Making Sense of Baby Led Weaning vs. Traditional Weaning. The Ins and Outs of Introducing Solids to Your Infant
Baby led weaning is an approach to starting solid foods that, when done fully, skips spoon feeding of purees. Whole table foods are offered instead. The baby is given time to self feed. The table foods are in sizes and textures which limit the chance of choking. Initially little food is ingested. The end goal is a child who has a well-developed jaw and musculature and enjoys a variety of foods, both for nutrition and pleasure.
What is baby led weaning? Is it safe? Should I be doing this with my infant? Is it just a fad?
As with many topics, there are various takes on baby led weaning both in the research and in practical application. Hopefully this short article will help you determine what is best for your family and baby and give you a few tips should you decide to give it a try.
What do I need to know nutritionally that applies to either spoon feeding or baby led weaning?
According to the American Association of Pediatrics, it is recommended that infants be fed via breast/bottle only until 6 months of age. As you begin to help your infant enjoy solids, offer breast or bottle milk and then wait between a half hour and an hour and try solids (be it spoon fed or the baby led weaning method). Do this about twice a day. This ensures sufficient nutritional and caloric intake as little actual food is ingested during the early stages of transitioning to solids. That is, early on it’s about the experience and not the meal. It’s a great sensory adventure for the baby. There’s smells and colors and best of all, it’s squishy. So while solids begin at around 6 months of age, a baby’s primary source of nutrition is breastmilk or formula for the first 12 months of life.
When trying solids, make one of the times be during a family meal time. It’s good for babies to associate food with a time of connection, sharing, and joy.
Is it okay to wait until my baby is 9 months old to try solids (spoon or baby led weaning)?
We recommend beginning solids closer to 6 months of age. This assumes your baby is developing typically. At around 6 months of age there is a nice window of opportunity. Babies tend to now have interest in what you are eating. Also, oral structures and coordination are ready for a bigger challenge. When waiting past 6 months, some babies become apprehensive and aversive to exploring food with their hands, and most especially with putting new and unusual things (food) in their mouth. While it’s not good to push feeding at a pace that your baby isn’t ready for, it’s also not recommended to wait too long. Our hands and mouths are fully of sensory receptors and can get finicky pretty quickly!
If your baby was premature or is not developing typically, the guidelines above may need to be adjusted. Ask your pediatrician for specific guidance.
So exactly what is baby led weaning?
Baby led weaning is an approach to starting solid foods that, when done fully, skips spoon feeding of purees. Whole table foods are offered instead. The baby is given time to explore and learns to self feed. The table foods are in sizes and textures which limit the chance of choking. Initially little food is ingested.
Is it safe? Are their potentially long term benefits to baby led weaning?
When done correctly, baby led weaning is safe. Correctly means that nutritional needs are met and safe swallowing happens (some gagging is normal; choking is not). Between the ages of 6 and 8 months, most infants are sitting up independently; able to reach and grasp food and bring it to their mouth; and are learning to mash/chew foods. There are certain foods that help babies learn to control their mouth reflexes and to bite, chew, and swallow safely. This can occur within appropriate baby led weaning.
Another consideration is jaw development. As our diet has moved away from whole foods into softer and more processed foods, neuromuscular and myofunctional dentists note that infants and young children have far less experience with biting and chewing. Thus, the theory goes, under-developed jaws are extremely common. This in turn creates a need for later orthodontia; DNA appliances; and a rise in temporomandibular joint dysfunction. Baby led weaning is thought to set the jaws and mouth on a good developmental track. Please keep reading though as in our view there are many positives to a hybrid approach.
What foods are good to start with?
Think squishy! If a fork goes through it easily with no resistance, it’s perfect.
-Steamed veggies (iron-rich veggies like steamed carrots, sweet potatoes, beets pumpkin, and soft lima beans; for information on iron rich foods and our infants, refer to the following: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11339160/)
-soft, ripe peaches (peeled)
-Strips of buttered toast
Strips the size of an adult finger and pea-sized pieces of baby-safe foods can also be used. How do you know if a pea-sized food is safe for your baby? Test it yourself. If you can mash the food with your tongue/roof of your mouth, then it is ok for your baby.
And what foods ought to be avoided?
Here is a partial list of foods to avoid due to choking concerns:
-Whole cherry tomatoes
-Raw, coin shaped foods
-Whole leafy greens
-Very soft bread
-Thickly spread nut butters
Of note, as the baby learns to move food around within their mouth and swallow, some gagging is to be expected.
Why is it recommended to introduce new foods slowly?
Allowing the baby to experience new tastes, temperatures, consistency, and textures at their own pace is important. That is, don’t overwhelm your baby with too much too soon. There are many sensory receptors on our hands and inside our mouths and it can create aversion and rejection. Amusing looks of surprise and perhaps strong dislike are entirely normal! Slow and steady in presenting new foods is a key to success. There are also some pediatricians who recommend slow introduction of new foods to determine sensitivities and allergies. Ask your pediatrician for advice on how often to introduce a new food.
So what about spoon feeding and purees? Do I ditch them altogether?
While we see the value in baby led weaning and introducing appropriate table foods, we see great value in spoon feeding. We would not recommend skipping purees and spoon feeding altogether. The end goal is to help a baby become a toddler who is able to successfully enjoy a variety of foods, both for nutrition and pleasure. There are valuable skills to be learned from spoon feeding such as lip closure; jaw and lip coordination to remove food from the spoon; and tongue and jaw movement which differ from whole foods. In addition, spoon feeding is also a social interaction with your baby. It is done at eye level and is ideally done like a dance, where you are reading the cues from your baby and feeding them according to the cues they are giving you. Based on the baby’s response you might end up going faster and faster and trying to get more and more on the spoon. Or the opposite, as the baby may take some time to decide whether what they are tasting is pleasing to them. Take time to savor these special moments with your baby. This type of interaction teaches a baby the art of pacing a meal which is an important skill to learn. As Diane Bahr (speech-language pathologist, feeding specialist and author of “Nobody Ever Told Me [Or My Mother] That!”) states, “Pacing a spoon-fed meal is important for several reasons. First, it allows your child to fully experience the shape, size, and texture of food in the mouth. Second, the esophagus requires some time for the most efficient movement of food toward the stomach. Finally, the brain needs time to register the presence of food in the stomach so your child will know when she is full.”
Lastly, a baby developing a repertoire of feeding skills is helpful when in novel situations such as mealtime outside the home when spoon feeding may be desirable.
So what is best?
There are benefits to both, and we recommend a combination of the two if possible. The benefits of baby led weaning include the exposure to varying tastes and textures that are important for mouth development, including a potential for better long term jaw development. Baby led weaning allows a baby to eat foods that are already being made for mealtimes for you/your family, but again, be sure that you become knowledgeable in what is safe and appropriate for -your child and his/her age. Spoon feeding tends to have greater interaction and the baby learns oral skills that are different from baby led weaning. Both baby led weaning and spoon feeding allow for your baby to continue to develop the hand-mouth connection. If your baby is not accepting a new food via spoon or baby led weaning, allow them to play with the food with their hands. This provides sensory input regarding texture and smell which is important and a necessary part of learning for our infants.
When it comes down to it, choosing baby led weaning is a personal decision based on many factors:
- Do you have the time for baby led weaning?
- Is your baby ready for baby led weaning?
- Are you ready for baby led weaning- meaning do you feel comfortable and confident in it for yourself as a parent?
- What is acceptable within your ethnic and family culture?
It’s a messy affair so a shower liner or drop cloth under the baby’s high chair is helpful to some parents!
While the internet is a wonderful source of information, it’s best to get specific questions answered by professionals that know you and your baby. Ask your pediatrician and lactation consultant. At times, they may ask you to talk to a feeding therapist (a speech or occupational therapist who has additional training in feeding).
Colleen Nolan MS, SLP-CCC Carolina Kinder Development (and Heart Centered)
Susan Klemm MS, OTR/L Carolina Kinder Development
341 N. Caswell Road Charlotte, NC 28204
physical, occupational, feeding, and speech therapy, cranial bands when needed, holistic and prevention based
-infants through the early years–
A special thank you for reviewing and adding valuable information:
Dgoc-Diep T. Nguyen, MD Levine Children’s Perspective Health and Wellness
Mellissa Willette BSN, RN, IBCLC, Legacy Lactation