It's a familiar scene: Mom or Dad delivering sweet potato purée into baby's wide-open mouth via that special airplane spoon—complete with sound effects and announcements from the cockpit. But for the parents who practice baby-led weaning, the picture of Baby's mealtimes looks much different: The youngest member of the family sits in the high chair before a spread of finger foods, attempting to transfer the bits from tray to tongue all by himself.
Popularized in the U.K. about eight years ago with the publication of Baby-Led Weaning, by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett, this method has long been used by cultures around the world. Now, enthusiasm for bypassing purées and waiting until baby is ready to self-feed is also growing in the United States.
The benefits of baby-led weaning can be great, says registered dietician Clancy Cash Harrison, author of Feeding Baby. For one, it helps fine-tune motor development: "Baby-led weaning supports the development of eye-hand coordination, chewing skills, dexterity, and healthy eating habits," she says. "It also offers babies an opportunity to explore the taste, texture, aroma, and color of a variety of foods."
It's also an early—and very important—step for babies in learning self-regulation: learning to stop eating when they feel full. "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 co-writer of Real Baby Food. With spoon-feeding, she says, "Parents can sneak in a couple more spoonfuls even if the baby is full. Doing so frequently will teach the baby to routinely eat more than he needs and stop regulating his intake efficiently." Though few scientific studies have been conducted on the subject, experts see potential for baby-led weaning to have a lasting effect on a child's food preferences, eating habits, and palates.
If you're ready to push that baby food-making machine to the back of the pantry and give baby-led weaning a try, though, make sure you set the stage for a positive experience from the start. Here are some guidelines on how to get it right.
Wait until your baby is ready. Your child should be able to sit in a high chair unassisted, have good neck strength, and be able to move food to the back of her mouth with up and down jaw movements, Harrison says. "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."
Continue breastfeeding and formula. "Weaning" is actually bit of a misnomer. "Breast milk or formula will continue to be a baby's biggest source of nutrition until he or she is 10 to 12 months old," says Stasenko.
Pull up a chair. You're not off the hook for fully engaging at mealtime: Continue to socialize with—and supervise—your child.
Start with soft first foods. Ripe fruits, cooked egg yolks, flaky fish, moist and shredded meats, puffed cereals, and cooked pastas and vegetables are all good options, advises Harrison.
Prep those foods for easy grasping. Substantial-size pieces—cut in long, thin strips, coin-shaped, or with a crinkle cutter—are easiest for your baby to manage.
Consider nutrient intake. Make sure there are high-calorie foods and those with iron, zinc, protein, and healthy fats on the tray, advises Stasenko.
Prepare for messes. The goal of baby-led weaning 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. 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.
Choose a bad time for meals. A tired or upset baby likely won't cooperate.
Expect it to work for every baby. “Babies with developmental delays or neurological issues should start solids more traditionally,” says Dina DiMaggio, M.D., a pediatrician in New York City and coauthor of The Pediatrician’s Guide to Feeding Babies & Toddlers. You’ll also need to be extra vigilant about choking and food allergies.
Overload on new foods. 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 as with purée-feeding, Harrison suggests starting slowly, introducing a new food only every four days so allergic reactions can be pinpointed.
Enter panic mode. Most babies are surprisingly adept at managing finger foods, but gagging is very common in the early days of eating. "Understand that gagging is a safe reflex to get rid of food that is a little too challenging. Your baby will learn from your reaction: If you are scared, she will get scared, too," says Stasenko.
Rush your baby. Plan for 10-to-15-minute meals—at the minimum, says Harrison.
Get lax on safety. Stay away from choking hazards such as grapes, hot dogs, raisins, popcorn, raw vegetables, and sticky nut butters. It's also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the infant-specific Heimlich maneuver, advises Stasenko. As a precaution, always stay with your baby when he eats, and make sure he’s sitting up.
Ignore your baby's signals. If food is getting tossed in every direction, your baby has likely had enough.
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 Harrison.
Rely on sharp utensils or hot foods. 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.
Give up. Some babies prefer purées at first, are slow to learn how to self-feed, or need multiple exposures to certain foods.
If spoon-feeding is what you or your baby are most comfortable with, there's no need to abandon it altogether before you introduce finger foods into the routine. 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. "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 to prepare purées with an increasingly lumpy texture to help advance your child's chewing skills.
It's also key, says Harrison, to encourage your child to start participating in the delivery of food early on. "Let your child reach for the spoon and guide it to his mouth with or without your help," she says. "Make sure the child is leading the process."
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.