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The World Health Organization, La Leche League International, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all recommend that mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for approximately six months before introducing solid foods into their diets. By this age, children generally have developed the motor skills needed to safely ingest foods, such as sitting up unassisted, in addition to the ability to reach for food and grasp smaller objects.
Introducing baby to solid foods is a big milestone in her development. It is also the time when baby begins to develop her life-long relationship to food. With that understanding, many parents are leaving commercial baby food behind and opting instead to give baby more freedom around what and how to eat – a process known as baby-led weaning.
What is baby-led weaning?
Baby-led weaning does away with spoon-fed purées and instead allows baby to feed herself right from the start of the weaning process. Parents introduce age-appropriate foods that are soft-cooked, mashed, or cut into easily grasped pieces. They allow baby to explore holding these foods, putting them in her own mouth, and chewing. Parents do not put the food in baby’s mouth, so she has full control over what (and how much) she eats.
Despite the seemingly hands-off approach, parents are still involved. Besides preparing baby’s meal, they also may need to demonstrate the eating process for her, provide encouragement, and observe in order to learn her food preferences and needs. By following baby’s cues, parents respect her innate hunger mechanisms and avoid overfeeding.
In fact, baby-led weaning may be a natural extension of on-demand breastfeeding. Both rely on hunger cues from the infant and therefore allow him to control the feeding process. Parents who are concerned that baby may not be eating enough solid food can rest assured – breast milk will continue to be his main source of nutrients and calories for some time during the weaning process.
Keep in mind that baby’s stomach is only the size of his fist. Therefore, baby may only eat a tablespoon or two of food, especially at the beginning stages of weaning. However, his continuation of breastfeeding will ensure he has all the nutrients and energy he needs to explore his new food options.
And explore he will – baby-led weaning involves a lot of experimentation, which can admittedly get a bit messy. Expect squashing, throwing, dropping, and more. These behaviors all contribute to baby’s ability to understand and form a relationship to food.
What are the benefits of baby-led weaning?
Proponents of baby-led weaning report numerous benefits for babies and their parents:
- As noted above, children who are weaned using the baby-led method continue to self-regulate their appetite even after breastfeeding ceases. They choose what to eat, how much to eat, the pace at which they eat, and when to stop. This preserves their innate hunger mechanisms and fosters a healthy relationship to food from the start.
- Baby-led weaning exposes babies to a variety of textures and shapes instead of relying on only puréed foods. This makes mealtime more interesting and prepares babies to accept a wide variety of tastes and textures later in life.
- Baby-led weaning promotes early development of the ability to chew foods. The ability to chew means that babies can eat a large variety of things, usually increasing their nutrient intake. An article in the journal Nutrition Bulletin notes: “Studies have shown that infants between the ages of 4 months and 2 years who consume foods that require chewing generally have higher intakes of all macronutrients than those infants who have yet to be introduced to chewable foods” (Reeves 2008, p. 108).
- Breastfeeding and baby-led weaning promote healthy oral development, due to the anatomical maneuvering needed to suckle and chew (Mercola 2013). Both of these actions put the palate and jaw into anatomically correct positions, contributing to proper development of the teeth and jaw.
- Mothers who adopt this method tend to have lower levels of anxiety about feeding and weaning (Townsend and Pitchford 2012), and they exhibit a less controlling feeding style (Brown and Lee 2011). However, it is difficult to tell if baby-led weaning creates less anxiety over food control or if mothers who are less anxious about food choose baby-led weaning.
- Parents using baby-led weaning generally include babies in family mealtimes from the beginning and give them many of the same foods that the rest of the family eats. This behavior – as opposed to one or both parents being occupied with spoon-feeding babies – emphasizes the importance of family meals from an early age. Eating together as a family has a “positive impact on family relationships, social skills, language development, and healthy eating” (Rapley and Murkett 2010, p. 23).
How do I know if my baby is ready for solid foods?
Once you’ve decided that you’d like to use the baby-led weaning method with your child, it is important to assess her readiness to start the process. This is because successful baby-led weaning requires the development of certain motor and cognitive skills. These readiness skills include:
- The ability to sit up without support
- The ability to reach for and grasp items and put them into the mouth
- Interest in food (indicated by, for example, reaching out for food on mom’s plate)
These skills are generally present in children around 6 months of age, though your child’s developmental timeline may differ slightly. Use your judgment (and perhaps consult your family physician) to determine when your child is ready to begin.
An additional factor to consider is whether you’ve been breastfeeding your baby (rather than bottle-feeding with formula). There is reason to believe that breastfed infants may be more accepting of baby-led weaning. An overview of baby-led weaning notes that “breastfed infants are generally exposed to a greater range of flavours through breastmilk than formula-fed infants, and this may make them more accepting of new foods and tastes when being weaned” (Reeves 2008, p. 109).
It is important to note that baby-led weaning is not appropriate for children with developmental disabilities or issues that make the readiness skills previously listed difficult to achieve.
Is baby-led weaning safe? Does it increase the risk of choking?
One frequent concern parents have about baby-led weaning is whether there is an increased risk of choking. Purées are often perceived as safer than small pieces of solid foods because many parents believe baby is less likely to choke on them.
However, Rapley and Murkett, in Baby-Led Weaning, explain that as long as the child is sitting upright and has control over the food in her mouth, choking is no more likely to happen with baby-led weaning than with spoon-feeding.
They go on to explain that gagging is often misinterpreted as choking in infants. The gagging reflex in babies is “triggered much farther forward on the tongue of a six-month-old baby” (p. 46), compared to the gagging reflex of an adult. This means that for babies, gagging occurs much more often and when the food is farther from the airway.
Rapley and Murkett conclude that the “gag reflex may well be a key part of babies’ learning how to manage food safely” (p. 46). They go on to state that children who have been spoon-fed may have more difficulty managing this gag reflex once they are finally allowed to handle food at around 8 to 9 months.
Even so, it is important to minimize any potentially dangerous situations by providing age-appropriate foods that baby can easily handle. Cooking vegetables and fruits well allows them to be easily mashed by your baby’s gums. You can also cut raw foods, such as apples, into large pieces that baby can grasp and gnaw on. In addition, observing baby while she eats will ensure she stays safe.
Only you can decide whether baby-led weaning is the correct approach for you and your baby. However, whether you elect to practice baby-led weaning, spoon-feeding, or a combination of the two, it is important to choose the right first foods for your child.
Have you used baby-led weaning with your children? What helpful hints can you share with parents new to the method? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.
- Brown A, Lee M. A descriptive study investigating the use and nature of baby-led weaning in a UK sample of mothers. Matern Child Nutr. 2011;7:34–47. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-8709.2010.00243.x.
- Mercola J. How baby-led weaning can help promote good oral and physical health in your child. Mercola website. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/06/02/children-oral-health.aspx. Published June 2, 2013. Accessed September 16, 2015.
- Rapley G, Murkett T. Baby-Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods and Helping Your Baby to Grow Up a Happy and Confident Eater. New York, NY: The Experiment LLC; 2010.
- Reeves S. Baby-led weaning. Nutri Bul. 2008;33(2):108-110. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-3010.2008.00685.x.
- Townsend E, Pitchford NJ. Baby knows best? The impact of weaning style on food preferences and body mass index in early childhood in a case-controlled sample. BMJ Open. 2012;2(1):e000298. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2011-000298.