To raise an adventurous eater, many moms swear by letting a baby feed himself. Whether you want to try this method, called baby-led weaning, a little or a lot, here’s what to keep in mind.
The formula vs. breast-milk debate was so your life six months ago. As your infant approaches his half birthday, the pressing question now is: Will you give him pureed food or bite-size chunks to pick up and eat? In a nutshell, that’s the “baby food” versus “baby-led weaning” debate.
Baby-led weaning (BLW) is a British-born feeding strategy centered on serving finger foods from the start. For those who already cook regularly, it’s easy.
Your baby gets the same healthy fare as the rest of the family, just adapted in shape and texture. Little ones learn to eat at their own pace and get to engage their senses through sight, touch, smell, and taste. Plus, by feeding herself, your baby will develop hand-eye coordination and chewing skills. As a mom, chef, and author of two baby cookbooks (Real Baby Food and the forthcoming Baby Led Feeding), I’m a big fan.
Ready to learn more? Keep these commandments in mind.
1. Begin with meals that have one ingredient.
For the first week, serve the same single-ingredient food two to three days in a row to help pinpoint any food allergies, says Dina DiMaggio, M.D., coauthor of The Pediatrician’s Guide to Feeding Babies and Toddlers. Some faves for the first few weeks: banana, avocado, sweet-potato fries, steamed broccoli florets, soft baked sliced apple without the peel, poached and flaked salmon, scrambled eggs, and chicken strips. Remember, 6-month-olds still get most of their calories from breast milk or formula and only “eat” once or twice a day. Once your baby has tried enough foods for you to rule out a lot of allergies, he’ll be a more confident eater who is ready to sample mixed dishes (like lasagna or meatballs).
2. Get the texture right.
Food should be firm enough to grasp but soft enough to crush with gentle pressure between your thumb and forefinger. Never serve raw hard fruit and veggies; roast or steam them first. Serve food barely warm or cool. It’s okay to offer a kid-safe fork or spoon, but always avoid toothpicks and other skewers.
3. Go easy on the salt and go big on iron.
Once your sweetie starts partaking in family meals, it’s best to cook with little or no salt. A baby’s body cannot process sodium well, and it’s easy for adults to add it at the table. (That’s why store-bought baby food is typically sodium-free.) It’s also essential to offer iron-rich foods daily, since a baby’s iron stores become depleted around 6 months. Healthy picks: beef, lentils, leafy greens, and fortified cereals. This is especially important if you’re a breastfeeding mom, as formula is iron-fortified, says Clancy Cash Harrison, R.D., author of Feeding Baby.
4. Play with shape.
Most 6- to 8-month-olds haven’t mastered the pincer grasp (when the thumb meets the index finger) and instead pick up foods with their whole palm. Help your eager eater along by sizing all her food appropriately: Every item should be about the length and width of an adult pinky finger. Always cut up cylindrical and conical foods like grapes too, as they can block a baby’s airway, says Gill Rapley, Ph.D., coauthor of Baby-Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods. To help your baby develop her pincer grasp around 8 to 9 months, you can cut some foods—like ripe mango, cooked beans, and pasta— into small, bite-size chunks. And remember that many foods, such as banana and avocado, are slippery. Keeping on some peel or cutting with a crinkle cutter helps.
5. Consider adding purees to the menu.
Although some BLW advocates are strict (no purees!), a mixed approach of finger foods along with some purees may work better for you and your baby. Purees are certainly easier for babies to swallow. “That means minimal gagging,” says Melanie Potock, a pediatric feeding specialist and coauthor of Baby Self-Feeding. Incorporating purees can also help make BLW meals more filling and nutritious. Your baby likely won’t get much in his mouth in the beginning, and options like rice cereal are fortified with iron and zinc.
6. Accept the mess.
Whether you go all in with self-feeding or also spoonfeed some purees, the first months are the opposite of neat. Your baby will be doing a lot of licking and tasting, and there will be a big old mess at nearly every meal. That’s okay. This stage is about allowing your child to explore so she has the confidence to try new things. (Grab your phone for priceless pics!) Worried about cleanup? Place a garbage bag under the high chair and use wipeable baby bibs.
7. Stay flexible.
Baby-led weaning isn’t right for every child. “Babies with developmental delays, neurological issues, or those who can’t sit up with support should start solids more traditionally,” says Dr. DiMaggio. If your baby can’t manage finger foods by the beginning of his ninth month, let your pediatrician know. She may refer you to a feeding specialist to help move his skills along. As for everyone else: As long as you offer a variety of flavors and don’t pressure him to eat, your baby will thrive whether you try baby-led weaning, start exclusively with purees, or go for a mixed approach. Says Dr. DiMaggio: “The best advice is to go with your baby.”