choking, whether using the conventional or BLW approach, is to take a CPR course, avoid hard and/or sticky foods, and always be with the baby when he is eating," Stasenko says. She adds that recent research suggests that BLW babies are no more likely to choke than babies who are fed purees.
BLW babies are likely to gag though, and often. Gagging, which can sound and look scary, is actually a natural reflex that helps baby deal with more challenging bites of food. In short, gagging keeps them from choking, so it's actually a good thing. "If it happens regularly and stresses the baby, it may be helpful to serve less challenging textures for a while to help baby adjust gradually to lumps and finger foods," Stasenko says. The gagging should taper off after a few weeks.
Any foods that you give to baby should pass the "squish test", or be able to be squished between your fingers. Hard, raw produce is out—so skip foods like raw carrots and apples—and avoid anything that's hard or cylindrical shaped including whole nuts, popcorn, hot dogs, and whole grapes. "Nut butters should never be fed off of a spoon," Stasenko adds, though it's okay to offer a thin layer of them on toast. And always avoid honey until your baby turns one.
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Get the timing right
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting two to three days before offering a new food so you can watch for an allergic reaction. For many parents this seems less practical, especially when serving family meals. Stasenko suggests introducing just one new food each day for the first month or two, until you're confident that your baby is tolerating most foods well. She also recommends introducing new foods in the morning so you have the whole day to watch for negative reactions.
When it is time to eat, pick one meal to start with and go slow. "The best time of the day is when your baby is rested, relaxed, and not too hungry," Stasenko says, which often happens about one to one and a half hours after feeding with breast milk or formula. "You want the baby not to be starving, but to have the energy to explore food," she says
Letting your baby self-feed is also simple way to involve them in family meals. Let them munch on one component at the table with you. Or, if their meal time doesn't coincide with yours to start, simply sit and engage with them while they eat. Many babies take their time when learning to self-feed, so be patient and offer rejected foods repeatedly and in new ways to ensure that baby has a chance to enjoy a variety of flavors and nutrients. And stop a meal if they are repeatedly throwing food or if they start to fuss from fatigue.
Set your baby up for success
The bigger the piece of food, the easier it will be for those little baby hands to grasp. Try cutting soft foods—think bananas, avocados, and steamed veggies and fruits—into long spears or coins so they are easy to pick up and hold. And remember that babies need fat and a range of vitamins and minerals to grow, so offer foods like whole-milk soft cheeses, pre-loaded spoonfuls of whole-milk plain yogurt, soft meats and fish, and avocado, in addition to lots of produce, to ensure that their nutritional needs are being met.
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And since babies start to run through their iron stores at about four months, you may need to feed them iron- and zinc-rich purees like beans, lentils, tofu, red meat, and dark poultry from time to time. "Ultimately, serving your baby a variety of textures, including purees, may be a good idea to help him get enough nutrition and prevent parental anxiety," says Stasenko.
Families who are most successful at introducing solids with this baby-led weaning approach are patient and relaxed. There's no need to pressure baby during the process or get overly emotional about what they do and don't decide to eat. They are totally new to this business of eating, so keep it light and fun.