You’ve likely heard about baby-led weaning from other parents in your community. What is it, and is it right for you and your baby?
Baby-led weaning has been around for centuries in many cultures, but it has never been a popular or mainstream approach to feeding in the United States until recently. The idea of skipping pureed food altogether and offering whole, baby-safe foods instead can seem daunting to many new parents. The ostensible benefits of this practice include an early foundation for good eating habits and improving fine motor skills and dexterity, including claims that it:
- Strengthens self-regulation
Baby led weaning encourages your baby to eat a much or as little as he wants.
- Increases exposure to family foods
Serving whole foods eliminates the need to prepare (or purchase) special pureed foods. You simply give a bite of whatever you’re eating to your baby.
- Encourages more adventurous palates and better diets
Baby-led weaning allows your baby to discover different flavors and textures on their own terms (rather than being spoon fed), so they are more likely to try new foods later in life.
- Avoids the difficult transition from pureed foods to food with lumps
Unlike pureed foods, when you offer whole foods immediately, your baby gets used to chewing from the start.
On the other hand, there are also potential drawbacks to choosing this feeding method over traditional pureed feeding:
- Benefits are speculative in nature
“The purported benefits of baby-led weaning are not substantiated by medical evidence,” says Heather Iezza, MD, a pediatrician at St. Joseph Health Medical Group. Anecdotes and testimonials are not the same as evidence, so success stories found on the internet need to be taken with a grain of salt.
- Potential for under-nourishment
“Most babies who are strictly fed by the baby-led method are under-nourished until they are able to truly self-feed or finger feed—that is, bring food to their mouth on their own, typically when they are 9-12 months old,” says Dr. Iezza. “The number one drawback of baby-led weaning is that it frequently results in deficient consumption of iron and other nutrients, due to the lack of actually consuming and breaking down the food at an early age.”
"A good time to experiment with baby-led weaning is when your baby is six months or older, can sit up unassisted, and grasp and hold objects," says Dr. Iezza, “and then only as a complement to feeding purees.” You will also want to wait until your baby has lost the tongue thrust reflex common in newborns. This reflex instinctively pushes objects out of the mouth to avoid choking and usually disappears by three or four months of age. If you are unsure if your baby is developmentally ready to try baby-led weaning, check with your pediatrician.
If you’re interested in trying baby-led weaning but aren’t sure how to get started, consider these do’s and don’ts:
- Check with your pediatrician to ensure your baby is developmentally ready to start baby-safe whole foods.
- Ensure your baby is sitting upright while experimenting with food to avoid choking.
- Start with soft foods like ripe pears or bananas, egg yolk, cooked pasta and vegetables, or puffed cereal.
- Supervise your baby while she is eating. This will not only help keep her safe in the unlikely event of choking, it will help her associate mealtime with discovery, fun and socialization.
- Offer small, soft bites. "A good rule of thumb is making sure you can pick up the food you offer to your baby and easily squash it between your fingers," says Dr. Iezza. “And don’t make the pieces too big. Small, mashable bites are safer than a large chunk that can break off and pose a potential choking hazard.”
- Let your baby lead the process. As tempting as it can be to help, give him the opportunity to grab food and bring it to his mouth on his own.
- Plan a cleanup strategy ahead of time. Invest in a bib with a big pocket (and sleeves if you can find one) to catch food. It’s also a good idea to cover the floor with paper for easy clean up.
- Offer your baby nutritional foods that are high in calories, iron, zinc, protein, and healthy fats like avocados, bananas, egg yolks, soft-cooked zucchini, sweet potatoes or carrots.
- Don’t panic if your experimenting baby gags on a piece of food. Remember that gagging is a natural reflex for getting rid of food that is too difficult to swallow. Your baby is watching–if you get scared, he will too.
- Don’t rush mealtime. Your baby is learning a new skill, so plan for meals to take a bit longer for a while. Try to set aside an extra 15-20 minutes per meal to allow your baby time to touch, smell and taste.
- Don’t serve foods that are known choking hazards like hot dogs, grapes, popcorn, raisins and raw vegetables.
- Don’t offer too many pieces or too many different kinds of food at once. This can overwhelm your baby. Start by offering one or two pieces of the same food.
"Keep in mind that breastfeeding and bottle feeding tend to decrease in volume and frequency by the age of 9 to 12 months," says Dr. Iezza. "Hence, solid feeding provides the increased calories for growth and nutritional diversity. It can be helpful to eat together as a family as a way to introduce meals to babies."
Have fun and experiment with feeding approaches until you find a combination that works well for you and your baby. Dr. Iezza says, “My personal philosophy is to use a complementary approach that combines baby-led weaning and traditional puree feeding, because every baby’s nutritional needs and feeding skills are different.”
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.