Baby-Led Weaning: A Comprehensive Guide To Introducing Solids
What it is, how to start, and the best foods to introduce first.
After months of feeding your baby nothing but breast milk or formula — or a mix of both — the pediatrician has given you the green light to introduce them to solid foods. But, if you thought that you were only going to serve up smushed sweet potatoes or ground up green beans, think again. For better or worse, starting solids means that you have yet another decision to make. Do you want to start your baby on purées — like the classic sweet potatoes or green beans — or do you want to try baby-led weaning? Many parents are turning to baby-led weaning — often shortened to ‘blw’ — as another way to introduce foods to their child in a manner that doesn’t require a blender or food processor. But what exactly is baby-led weaning? How do you start, and is ‘blw’ considered safe by pediatricians? Welcome to baby-led weaning 101.
What is baby-led weaning?
To understand what baby-led weaning is, it’s important to understand what weaning is in the first place. In the most traditional sense, weaning occurs when your child reduces their intake of breast milk or formula in favor of solid foods. As your baby samples their first solid foods, your child’s food preferences and eating behaviors will become established not just for childhood, but in adolescence and adulthood as well, some researchers found. The originator of the concept of “baby-led weaning” is generally considered to be Dr. Gill Rapley, who published her theories about infant feeding — and self-feeding — in a 2009 book, Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby To Love Good Food.
So, exactly what is baby-led weaning? Simply put, baby-led weaning is, well, baby-led. Unlike spoon-feeding your baby puréed foods, you let your child pick up and chew (or gum) food themselves. This approach to infant feeding strives to put your child directly in the driver’s seat at meal time. “Historically, we have spoon-fed babies purées and bought special baby foods separate from what the rest of the family was eating,” Tamika Simpson, a psychologist with a speciality in public health, tells Romper. “Baby-led weaning introduces solids into their diet, allowing for some independence as Baby starts to feed themselves. This can be a fun and exciting experience for them as they learn to enjoy new tastes and textures.”
With baby-led weaning, you’ll generally offer your baby a version what the rest of the family is eating, with some baby-friendly modifications. But what is the exact theory behind this method of feeding? “The idea is that it leads to babies learning to eat independently and gives babies more control over what they eat, how much they eat, and more understanding of their own bodies and hunger needs,” Simpson explains.
How to start baby-led weaning
Before you attempt baby-led weaning, there are some readiness signs that you should be aware of, and you may be surprised to learn that they have nothing to do with your child’s age, explains Krystyn Parks, a pediatric dietitian, though many families decide to start around 6 months of age. In the Baby-Led Weaning book that started it all, 6 months is also the age that Rapley suggests is the very earliest that a baby might be ready to try solids. To decide if your baby is ready to start baby-led weaning, “we want to see that baby is sitting upright mostly independently,” says Parks. “They may not be able to sit for very long, but they should be able to sit with no one holding them for a second or two.”
There’s a reason why being able to sit upright such an important indicator of whether your baby is ready to start solids with the baby-led weaning method. For this method of feeding, your baby needs to be able to exhibit adequate core strength to sit supported in a chair for the duration of the meal. If your child’s focus is on sitting up (and not the avocado bites in front of them), then they might not be ready yet. Although they don’t have to sit up straight perfectly, if babies can perform the tripod position — with their legs spread out and their hands on the ground in-between — they might be ready to eat all on their own. Additionally, another readiness sign is when your baby brings toys to their mouth. “This shows that they will be able to self-feed,” adds Parks. And no matter what, you should speak to your baby’s pediatrician before giving them solids, and get the OK from them to try baby-led weaning, if that is the feeding approach that you decide feels right for your family.
What foods do you start with for baby-led weaning?
Some of the appeal of baby-led weaning, is that you can offer Baby many things that your family is eating at meal time, and in fact, introducing them to new flavors, textures and even spices is part of the whole idea of “BLW”. There are a few basic baby-led weaning rules that are important to keep in mind, particularly if you’re just getting started. “Keep foods soft and manageable for your little one,” advises Simpson. “They need to be able to mash it up with their gums or tiny teeth, so this will eliminate tough meats, hard fruits and veggies, or anything that is crunchy.” Particularly at first, you’ll want to focus on very soft foods — avocados and ripe bananas are great first first — and large pieces that your baby can grab with their whole hand, as they may not have mastered the pincer grasp yet.
Here are some of the best baby-led weaning foods to get you started:
- Scrambled eggs
- Sweet potatoes, steamed
- Broccoli, steamed
- Carrots, steamed
- Potatoes, steamed or boiled
- Bread strips
- Apples, steamed or roasted
If you’re planning to introduce a new food that is a common allergen — like eggs, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, shellfish, and milk — be sure to carve out time to watch your baby very closely when offering these foods for the first or second time. However, you should always be watching your baby closely during meal times for signs of choking, so this shouldn’t be a huge issue. And, although doctors used to tell parents to hold off on introducing allergens, it has becoming increasingly clear that it’s probably important to introduce them sooner than we used to think. “Research suggests that introducing certain allergens early and often can help prevent allergies later on in life, these include peanut and egg, and potentially tree nuts and wheat,” says Simpson. “If your family has a history of any serious allergies, it’s a great idea to talk to your pediatric provider about when the best time is to start these foods. It may be much earlier than you think.”
Does baby-led weaning work?
Although your baby might have been blissfully happy with a bottle or breast, it pales in comparison to a plate of pasta placed in front of them. And that might explain why baby-led weaning can work for your child, because it taps into their natural curiosity as well as their propensity for putting everything into their mouths. “It can be a great option for many families,” says Simpson. “Parents can sit and enjoy their meal as well while allowing the baby to watch the family as they eat so that they can pick up on skills of socializing, serving, and eating.” In theory, baby-led weaning also helps babies learn right away that meal time is a social time, the hope being that babies will learn to regulate their food intake and associate meal time with positive feelings of togetherness and community, not just caloric intake.
Baby-led weaning: Pros and cons
Baby-led weaning has so many benefits for busy families. No longer will you have to prepare multiple meals because your child will eat whatever is being served to the rest of the family. “You’re giving your child lots of variety in taste and texture, and that may help with acceptance of foods long-term,” Simpson explains. “Plus, your baby gets to explore food with their hands, so they gain tactile learning, too.”
There is some speculation that baby-led weaning could play a role in your child’s obesity risk, too. Some researchers have found that the weight gain for babies who weaned themselves was lower than those who were spoon-fed. Although more research needs to be done, there might be a case for baby-led weaning as a way for children to learn their own satiety cues at a much younger age.
Is baby-led weaning safe?
While there are many benefits of baby-led weaning, there are some things to be concerned about. The biggest one, of course, is choking, though a study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) journal Pediatrics found that babies who were doing baby-led weaning were not more likely to choke than babies who were introduced to solids in other ways. If you’re considering taking that baby-led weaning approach to introducing solids, you should learn the difference between choking and gagging. The baby-led weaning book will help explain the role that gaggin plays in an infants earliest experiences with food and what choking can look like in babies. “It can make parents fearful if there is gagging,” Simpson acknowledges, but it’s also a natural part of the process. The most important rule of baby-led weaning — and any approach to feeding your baby — is that an adult should always be close by, actively monitoring the baby while they’re eating. Choking is often silent, and if your child is eating, it is essential to have your eyes on them at all times, particularly in the first year of eating solid foods. You also should never offer foods that are known to be especially common choking hazards, like grapes, hot dogs, or popcorn.
There is also the mess factor, since allowing your baby to feed themselves (as opposed to being spoon-fed) can result in food going absolutely everywhere. Apart from the mess, it might be harder for your baby to master self-feeding. Mealtimes might take longer so you’ll need to be patient as your little one practices feeding themselves.
Baby-led weaning can be an exciting milestone for your child as they learn how flavorful and fun food can be. Consult your health care provider prior to starting baby-led weaning to discuss what foods can be served safely, then sit back and enjoy mealtime with your munchkin.
Tamika Simpson, PsyD, IBCLC, PMH-C, a care advocate with Ovia Health.
Krystyn Parks, MS, RD, IBCLC, a pediatric dietitian
D’Auria, E., Bergamini, M., Staiano, A., Banderalli, G., Pendezza, E., Penagini, F., Zuccotti, G., Peroni, D. (2018). Baby-led weaning: what a systematic review of the literature adds on. Italian Journal of Pediatrics, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5934812/
Martinon-Torres, N., Carreira, N., Picans-Leis, R., Perez-Ferreiros, A., Kalen, A., Leis, R. (2021). Baby-Led Weaning: What Role Does It Play in Obesity Risk During The First Years? A Systematic Review. Nutrients, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8003981/