The Dos and Don’ts of Baby-Led Weaning: A Comprehensive Guide

Baby-Led Weaning

Your baby may be reaching the age where you are considering solid foods. This is a big step for your baby – and you! Moving into the world of solid food is a huge milestone and a topic where you may have many questions.

As you think about introducing solids, you may have heard the term “baby-led weaning.” This is one approach to solid food that many parents have started to embrace as a more natural way to help their babies learn how to eat solids.

When to Start Solid Foods

Whether you have been breastfeeding or formula feeding, you will eventually need to transition to solid foods. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you begin this process when your baby is around 6 months old.

Knowing that your baby is ready for solids includes looking for the following signs:

  • Your baby can sit up unsupported.
  • Your baby shows an interest in food at the table.
  • Your baby has some hand-eye coordination in picking up other small objects, like toys.
  • Your baby seems ready to chew if food is put in the mouth.

If your baby has special needs, he/she may not be developmentally ready for baby-led weaning at the same time as other babies. You could still do baby-led weaning but may need to modify how this is introduced based on your child’s specific needs.

Once you believe that your baby is ready for solids, you can think about taking those next steps in offering food to your baby.

What is Baby-Led Weaning?

You may have an image in your mind of brightly-colored baby food jars filled with pureed vegetables and feeding this to your baby on a spoon. Baby-led weaning refers to skipping the stage of pureed food when introducing solids.

Baby-led weaning allows the baby to transition at his/her own pace. You are the baby’s guide in gently introducing solids that have a variety of flavors and textures.

Babies are constantly observing the world around them. Baby-led weaning is a very natural transition. Your baby will watch you eat and your reactions at the table and imitate you.

Your baby will also have improved fine motor skills as a result of baby-led weaning. By skipping the stage of feeding your baby pureed food with a spoon, your baby will spend a lot of time picking up tiny pieces of food from the high chair tray. This also will enhance hand-eye coordination.

Baby-led weaning also encourages healthy eating habits. Your baby will decide how much to eat. Learning to regulate eating may help to prevent obesity later in life.

And while mealtimes may be messy, you will spend less time preparing pureed foods or less money in purchasing jars of baby purees. Your baby will be eating a variation of the foods that the rest of your family eats.

How to Start Baby-Led Weaning

The first step in baby-led weaning is to get your baby interested in eating. Remember, you are your baby’s guide! Here are some things to do in those first few meals.

Have your baby sit at the table at mealtimes, in a high chair. Your baby will likely love being able to see the food and the family. The first few times, you may do this only for the experience and not offer any food (unless your baby reaches for food).  

Have a glass of water in a sippy cup. Part of learning to eat also includes drinking from a cup. Your baby should only drink breastmilk or formula until 12 months old, so water is your best option.

Keep it small. Offer just enough food that your baby can play with it and try to pick it up, but don’t expect too much food to end up in the baby’s tummy the first few times!  

Offer very soft foods. Some very good first foods for baby-led weaning are: 

  • mashed avocado
  • sweet potatoes cooked until they are completely soft
  • steamed soft vegetables like peas or carrots

Things To Do:

There are many things you should do as your baby makes the transition to solid food.

1. Watch for Allergic Reactions

With the prevalence of food allergies, this is often a parent’s biggest fear in introducing solids. When you first begin, you should only introduce one new food every 3-4 days. This will give you a chance to watch for an allergic reaction that may not be immediate.

Signs of allergic reactions include rashes, increased spitting up, or diarrhea. If you suspect an allergic reaction has occurred, contact your pediatrician for guidance on the next steps.

2. Be Prepared for Changes in Diapers

What goes in must come out! Your diaper changing times will change in ways that you did not think possible. Smell, color, and consistency will all change.

The good news is, your baby will poop less frequently. However, fewer diaper changes may also lead to an increase in diaper rash, so be on the lookout for that.

3. Begin to Offer the Same Foods That the Family Is Eating

After your baby has mastered the early techniques of eating soft solid foods, you can begin to offer the same foods as the rest of the family. You may need to make some modifications, such as cutting the food into smaller pieces or making it softer. Still, your baby will likely be very pleased to be eating what the family eats.

By offering a variety of textures and flavors, your baby will become a more adventurous eater. This will discourage pickiness as your baby gets older.

4. Ignore the Mess

Babies are messy, and there is no way around it. Your first few sessions will likely involve a lot of food on the floor, food in hair, food on clothes, and not much food inside of your baby.

Consider putting a bib on your baby to protect clothes and a mat on the floor to make cleaning up spills easier. Unfortunately, this stage will not improve for quite some time. While babies throw food for “fun,” toddlers throw food for entirely different reasons, such as testing limits or anger.

As your baby gets older, you can discourage food-throwing with a sharp “no” and putting the food back on the try, but younger babies will not understand this. You want mealtimes to be about exploration and not about avoiding the mess.

4. Be Encouraging

Make it fun! You are developing your baby’s palate. Your baby may make faces or spit food out, but keep trying. 

Babies need to try foods repeatedly to get used to them. Don’t assume that because your baby rejects a food the first time that he/she “doesn’t like it.” Offer the food several more times, with a big smile.

You can also add seasoning! After a few months, adding bits of seasoning to the meals will encourage your baby to like a wide range of foods. Fresh or dried herbs and spices will expand your baby’s taste buds.

And have your camera ready – first foods often have some priceless expressions!

Things Not To Do:

While baby-led weaning is very much driven by your baby’s timetable, there are some things that you will want to avoid.

1. Don’t Get Discouraged

You may find mealtimes to be challenging, especially in the beginning. 

Baby-led weaning can be a very slow process, and every baby is different. Don’t worry; your baby will eventually learn to eat table food, though at first, mealtimes may feel more like a very messy playtime.

Don’t praise or scold your baby. The family can smile a lot while eating, but you want eating to be natural for your baby. Praise can lead to your baby expecting a reward for eating, and scolding can lead to an aversion to eating.

2. Don’t Bother With Plates

Unless you want mealtimes to really feel like playtime, plates and babies do not mix. A plate is unnecessary since the high chair tray will work just fine.

Having plates will only distract your baby. He/she may find it to be a game and throw the plate on the floor at every chance. You will then find yourself spending most of the mealtime picking up the plate from the floor.

Likewise, baby forks, spoons, or other utensils are also unnecessary. This is another benefit to baby-led weaning, in that you will not be feeding your baby a puree with a spoon. Instead, your baby will learn to feed himself/herself with fingers.

3. Don’t Offer Foods That Are Too Tough

While baby-led weaning skips the pureed food stage, you will want to ensure that the food you offer your baby is soft enough.  

Your baby may gag a bit the first few times, and that’s ok! Your baby will learn to chew, especially if you do exaggerated chewing of your own for your baby to imitate. Don’t get too alarmed, or your baby may react by being more cautious with the food.

When gagging, your baby may try to push the food forward with the tongue, or eyes may water. Remember that gagging is a temporary stage. It is a normal reflex as babies learn solids.

At the same time, watch for signs of choking. If a piece of food gets stuck in your baby’s throat, resulting in violent coughing or your baby being unable to breathe, you must react quickly and try to dislodge the food.

Starting with the softest foods or vegetables are the safest. Eventually, after a few months, you can introduce more firm foods, such as meats, beans, pasta, or cheese cubes. Babies should never be given hard, crunchy food, or nuts.

Consider a Mixed Approach

As you consider introducing table food, you may feel hesitant or that your baby is not quite ready to begin solid foods.

You can also try a mixed approach. You can begin with rice cereal so that your baby has some exposure to a texture different than breastmilk or formula. Rice cereal can be mixed in different consistencies, gradually getting thicker.

You could then move to pureed food to introduce flavors but intermingle it with some soft vegetables. Your baby may end up throwing most of the food anyway. If you want to eventually introduce baby-led weaning, keep the pureed food stage short.

You don’t need to worry about how much solid food your baby is eating, as the primary nutrition source will still be breastmilk or formula. Your pediatrician will ensure that your baby is getting adequate nutrition by tracking growth, so talk to your doctor about how much your baby is eating.

Early feeding is about helping your baby learn to eat, in the same way that you will eventually help your baby learn to walk and talk.

Eventually, your baby will get up to regular meals and snacks per day. Let your baby decide how much to eat at mealtimes. If your baby eats five peas and mashes the rest into the high chair, consider that a win.

Your baby will decide to eat more with meals. As this happens, you may find that your baby consumes less breastmilk and formula, though you should continue with the liquid part of your baby’s diet until age 1.

Conclusion

Don’t stress, and don’t rush. It could take the better part of six months for your baby to have some proficiency in eating solid foods.  

And the learning does not stop. As you hit the “toddler stage,” you will have all kinds of additional fun learning to eat with utensils and drink from an open cup.

The important thing to remember with baby-led weaning is to let your baby be your guide. You are in charge of the what (the food), but your baby is in charge of the how.  Every baby will adapt to solid foods differently.

By using the above Dos and Don’ts, you can be a wonderful guide for your baby as you start the journey of solid foods.