When it came to weaning, for years most parents opted to spoon-feed purées to their babies. But in 2008, British midwife Gill Rapley popularized the idea of baby-led weaning.
She suggested simply putting appropriate food on to your baby’s tray and letting him feed himself.
Eight years and thousands of baby-led weaned babies later, we’ve learned a lot about what works well – and what doesn’t – when it comes to this method of weaning.
Meet the experts: Nancy Ripton and Melanie Potock are co-authors of Baby Self-Feeding: Solid Food Solutions to Create Lifelong, Healthy Eating Habits (£16.99, Fair Winds Press).
‘You really want your baby’s early feeding experiences to be fun,’ says Melanie.
‘If it’s fun, he’ll enjoy it, and start to build a positive, healthy relationship with food that can last for the rest of his life.’ But in order to relax, you need to be confident that your baby is ready to start eating solids. He is if:
- He’s six months old. If your baby is younger than this, and you think he is ready to wean, it’s better to feed him purées.
- He can sit up on his own, holding his head and chest straight and steady.
- He can co-ordinate his mouth, hands and eyes, so he is able to pick food up and then get it into his mouth.
Do it together
The number-one way that your baby enjoys himself is spending time with you.
You will of course be supervising him closely when he eats, for safety reasons, but it really helps if you engage with him too.
‘Eating together is a social experience,’ says Nancy.
‘How do you want your baby to be eating when he is eight years old? Do you want him to be sitting at the table, interacting with everyone else? Then show him how it’s done right from the start. Switch off the TV, move any toys away from his tray and focus on being together.’
This sense of togetherness will teach healthy-eating habits too: research from Leicester University found that children who always ate with their family ate 125g more fruit and veg every week than children who didn’t.
Babies are hardwired to explore their world, and he will be interested in food if he can learn all about it by prodding, smelling and smearing it, as well as tasting it.
‘So, don’t focus on how much your baby is eating,’ says Nancy.
‘In the first few months of transitioning to solids, he’s still getting most of his nutrients from milk, whether that’s breastmilk or formula. Let him go at his own speed, and don’t worry how much actually gets into his tummy. This has later benefits – research from Swansea University shows that babies who self-feed are better at regulating what they eat. They stay in tune with their bodies and know when they’re full, which means they’re less likely to become overweight or obese.’
Offer purées too
Fans of baby-led weaning often skip purées altogether. But we now know that purées have a place in the feeding process, regardless of how you choose to wean.
‘Learning to feed should be a slow, gradual, joyous experience,’ says Melanie.
‘And in the early weeks, purées are easy for babies. There’s no risk of gagging, which they can find uncomfortable, and it’s a simple introduction to new tastes. Purées also help them practise a vital swallowing skill by closing their lips together over a finger or spoon.’
Try swallowing now with your lips apart and you’ll see for yourself! And your baby can still self-feed purée: he can dip his finger in it and bring it to his mouth.
Get off to a good start
- Days 1-4: Offer a small portion of food after your baby’s lunchtime milk. Go for something easy to digest like mashed banana.
- Days 5-7: Offer a new food at lunchtime. Then offer food he’s already tried at teatime. Offer new food earlier in the day, just in case your baby has an allergic reaction to it.
- Days 8-14: Your baby can now start having small amounts of food three times a day.
- Days 15 onwards: Gradually increase the amount of food and introduce squashy strips or small cubes. Offer water with meals, and slowly reduce the amount of milk. The earliest milk feed to go is usually at lunchtime. By age one, he’ll be down to two milk feeds a day.
Offer nutrient-rich foods
A study from New Zealand published this year found that a baby will take in the same number of calories whether he’s spoon-fed or does baby-led weaning.
However, the researchers found that self-feeders ate more fat than spoon-feeders, and less iron, zinc and B-vitamins.
‘More research needs to be done, but this does show it’s important to offer a good variety of nutrient-rich foods,’ says Nancy. That way, while your baby chooses what and how much to eat, you’re making sure he can only make good choices.
‘Aim for a full colour spectrum of fruit and vegetables. The different colours show that these foods contain different vitamins and minerals: try purple aubergines, orange peaches, yellow bananas, red strawberries and green spinach.’
Meat is high in iron and zinc, but can be tricky for babies to eat, so make it as easy as possible.
‘Give him soft meat that’s cut to an appropriate shape and size,’ advises Nancy. ‘Chicken is a great food, but offer the brown meat, which is softer than white.
‘And keep wholegrains as unprocessed as possible. Quinoa and oatmeal are both worth including. And soft beans, cut to an appropriate size, contain lots of valuable B vitamins and iron.’
Expand his horizons
Babies see the world as a giant playground and are constantly learning, so make the most of his curiosity.
‘Now’s the time to introduce him to spices, starting with mild flavours, such as basil and turmeric,’ says Nancy.
‘Variety is the key, both for taste and texture. Experiment with temperature – within safe parameters – too.’
Avoid salt altogether
Don’t feed any food with salt – your baby needs less than one gram a day and he gets that from breastmilk or formula.
Avoid honey, low-fat foods, saturated fat, sugar, shark, marlin, swordfish and undercooked eggs (eggs that are cooked through are fine).
Only feed squashable food
Some foods pose a real choking risk unless they’re properly prepared. These include apples, nuts, seeds, grapes, raw carrots, popcorn, raisins or dried fruit (as your baby may squash them together to form a clump), chunks of peanut butter and sausages.
As a general rule of thumb, the food you give your baby to start with should be soft enough for him to squash between his finger and thumb.
Roasting or steaming foods helps to make them soft and squashy. The shape matters too: cut food into long strips, so he can hold and gnaw or gum it, or cut in to pea-sized cubes.
If you’re not sure, ask yourself if the food could snap or squash – if it’ll snap, don’t feed it yet.
Get smart on choking
Before you start weaning, it’s wise to know the difference between gagging, when a baby harmlessly moves food forwards from the back of his mouth, and choking.
Watch the video below, and you’ll find instructional videos covering the key steps at redcross.org.uk and sja.org.uk. Gagging is noisy, whereas choking is silent, which is why it’s vital to watch your baby when he’s eating.