Introducing Solids: Baby Led Weaning

What to Know

  • Understand the key features of Baby Led Weaning
  • Learn the possible benefits of the feeding style
  • Recognize the potential detriments and risks
  • Learn which foods to start with and which to avoid

At around six months, your baby is ready to complement his formula or human milk intake with solid foods. During this time your baby may be showing signs of readiness to eat and his digestive tract will have developed enough to help manage this new adventure. It is also the time when his nutritional needs increase for certain nutrients, such as vitamins C and A, folate, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron; some of which cannot be met by breast or formula feeding alone.  (see: Introducing Solids: Signs of Readiness for more information on when to introduce solid foods)

Traditionally, first feedings start with spoon feeding your infant pureed foods and gradually advancing in texture and consistency to lumpier and more solid foods over the next weeks and months.  By around 9-10  months of age your baby should be eating a variety of textures and consistencies. Recently, Baby Led Weaning (BLW) has become a popular way of introducing solids. This method emphasizes self-feeding rather than spoon-feeding, putting the infant in control of what and how much they eat.

It is recommended to wait until at least six months to try BLW as babies are more developmentally capable of reaching for food and putting it in their mouth at this age. The feeding process is as simple as putting soft, whole foods, cut into appropriate–size pieces that are easy to grasp, onto your baby’s tray and then letting him eat what he wants.  

Potential Benefits

According to Gill Rapley, the pioneer of Baby Led Weaning, this feeding method encourages infants to explore more textures and tastes, to be more independent, to better develop chewing skills, and to help in the development of hand-eye coordination.

Other potential benefits of BLW

  1. May encourage greater acceptance of a variety of food and development of healthy eating habits.  Regardless of the method you choose to feed your infant,  giving vegetables and other foods repeatedly, even after they were initially rejected, can help infants begin to accept and enjoy them.
  2. May encourage healthier eating patterns and lead to a healthier body weight. Regardless of the method you choose to feed your infant, it’s important to listen to your baby’s hunger and fullness cues.  Babies know when they are full and can self regulate their food intake. BLW promotes this healthy eating behavior and may foster healthy weight gain and eating habits down the road.
  3. Promotion of healthy oral motor and chewing skills. No matter the feeding method you choose, aim to progress through textures as soon as your baby is ready.

Potential Disadvantages

Family diets are not necessarily adapted to an infant’s needs.  Typically, proponents of BLW recommend having your baby join family meals and be offered the same foods as everyone else; just in soft graspable pieces.  However, the family meal may be saltier or sweeter than what is recommended to feed a baby so it is important to alter your baby’s foods to eliminate added sugar and salt. 

This is critical for a several reasons: During infancy your baby is developing his lifelong taste preferences – foods he eats now may impact what he will choose when he is older. Introducing foods with their natural tastes will help your baby be more open to these flavors down the line.  Additionally, your infant’s kidneys are not mature until the age of 2, so he may not be able to handle a large load of sodium. Herbs and other seasonings are perfectly fine to add, should you choose.

  • Not enough calories.  Since BLW encourages self-feeding, this makes vegetables and fruit the primary first foods offered, as cereals and other foods are initially more difficult to self-feed. While produce is an important part of the diet, alone it may not provide quite enough calories to meet your infant’s nutritional needs. For sufficient nutrient and calorie intake, aim to feed your infant a variety of foods, including vegetables, fruit, cereals, grains, meat, poultry, fish, beans, legumes, and eggs – all at the appropriate consistency for their age.
  • Inadequate iron intake.  The need for iron increases exponentially after 6 months of age.  The primary sources of iron when feeding infants include fortified cereals, legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, meats and poultry.  These foods may be more difficult to consume for a self-feeding infant, so should you choose BLW, be aware of this potential nutrient gap in your baby’s diet.
  • Risk of choking.  This is one of the most prevalent concerns when it comes to baby led weaning since the foods typically provided are whole and not mashed or pureed.  Some babies may not yet be able to coordinate the chewing, breathing, and swallowing needed to feed themselves at six months.  Ensuring you are providing your infant with appropriate foods, as well as watching your infant closely during the feeding process, will help prevent choking from occurring. (see: Preventing Choking for more information)

Bottom line

Should you want to implement baby led weaning, being aware of the potential benefits and detriments may help you provide your baby with the nutrients he needs in a safe way.  No matter the method of feeding you choose, ensuring your infant’s diet has a variety of foods will help provide the nutrients necessary at this stage of life. Additionally, continue to provide breast milk or formula until your infant is at least 12 months old.

Introducing solids is a messy endeavor! Initially, feeding solids is less about nutrient intake and more about learning to eat and tasting new foods. Don’t be discouraged if only a small amount of food makes it into your baby’s mouth. Once your baby gets the hang of eating, be sure to watch for the signals that he is full. This will help prevent the learned practice of over-eating and help build healthy habits for years to come.

It’s perfectly fine to use a combination of feeding practices as you introduce foods to your infant. There are currently no studies showing that one method is better than the other (BLW or starting with spoon fed purees). As long as you progress through textures and stages when your baby is ready and offer a variety of foods,you will be setting up a solid foundation for your baby’s future healthy eating habits.

What to Do

First foods to introduce

Make sure the first foods you introduce are soft.  You’ll know it’s the right consistency if you can smush the food between your fingers.  Providing the food in a large strip will allow your baby to grasp it more easily.  Remember to watch for your infant’s developmental readiness when it comes to starting with either purees, mashed foods, or soft solids.

  • Soft steamed apple or pear slices, skin removed
  • Banana, avocado, ripe mango
  • Steamed strips of sweet potato, butternut squash, broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower
  • Over-cooked pasta, particularly those fortified with iron
  • Well-cooked, soft fish (skin and bones removed)
  • Well-cooked scrambled eggs
  • Well-cooked ground or finely chopped chicken, turkey, or beef

Avoid adding salt and sugar to your baby’s food for optimal taste development and health.

Read Introducing Solids: First Foods and Advancing Textures]for information on introducing solids to your infant.

Foods to Avoid

Some foods pose choking risks for infants and toddlers due to their shape or hard texture.  Here are some foods that should be avoided:

  • Hot dogs and sausages
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grapes
  • Hard, gooey, or sticky candy, such as marshmallows and caramels
  • Chunks of peanut butter (if you are introducing nut butters, spread it very thin on a slice of toast)
  • Popcorn
  • Raw vegetables, such as carrots and celery
  • Chunks of cheese and meats
  • Chewing gum
  • Small foods with pits such as cherries and olives
  • Large pieces of bread
  • Added salt and sugar

To learn more, please read our article on Prevent Choking

Always supervise your baby while he’s eating

Your infant should be in a seated, upright position and never lying down while eating. Do know that babies have a strong gag reflex to help prevent choking. If a food moves too far back on his tongue before he’s ready, or if the piece of food is larger than he’s prepared for, he will gag to bring it to the front of his mouth.  This may happen more often when implementing Baby Led Weaning since your baby will be taking in larger chunks of food. While you should be vigilant to ensure your infant is able to bring the food back to the front, know that this is also a normal part of learning to eat.

Always remember that it’s okay to feed purees or mashed foods if you feel your infant is not ready for the larger pieces of soft food.

Meet your baby’s iron needs

Iron needs increase dramatically after 6 months of age, so including high iron foods is an important part of feeding.  Note that iron from vegetables and beans is better absorbed when eaten with vitamin C. Pair iron rich foods with citrus fruits to accomplish this. 

Foods High in Iron:

  • Iron-fortified cereals and grains, such as oatmeal and pasta
  • Red meat (ground beef)
  • Dark green leafy vegetables such as: spinach, Swiss chard, beet and collard greens, Bok choy, and kale
  • Lentils and beans
  • Tofu

For other nutrients that your baby needs between the ages of 6 and 12 months, read the article:  Nutritional Requirements for 6-12 Month Olds

Meet your baby’s calorie needs

While counting your baby’s calories is not necessary, it is important to make sure he is getting enough for adequate growth and development – particularly when following Baby Led Weaning. In addition to vegetables and fruit, introducing proteins (eggs, beans, lentils, dairy and lean meat), healthy fats (nut butters, olive oil, canola oil, avocado,etc), and whole grains will provide the calorie density and variety needed for a well-balanced diet. 

Ideas:

  • Cook or roast veggies in a bit of olive oil or avocado oil
  • Spread a thin layer of nut butter on toast strips
  • Add a drizzle of canola oil when cooking eggs or grains

Sources