Baby-led weaning is a strategy for introducing solids that has gained huge popularity in the past few years. The basic principle behind baby-led weaning is to skip spoon-feeding your baby purees and instead offer appropriately prepared finger foods and family-style meals.
It is common to be anxious about introducing solids, especially when jumping straight to finger foods, but I want you to know that baby-led weaning is a very safe and simple weaning method.
Here are 10 things you need to know to get started with baby-led weaning.
1. Before starting, look out for the signs of readiness
It is recommended that your baby starts solids when they are showing signs of readiness, which typically happens at around 6 months of age. Your baby may show these signs a little earlier or later than 6 months, which is okay, as most babies will become developmentally ready in their own time.
The most important sign of readiness is that your baby can sit up unaided without support for at least 5 seconds. When babies are not sitting up for at least a few seconds, they do not have proper core control to eat safely and prevent choking. So make sure that your baby is sitting before starting baby led weaning!
Other signs of readiness include:
- Baby has lost their tongue-thrust reflex and doesn’t thrust their tongue out when something like a spoon is brought to their mouth.
- Baby has developed some hand-to-eye coordination as well as sufficient palm grasping so that they can pick up food and put it in their mouth.
- Baby shows an interest in food.
2. You don’t need much to get started
When it comes to BLW, you won’t need much to get started. The highchair is the most important piece of equipment you will need and ensuring that your baby’s seated position is stable and comfortable is key to successful mealtimes. The 2 main features you should look for in a highchair are:
- An adjustable footrest that provides stability and ensures that your baby’s knees are at a 90-degree angle.
- A seat that doesn’t slouch backward and allows your baby to sit with their hips at a 90-degree angle.
Other items you will need:
- Smash-proof plate and bowl
- Baby-friendly spoons with short, easy-to-grip handles
- Full-sleeved or smock bibs
- A cup—such as a small open-top cup or a straw cup
- Plenty of face clothes or rags for easy clean up
3. You won’t need to cook separate meals for you baby
One of the main benefits of baby-led weaning is that you do not need to set aside extra time to cook and puree separate meals for your baby. Instead, you can serve your baby a few appropriately prepared pieces of food from the meals that you make for the whole family.
4. Your baby may not eat much to start with
It’s completely normal for lot of babies eat very little during the first few weeks of BLW. Babies often spend more time exploring, touching, licking, smelling, and playing with food than they do actually eating it, and this is all part of the learning process. This doesn’t mean that your baby is not a “good” eater, or that they will become picky. They are simply developing at their own pace.
5. It will be messy!
I’m not going to beat around the bush here—baby-led weaning is going to be messy! Letting your baby take the lead in self-feeding means there will be lots of opportunities for them to learn, play and explore, and this will be done by smelling, touching squeezing, squelching, spreading, poking, throwing and— most satisfying of all—tasting the foods you serve.
As challenging as this can be, one of the best ways to approach mess is to embrace it and remember that first, the mess is a good thing: Your baby is harnessing their curiosity and learning a lifelong skill. And second, remember that this too shall pass! Believe it or not, the messiness is not a particularly long phase, and as your baby gets the hang of eating, they will make less of a mess.
6. Choking and gagging are not the same thing
One of the things that can make parents nervous about baby-led weaning is gagging – but it’s important to understand that gagging and choking are not the same thing!
When your baby is younger, their gag reflex is closer to the front of their mouth. Thus, they have a very strong gag reflex. This heightened gag reflex acts as a built-in safety mechanism designed to keep your baby safe from choking. You may find that your baby gags or retches often when eating, and while this can be unsettling and uncomfortable to watch, it is a very normal part of the learning process. It will improve over time and is nothing to be alarmed about.
Actual choking is wholly different from gagging and occurs when food moves beyond your baby’s gag reflex and completely or partially blocks their airway. When this happens, your baby is usually silent and they will be unable to breathe, and you must immediately begin using standard first aid. The good news is that choking is rare and as long your baby’s food is prepared safely, they are no more likely to choke than they would being spoon fed purees.
7. Babies don’t need teeth!
Something that often surprises people is that babies do not need to have teeth to chew firmer foods, as they have incredibly hard gums. When you think about it, we chew and grind down food with our molars and not our front teeth. If you were to wait until your baby cut their molars at 1 or 2 years old to offer different and more challenging textures, they would miss out on a crucial opportunity to explore, learn, and develop food preferences.
8. You can still offer pureed textures
One myth that is making the rounds around the baby-led weaning community is that you cannot offer your baby any pureed foods whilst baby-led weaning. In actual fact, it is a good idea to offer pureed foods to your baby as this supports them in experiencing a wide range of textures as they explore and learn about foods.
Pureed foods such as oatmeal, mashed potatoes, yoghurt, blended dips, and applesauce are perfect examples of pureed textures that we as adults eat throughout our lives, and they are perfectly fine to offer to your baby on a pre-loaded spoon for them to self-feed and still uphold the basic principles of baby-led weaning.
9. Breastmilk or formula will still be most important
As with any weaning method, the most important thing to keep in mind is that up until 12 months, breastmilk and/or formula will continue to be your baby’s main source of nutrients and calories. This is not to say that solid foods are not important, but babies should still be fed breastmilk and/or formula on demand for the first year.
10. Setting an example is key
When it comes to baby-led weaning your baby is going to learn primarily by experiencing the foods that you serve. But another big way you can help your baby to learn to chew, feed themselves and explore new foods is to be present at mealtimes and show baby exactly how it’s done! Be sure to pull your baby’s highchair up to the dining table during mealtimes and wherever possible eat as a family. Your baby will love being included in these family rituals and will try to copy what they see happening around them.
Get started with these Green Smoothie Popsicles!
Smoothie popsicles are a teething-friendly food and a great opportunity to pack in some extra fruits and veggies. Perfect for all ages, these are zesty, sweet and refreshing, while at the same time being creamy and satisfying. In addition to their great flavor, these popsicles are a nutrition bomb: They’re loaded with iron, healthy fats, fiber, vitamin C and folate! These are perfect for those hot summer days when your baby or toddler isn’t eating much and you want to make sure they get a vitamin and mineral boost
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Freeze Time: 4 hours
Yields: 2 cups (480 ml) liquid smoothie
1 cup (30 g) fresh baby spinach
1 medium banana
½ medium avocado
1 cup (165 g) diced fresh or frozen mango
1 medium kiwi, peeled and quartered
1 cup (240 ml) coconut drinking milk or milk of choice
1 tbsp (10 g) chia seed
Add all of the ingredients to a blender and blend the ingredients on high speed for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the spinach leaves are completely blended.
Distribute the smoothie evenly among the popsicle molds, carefully place the molds in the freezer and freeze the popsicles for at least 4 hours or until frozen solid. When you are ready to serve the popsicles, run a popsicle under warmwater to help to loosen it from the mold.
The popsicles will last 3 months in the freezer. Any leftover smoothie can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours—be sure to give it a stir before serving.
Reprinted with permission from Baby-Led Weaning Made Easy by Simone Ward (Page Street Publishing, Co.; April 2021)
Simone Ward, founder of the popular Instagram account, Zayne’s Plate, has been an advocate for BLW, as it’s called, for years and has guided all four of her children through this approach to eating. She has seen first-hand how BLW teaches children how to be more independent as well as helping them to build a healthier relationship with food. And of course, over the years, she’s learned some helpful tips and tricks for how to get started, ensure childrens’ nutrient needs are met, and how busy parents can cook up delicious meals the entire family can enjoy, which she is sharing in her debut book, Baby-Led Weaning Made Easy: The Busy Parent’s Guide to Feeding Babies and Toddlers with Delicious Family Meals