What is baby-led weaning?
Baby-led weaning (or BLW) is a method of weaning your baby where you let them feed themselves right from the word go by giving them pieces of food to pick up and feed themselves by hand. This is somewhat in contrast to traditional spoon-feeding where you instead offer your baby purees or mashed foods off a spoon at the start of their weaning journey.
Both BLW and spoon led weaning methods do have benefits and really don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Some parents prefer one approach fully over the other, but there is no right or wrong way to feed your baby. In reality, the best method is to follow your own baby’s cues and so I’m a huge fan of giving baby the opportunity to explore a ‘best of both’ approach.
What are the benefits of baby-led weaning?
Some studies suggest that when a baby learns to self-feed via baby-led weaning, they have a positive attitude to food, enjoy eating and are less prone to fussiness. BLW encourages independence and early exposure to “family-style” feeding and mealtimes. There is research to suggest that baby-led weaning may help babies to self-regulate food and energy intake too, but this research is not totally conclusive.
There are benefits to traditional spoon-feeding, too. Offering your baby the spoon at mealtimes allows for flexibility, which can be good for parents who are a little nervous at the start of weaning. It also allows for a gradual introduction of solid foods – a slightly slower pace, which might suit some babies more. Additionally, offering some food that is mashed or pureed can allow for baby to be exposed to a wider range of flavours and textures early on, which is recommended during weaning. It also helps them develop skills around utensils and spoons – plus they can learn to self-feed this way too.
Can I do both baby-led weaning and purees?
Absolutely, yes! Despite myths to the contrary, you don’t have to choose one method of weaning over the other. In fact, a combined approach can give your baby the best of both worlds by offering flexibility, a positive eating experience, encouraging independence and self-feeding, discouraging fussiness and emphasising variety. The combined approach is (in my view) backed by most healthcare professionals, supported by research and encouraged by the UK government. As a registered nutritionist, it is my recommended method just because I love the fact that it allows baby the opportunity to explore both finger foods and food from a spoon and ultimately lets them decide HOW and what they want to eat at mealtimes. It’s also how I weaned both Raffy and Ada.
To combine baby-led weaning with purees, you can kick off with offering some super-soft, cooked finger foods alongside mashed foods on a spoon and just let your baby have a tiny taste of anything they want to explore. All babies are different. Some take to finger foods straightaway and seem to prefer BLW and self-feeding, others like a gentle introduction to different textures and tastes off a spoon. Then there are babies who like a spoon but quickly grab it from you and self-feed that way – in other words, just because you start spoon-feeding it doesn’t mean your baby won’t start self-feeding themselves pretty quickly anyway!
Offering a combined approach gives your baby the chance to explore all ways of feeding so that between you, you can work out what they like best, and when. I also found with both my two that it would change from day to day, sometimes they fancied the finger foods and were more willing to explore. And on other days they’d prefer to use the spoon or have a little more support with their feeding.
When should I start?
Whichever way you are weaning your baby – whether BLW, spoon-feeding or a combined approach – there are some things you must check before offering them their first tastes. Your baby must be developmentally ready (normally at around 6 months of age) and able to sit up with minimal (if any) support – check my blog on When do I Start my Baby On Solid Food? for more on this. Additionally, always ensure an adult is present during all feeding times.
Do babies need teeth for BLW?
Babies don’t need teeth to eat soft finger foods (or textured purees) and some don’t have much in the way of teeth for the whole of their first year. Baby teeth are just below the gum line, however, so their gums are fairly solid. They can explore a variety of textures without teeth – including soft finger foods. Just remember to start very soft and build up gradually as your baby gets more confident and develops those eating skills with practice.
How to start baby-led weaning
Finger foods can often understandably be a cause of concern for parents – how does a baby take solid pieces of food and not choke? To build both your baby’s and your own confidence, start super-soft with foods that easily squidge between your finger and thumb . Your baby can squash these down with their tongue and gums. Remove pips, tough skins and any other hard bits of food. Eat finger foods with your baby so that they can see how to hold and bite off pieces and how to chew – they need to learn this skill from you, it isn’t inherent. Always sit with your baby while they are eating anything.
Don’t worry if they don’t seem to be swallowing most of the food to start with – this can often take a little longer with baby-led weaning than if you are spoon-feeding them. Check out my blog on How to Serve Finger Foods to My Baby from 6-12 Months for more details on the texture of finger foods. Additionally in my book How to Wean Your Baby I cover the first 30 days of weaning including recipes and cooking times, which can help you feel confident about those early textures.
Best baby-led weaning foods
To start with, offer sticks of very soft food, such as overcooked veg, that are roughly the size and shape of an adult finger. Your baby can easily grab these in their palm and bite off chunks. Once they get a little more confident you can start offering foods that have been cooked for a little less long so they are exposed to slightly firmer textures. Some of my favourite finger foods include broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potato, kiwi fruit, lightly toasted bread, banana, avocado, pasta, salmon, courgette (with the skin removed) and large tomatoes.
As your little one gets more experienced, you can offer finger foods such as meatballs or fishcakes and then start to help baby explore their pincer grip by offering smaller pieces of soft foods. I have lots of separate blogs dedicated to finger foods, including serving baby finger foods from 6-12 months, freezing finger foods and my tried-and-tested tips for what really works when feeding your baby finger foods.
Foods to avoid
Ensure you remove pips, tough skins and any other hard bits from foods you offer your baby during BLW. Some foods are choking hazards and should be either avoided altogether or prepared differently before offering to your little one. For example you should grate carrot, cheese and apple, chop grapes, olives or cherry tomatoes into quarters and half blueberries, for example. Cut dates into fine dice and only offer nuts milled or as nut butters. My blog on the gagging reflex in babies includes pictures showing how best to prepare all these foods.
Baby-led weaning and choking
There is no evidence that baby-led weaning increases the risk of choking. Similarly, there is no evidence that spoon-feeding, nor a combined approach, increases this risk either. I know that gagging can be really worrying for parents – it was for me too! – but it is a normal part of weaning and is a way for your baby to remove any food that isn’t ready to be swallowed. Choking is much less common but it’s important that you know the difference between choking versus gagging before starting weaning. You may like to do a first aid session to boost your confidence too, I find it helps so many parents feel more ready for solid foods.
Baby-led weaning recipes
Some of my favourite baby-led weaning breakfast ideas include pancakes, alongside strips of vegetable omelettes, dippy eggs and soldiers, frittatas and toast with toppings – you can find all these recipes in my top 10 breakfast ideas for children blog. If you’re looking for recipes for a baby-led weaning lunch, try my 10 healthy sandwich fillings for babies, baby-friendly fishcakes, fishfingers or courgette fritters. And if you want to get-ahead and have the time to do so, my 10 freezable recipes for baby-led weaning are a good way to get organised.
Top tips for success
Last but not least, one of the most notorious things about weaning – and especially baby-led weaning – is how messy it can all be! It certainly pays to be prepared on this front before you even get started, so do check out my tips for how to cope with weaning mess. Another thing to factor in is that a lot of the food in your baby’s hands might well end up on the floor! Knowing what to do if your baby throws food can be invaluable during baby-led weaning. Finally I have a factsheet for babies who don’t take to weaning which you might like to read if you have any concerns, with BLW or otherwise.
I hope this bumper blog has been useful as you start your baby’s weaning journey. Remember, offering variety and eating together are the best ways you can help give your baby a love of food, whichever way you decide to wean them. For lots more guidance and support than I can possibly include in one blog post, you may like to look at my online weaning course and my book, ‘How To Wean Your Baby’. I hope you enjoy this exciting stage in your baby’s development.
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Following on from her bestselling books How to Wean Your Baby and How to Feed Your Toddler, this book brings Charlotte’s trademark approach of practical support and nurturing step-by-step guidance to help you manage the juggle of family life.