What Is Baby-Led Weaning?

With baby-led weaning, your child skips purées and self-feeds with finger food instead. Learn about the benefits of this feeding method and tips for baby-led weaning success.

It's a familiar scene: a caregiver delivers puréed or mashed food into a baby's wide-open mouth using that special airplane spoon, complete with sound effects and announcements from the cockpit. But for parents and caregivers who practice baby-led weaning, the picture of their baby's mealtimes looks much different.

Baby-led weaning (BLW), sometimes referred to as baby-led feeding, is a method of introducing babies to solid foods. It calls for skipping purées and going straight to finger foods—usually when the baby is around 6 months old.

Popularized in the United Kingdom with the publication of the book Baby-Led Weaning by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett, this method of infant feeding has long been used worldwide, including more recently in the United States. It's especially popular among parents looking for a more "natural" and family-friendly way of serving solids.

The Meaning of Baby-Led Weaning

Baby-led weaning (BLW) involves skipping the spoon-fed purées and letting babies feed themselves finger foods when starting solids.

While the baby-led feeding can be a great option for some families, it's important to note that it might not benefit every baby or every family. For example, "babies with developmental delays or neurological issues should start solids more traditionally," says Dina DiMaggio, M.D., a pediatrician in New York City and co-author of The Pediatrician's Guide to Feeding Babies & Toddlers.

And even though you're not directly spoon-feeding them, it's still important to closely monitor your baby while they eat when using the BLW method. You'll also need to be extra vigilant about choking and food allergies.

Read on to learn about the benefits of this baby-led weaning, with tips for starting this feeding method with your child.

baby-led weaning questions

The Benefits of Baby-Led Weaning

Baby-led weaning means skipping spoon-feeding purées and letting babies feed themselves finger foods right from the start (at about 6 months). The benefits of this method can be great, says registered dietitian Clancy Cash Harrison, author of Feeding Baby. Keep reading to learn the pros of baby-led weaning.

It helps develop fine motor skills

For starters, baby-led weaning helps babies learn to self-feed, and it fine-tunes their motor development. "Baby-led weaning supports the development of hand-eye coordination, chewing skills, and dexterity," says Cash Harrison.

Since babies need repeated practice to develop motor skills, researchers hypothesize that the baby-led weaning approach offers lots of consistent opportunities to work on these skills.

It helps babies learn self-regulation

Baby-led weaning also offers an early—and crucial—step for babies in learning self-regulation. "Babies who self-feed cannot realistically be made to eat more than they need since they are feeding independently," says Natalia Stasenko, a pediatric dietician and contributor to Real Baby Food.

With spoon-feeding, she says, "Parents can sneak in a couple more spoonfuls even if the baby is full." Consistently being given those extra bites can teach the baby to routinely eat more than they need and to stop regulating their intake efficiently, she explains.

It exposes babies to a variety of foods and textures

Baby-led weaning also allows babies to explore the taste, texture, aroma, and color of a variety of foods, says Cash Harrison. Though few scientific studies have been conducted on the subject, experts see the potential for baby-led weaning to have a lasting effect on a child's food preferences, eating habits, and palates.

One 2021 study examined the association between baby-led weaning and food acceptance, or the level of liking for particular foods. Researchers found no difference in food acceptance between those who used baby-led weaning and those who used traditional spoon feeding. However, they did note that general parental pressure negatively affected some babies' food acceptance.

It saves time and money

Another benefit of baby-led weaning: You won't have to buy little jars of baby food or spend time cooking, blending, freezing, and defrosting homemade baby food. And you won't have to directly feed your baby solids, which saves you time.

It involves babies in family meals

Another great thing about baby-led weaning is that babies don't need separate food items at mealtime; they can eat little bits of appropriate foods that the family is already eating. And experts agree that family meals are important for children.

According to the University of Florida, family meals allow families to communicate, provide a sense of security and togetherness, and encourage healthy eating habits. So, starting this habit when your child is a baby is a benefit that can last a lifetime.

It makes dining out easier

Dining out is much simpler with baby-led weaning. As with family meals at the table, you don't have to pack a special meal for your baby; you can simply choose from appropriate menu items or offer foods from your plate.

When to Start Baby-Led Weaning

When it comes to introducing solids, whether finger foods or purées, wait until your baby is developmentally ready. Here are a few signs, according to Cash Harrison:

  • Your child can sit in a high chair unassisted
  • They have good neck strength
  • They're able to move food to the back of their mouth with up and down jaw movements
  • They seem interested in food

"Most healthy children over 6 months of age are developmentally able to self-feed; however, strong chewing skills in some children may not be fully developed until 9 months. The baby-led weaning process will help develop those chewing skills," says Cash Harrison.

Also, note that "weaning" is a bit of a misnomer. Even after starting solid foods, breast milk or formula will continue to be a baby's biggest source of nutrition until they are at least 1 year old.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not have guidelines on baby-led weaning, they do say that once your baby can sit up unassisted and bring objects to their mouth, you can start giving them finger foods. Also, the organization says babies may be big enough for solids when they double their birth weight and weigh at least 13 pounds.

What Is the Four-Day Rule?

Authorities such as the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that when starting solids, caregivers offer single-ingredient foods one at a time, then watch for three to five days for a reaction before offering another single-ingredient food. This is sometimes referred to as "the four-day rule."

The Best Baby-Led Weaning Foods

You may see photos on baby-led-weaning Facebook pages of infants chowing down on all sorts of surprising foods, from chicken 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 DiMaggio.

Examples of great first finger foods include:

  • Avocado
  • Apple slices (baked, steamed, or poached without the peel)
  • Banana
  • Broccoli florets with a stalk "handle" (steamed)
  • Chicken (cut into strips)
  • Omelets (cut into strips)
  • Pasta
  • Meat (slow-cooked and shredded)
  • Salmon (poached and flaked)

Substantially-sized pieces of food—cut in long thin strips, coins, or with a crinkle cutter—are often most manageable for your baby. That's because very 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.

Once your baby develops this pincer grasp (usually around 8 to 9 months), serve food cut into small pieces, like ripe mango chunks, cooked beans, chopped steamed spinach, and pieces of pasta.

Also, remember that 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. For example, you should steam fruits and vegetables when beginning baby-led weaning, says Leslie Schilling and Wendy Jo Peterson, both moms, dietitians, and co-authors of Born to Eat: Whole Healthy Food From Baby's First Bite.

Once your baby has tried and tolerated several single-ingredient foods, you can begin offering mixed dishes. Make sure there are high-calorie foods and those with iron, zinc, protein, and healthy fats on the tray, advises Stasenko. "It's also a good idea to cook with little or no salt since a baby's body cannot process sodium well," she adds.

Foods to Avoid With Baby-Led Weaning

When starting with baby-led weaning, avoid common choking hazards such as:

  • Whole grapes
  • Whole blueberries
  • Loose corn kernels
  • Whole nuts and seeds
  • Hot dogs and sausage links
  • Dried fruit like raisins
  • Popcorn
  • Raw baby carrots
  • Raw apple chunks
  • Sticky nut butters

No matter how you choose to introduce your child to solids, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the infant-specific Heimlich maneuver, advises Stasenko. Finally, as a precaution, always stay with your baby when they eat, and make sure they're sitting up.

What If Your Baby Chokes?

Most babies are surprisingly adept at managing finger foods, and research shows that babies who are fed following a baby-led weaning approach aren't more likely to choke than babies who are spoon-fed, as long as caregivers are informed about minimizing choking risk.

However, gagging is very common in the early days of eating. It's a normal and reflexive safety mechanism that might cause watery eyes, coughing, or sputtering. Statsenko says that parents should understand that gagging is a safe reflex to get rid of food that is a little too challenging. She adds that your baby will learn from your reaction: If you are scared, they will get scared, too.

Conversely, choking happens when food becomes stuck in the throat or windpipe, blocking airflow. If a baby is choking, they probably won't make sounds or effectively move air, says Schilling and Peterson.

According to Children's Wisconsin, choking is rare in babies, especially if you practice safe eating habits. This includes keeping your child seated upright in a high chair and serving them well-cooked food in appropriate sizes. Further safety tips include:

  • Always staying with your baby while they eat
  • Making sure your baby is sitting up when eating
  • Serving foods that aren't too hard (for example, chunks of raw apple are one of the biggest choking hazards for babies)
  • Taking an infant first-aid class so you'll be prepared
  • Not rushing to help your baby if they gag (Babies sense parents' panic and can develop negative associations with eating; instead, stay calm and give them time to work it out.)

Tips for Baby-Led Weaning Success

If you're considering baby-led weaning, there are some things you can do to make the experience work for you and your baby. Read on for baby-led weaning tips and tricks.

Consider a mixed approach

If spoon-feeding is most comfortable for you and your baby, there's no need to abandon it altogether before introducing finger foods. For the first month or two of self-feeding, your baby will do a lot of licking, tasting, and exploring—but not much actual eating. So purées can help make meals more filling and nutritious.

Plus, some children aren't ready for finger foods at 6 months. "I am for the mixed approach, as it helps expose babies to finger foods and also minimizes the risk of nutritional gaps in the diet," says Stasenko. She recommends serving finger foods directly before or after purées and preparing purées with an increasingly lumpy texture to help advance your child's chewing skills.

Prepare for messes

Baby-led weaning aims to let your little one explore food at their 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 Cash Harrison. "It's an essential milestone in learning to love a variety of nourishing foods."

Your floor will likely see the worst of it. 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.

Dine together

Take advantage of the fact that elements of most adult meals can be made baby-friendly and make it a habit of eating with your baby for some meals. "Allow the infant to eat at the table during family meals," says Cash Harrison. Even better: Give your baby some of the same ingredients that make up your dish.

Let your baby use safe utensils

It's key, says Cash Harrison, to encourage your child to start participating in the delivery of food early on. For example, let your child reach for the spoon and guide it to their mouth with or without your help. "Make sure the child is leading the process," she adds. And avoid toothpicks or other skewers.

Rest assured they are getting enough nutrients

When your baby is first starting solids, they will still be getting most of their nutrition from breast milk or formula, so don't worry if they don't actually swallow a lot of the food you offer them. If they seem frustrated or unsatisfied with their meals, consider supplementing finger foods with purées until they get the hang of self-feeding.

Don't get overly heated or emotional

Eating should be treated as a natural and expected part of the day. "Don't praise, pressure, or scold about eating," advises Cash Harrison. Remember, whether offering finger foods or purées, pressure from caregivers can negatively impact a baby's willingness to try and accept new foods.

Updated by Jenna Helwig
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Parents uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Baby-Led Introduction to SolidS (BLISS) study: A randomised controlled trial of a baby-led approach to complementary feeding. BMC Pediatrics. 2015.

  2. The baby-led weaning method: A focus on mealtime behaviours, food acceptance and fine motor skills. Nutrition Bulletin. 2021.

  3. A Baby-Led Approach to Eating Solids and Risk of Choking. Pediatrics. 2016.

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