When it comes to starting solids, more and more parents are skipping the traditional puree path and trying baby-led weaning (BLW). It's an approach that allows babies to actually feed themselves whole pieces of food. Sure, it's a lot messier than feeding your baby with a spoon. And no, it may not be the feeding advice you've gotten from your mom (or maybe even your pediatrician!). But the potential benefits of BLW are huge: When babies are allowed to feed themselves from the start, they may become better self-regulators—eating when they're hungry, stopping when they're full. Being allowed to explore different textures and whole foods from such an early age may also mean your child grows into a more adventurous (and less picky) eater.
In their new book Born to Eat: Whole Healthy Food From Baby's First Bite, co-authors Leslie Schilling and Wendy Jo Peterson, both moms and dietitians, offer step-by-step instructions for using the BLW approach—and they also give advice on encouraging healthy eating as Baby moves through the toddler years (and beyond). "Baby-led weaning is so simple. It really takes the fuss out of feeding and allows the whole family to enjoy the same foods," says Schilling.
If you're intrigued by this approach but feel a little unsure about taking a less traditional route, that's natural. "It's normal to be nervous," she says. "Once you have a few meals under your belt—and have weathered the first gag—you'll feel like a pro!" Here, she and Peterson answer your biggest BLW questions:
1. What are the best foods to start with?
Our recommendations are to start the self-feeding journey with appropriately prepared whole foods like avocado, steak, eggs, sweet potatoes, and carrots, as opposed to multi-ingredient "mixed" foods. These single-ingredient whole foods help remove the guesswork if your child happens to not tolerate a food well.
2. How soft should veggies be?
Steaming harder fruits and vegetables initially is best. The addition of water softens the food without making the skin or outer portion of the fruit or vegetable tough. Our rule of thumb is to steam until the vegetables or fruits are soft enough to gently press with your fingers or the food smashes easily when pressed between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.
3. What if my baby chokes or gags?
Emerging research suggests that there is no greater risk of choking with BLW compared to other feeding methods. But it's important to know the difference between choking and gagging. Gagging, whether a silent movement of food inside the mouth or coughing, is a normal and reflexive safety mechanism that pushes food that hasn't been fully chewed or mashed toward the front of the mouth so that it can continue to be chewed and then swallowed. When a baby gags (and they will, because it's a normal, developmentally appropriate skill) try to stay calm. If your baby is gagging, her eyes may water, she may cough, sputter, make gagging sounds, be silent yet intently moving food toward the front of her mouth, or may look afraid. Choking, though, is when an object or substance becomes stuck in the throat or windpipe, causing the blockage of airflow. If a baby is choking, it's unlikely she'll be able to make sounds and will not be able to effectively move air. When infants are eating while reclined, they're at greater risk for choking, so always make sure your baby is sitting upright during feeding. It's unlikely a baby will have a choking episode if safe self-feeding practices are in place; however, it's imperative that parents are trained in infant CPR procedures regardless of the feeding approach.
4. How long should I let my baby sit at a meal and eat?
However long your meal takes to enjoy and savor. There's no need to rush, and remember, they're observing and learning from you. It could take a baby much longer to explore her three food items than it took you to complete your whole meal. Take your time. After about 30 minutes or when they appear to have lost interest, then it's time to change activities.
5. How should parents serve baby portions?
Keep it simple. We recommend serving one to three foods or three finger-shaped pieces of food at a time. When babies appear to want more, place one more piece in front of them.
6. What if my pediatrician has never heard of (or is unsupportive of) BLW?
The fact that your doctor doesn't know about baby-led weaning or self-feeing doesn't make it an inappropriate choice; it means the approach simply isn't known to them. With that said, as parents we must advocate for our children and do what we feel is best.
Excerpted with permission from Born to Eat: Whole Healthy Food From Baby's First Bite by Leslie Schilling and Wendy Jo Peterson (Copyright: Skyhorse Publishing, 2017). For more information about this approach, visit the website Born to Eat.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author ofThe Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.