Until just a few years ago, introducing your baby to solids followed a predictable path. Parents mixed up a little infant cereal or put a small bite of puree on a spoon and buzzed like an airplane to deliver the food into their baby’s open mouth. Over the weeks and months, purees became lumpier and finger foods began appearing on the high-chair tray.
Today, the buzz you’re hearing—or spreading—is probably about baby-led weaning. Popularized in the U.K. about eight years ago with the publication of Baby-Led Weaning, by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett, this feeding method is trending in the U.S., especially among young parents looking for a more natural and family-friendly way of serving solids. In a nutshell, baby-led weaning means skipping spoon-feeding purees and letting babies feed themselves finger foods right from the start—at about age 6 months. (In England, “weaning” means starting solids, not ending breastfeeding.) If you’re considering baby-led weaning, you probably have lots of questions. Here’s the scoop.
People seem really passionate about this. What’s the big deal?
“Baby-led-weaning fans love that little ones learn to follow their own hunger cues,” says London-based pediatric dietitian Natalia Stasenko. They can eat at their own pace and engage their senses—exploring food through sight, touch, smell, and taste. Babies also develop hand-eye coordination and chewing skills, and are more likely to eat wholesome family meals sooner. Plus, you won’t have to buy little jars of food or spend time blending, freezing, and defrosting homemade baby food. #momwin
Can I just give my baby a pork chop to gnaw on and be done with it?
You may see photos on baby-led-weaning Facebook pages of babies chowing down on all sorts of improbable foods, from drumsticks to casseroles. But most experts recommend beginning more slowly. “Start with single-ingredient foods so you’ll be able to pinpoint any food allergies,” says Dina DiMaggio, M.D., a pediatrician in New York City and coauthor of The Pediatrician’s Guide to Feeding Babies & Toddlers. That’s harder to do with mixed dishes like lasagna. Once your baby has tried and tolerated several foods—such as banana, avocado, steamed broccoli florets with a stalk “handle,” baked sliced apple without the peel, poached and flaked salmon, omelets cut into pieces, or strips of chicken—you can begin offering mixed dishes. Choking is also a concern, so be sure to offer foods that are soft and appropriately sized.
How should I prep my baby’s food?
Texture is key. The food you give your novice eater should be soft and easy to smash with gentle pressure between your thumb and forefinger. Raw hard fruit and veggies are a choking hazard, so steam or roast them first. Size also matters, both for safety and because if a baby can’t pick up the food, then what’s the point? Few 6- to 8-month-olds have mastered the pincer grasp (thumb and index finger), so they’ll pick up foods with their whole palm. To make it easier, cut foods about the length and width of an adult pinky finger. Remember that many foods are slippery! When serving bananas and avocado, leave some of the peel on to make it easier for your baby to grasp. Using a crinkle cutter can also be helpful. Once your baby develops his pincer grasp, around 8 to 9 months, serve food cut into small pieces, like ripe mango chunks, cooked beans, chopped steamed spinach, and pieces of pasta.
Should I panic if my baby gags a lot?
Most babies are surprisingly adept at managing finger foods, but gagging is very common in the early days of eating. It’s scary, but the gag reflex is actually a built-in safety mechanism to help your baby avoid choking. To be safe, follow these rules:
If your baby seems to gag on everything, wait a week or two before continuing. Or, offer purees and then move to finger foods when your baby is a bit older.
Purees? Yes or no?
Yes! Or no. It’s up to you. Some baby-led-weaning advocates believe spoonfeeding has no place in a baby’s diet. But a mixed approach of mostly finger foods along with some purees may work better for you and your baby. For the first month or two of self-feeding, your baby will do a lot of licking, tasting, and exploring—but not a lot of actual eating. So purees can help make meals more filling and nutritious. Plus, some children just aren’t ready for finger foods at 6 months. On the practical side, spoon-feeding can also be an easy way to feed your baby on the go. “Purees helped us prevent so many messes in restaurants!” Stasenko recalls. Keep in mind that if you choose to also spoon-feed, you’re not breaking any rules.
What about utensils and food temperature?
Let your baby start handling a kid-safe fork and spoon, but don’t expect much food to make it onto the utensil or into her mouth. Avoid toothpicks or other skewers. Meals should be barely warm or cool. Always check the temp before serving.
How do I know if my baby is eating enough?
Your baby is still getting most of her nutrition from breast milk or formula, so don’t worry if she doesn’t actually swallow many solids. If she seems frustrated or unsatisfied by her meals, consider supplementing finger foods with purees until she gets the hang of self-feeding.
Ugh! The mess!
We know. But remember: The goal is to let your little one explore food at his own pace, so that means smashing it, smearing it, dropping it, and probably making a big old mess at nearly every meal. “Getting messy is part of the feeding process,” says Clancy Cash Harrison, R.D., author of Feeding Baby. “It’s an essential milestone in learning to love a variety of nourishing foods.” You can place a garbage bag or a plastic tablecloth under the high chair for easy cleanup, replace your baby’s bib with an art smock, and balance messy foods with less-messy ones (like dry cereal or toast) when feeding.
When can my baby eat family food?
As your baby becomes a more confident eater and has tried enough individual foods for you to rule out most food allergies, he’ll be ready to eat more mixed dishes from the family table. Just cut his portions into shapes that are the appropriate size, and make sure they’re relatively soft and don’t contain fiery spice or excessive salt. “It’s a good idea to cook with little or no salt since a baby's body cannot process sodium well,” says Stasenko. Grown-ups can add it at the table. It’s also important to offer your baby iron-rich foods daily such as beef, lentils, dark poultry meat, leafy greens, and fortified cereals to help support his brain development. This is especially important if you’re breastfeeding, since formula is iron-fortified.
Is baby-led weaning right for every baby?
“Babies with developmental delays or neurological issues should start solids more traditionally,” Dr. DiMaggio says. You’ll also need to be extra vigilant about choking and food allergies. Rest assured that your baby will thrive whether you try baby-led weaning, start with purees, or go for the mixed approach, as long as you offer your baby a variety of flavors and don’t pressure her to eat. Says Dr. DiMaggio, “If your baby wants purees, great. If she wants finger foods, go for it. The best advice is to just go with your baby.”
Jenna Helwig is the senior food editor at Parents, and the author of Baby-Led Feeding: A Natural Way to Raise Happy, Indpendent Eaters.