When it came to weaning, for years most parents opted to spoon-feed purees to their babies, thinking of new recipes and flavour combinations to make mealtimes fun. But in 2008, British midwife Gill Rapley popularised the idea of baby-led weaning. She suggested simply putting appropriate food on your baby’s tray and letting them feed themselves.
Eleven years and thousands of baby-led weaned babies later, we’ve learnt a lot about what works well - and what doesn’t - when it comes to this method of introducing solid foods to baby.
So, is baby-led weaning best for you and your baby?
What is baby-led weaning?
Baby-led weaning (BLW) is when your baby feeds themselves with suitable chunks of food using their own hands rather than you spoon feeding them puree. You avoid washing up the blender, but be prepared – you'll probably end up with a lot of food on the floor!
Adventurous eater: Letting your baby make choices may lead her to be a more adventurous eater as they grow up and introducing texture straight away means they're less likely to be put off by lumps.
More sociable: As your baby is eating what everyone else is eating, they're more likely to eat with the rest of the family. Research shows that good eating habits are more likely to be formed when families eat together.
It's natural: A baby's desire to explore is innate and it's how they learn. If you encourage little ones to use their hands, they are discovering different textures, as well as colours, smells and (hopefully!) taste.
Time-consuming: This method is based on your baby being the one in control, so you must let the mess happen! Before your baby is nine months old, it might be challenging for them to get the food into their mouth.
Adapting family meals: If you’re giving your baby the same food as the rest of your family, you need to make sure these meals are suitable. Babies shouldn’t be eating food with added sugar or salt, so no stock cubes.
Baby gagging: It’s likely you’ll experience your baby gagging, and perhaps choking, so learn what to do if this happens.
When should I start baby-led weaning?
You can start BLW from when your baby is 6 months old. They should be able to sit up in a high-chair unassisted and have good neck strength. Baby is ready when they are able to move food around their mouth with their jaw and tongue. Don't worry if they don't seem to be doing a chewing action yet - this might not happen until they reach 9 months.
It's also worth noting that your baby will still need their breast milk or formula when they're on solid foods and you should keep giving them milk alongside their food up to 10-12 months.
How to start baby-led weaning
Put the food straight onto your baby’s tray. In a bowl, it’ll be catapulted across the room. You can find some useful weaning products here.
Don’t put too much in front of them. Two food items are enough.
Cut food into chip-shaped pieces about the length of your finger. This is the easiest shape for them to pick up. The chips need to be long enough for your baby to grasp, with enough sticking out of their fist to eat.
Use a crinkle cutter to chop the food. The crinkles make it easier to grip.
Don’t put the food in your baby’s mouth – you must leave your baby in charge. ‘Don’t worry if they just seem to be playing with the food,’ says Rana. ‘Licking, smelling, mushing, holding – it’s all part of learning to eat.’
Don’t feed food that’s known to be a choking hazard, such as whole olives, cherries or grapes.
Be alert for gagging or choking. Because baby-led weaning food is lumpier from the get-go, you’re more likely to have to deal with this hazard. ‘When a baby gags, they're bringing the food from the back of their mouth to the front, so they can chew it,’ says Rana. ‘It’s usually quick and there’s usually a noise. Choking is much more serious. This is when food is blocking a baby’s windpipe – and it can be silent. Take a first-aid course and learn how to deal with choking at sja.org.uk before starting weaning.’
The best baby-led weaning foods
To start off your baby's baby-led weaning journey, the rule is to keep it simple. Try foods that are easy for them to pick up, and don't be tempted to over complicate with lots of flavours at once. Fruit and vegetables are a good place to start...
Banana: half unpeel it to give your baby something to hold, along with easy access to the fruit.
A piece of soft, cooked carrot: naturally sweet and full of vitamin A to strengthen your little one’s immune system.
Steamed broccoli floret: most babies love the taste of broccoli and its stem provides a built-in ‘handle’.
Sticks of firm mild cheese: Cheese provides an excellent source of calcium
Mashed potato: Put a heaped spoon of soft mash or sweet potato mash in front of them.
Steamed baby sweetcorn: This is a great one for them to grab hold of an eat.
Cucumber batons: These are also great at soothing sore gums.
Unsalted rice cakes: Perfect for if snacking on when out and about.
Hard boiled eggs: Slice into quarters for a tasty (but messy) breakfast.
Toast soldiers: This is a great option for helping your tot to try new textures.
For more baby-led weaning first foods read Finger food ideas for baby-led weaning
What if my baby chokes?
If you're trying BLW with your baby, it's important you know the difference between gagging and choking.
Gagging is very normal for babies eating solids for the first time and is a natural gag reflex action when a piece of food isn't quite manageable for your baby's tiny mouth and throat. Signs of gagging include some coughing and spluttering, watery eyes and spitting out. Your baby will eventually learn what is manageable for them and what isn't food wise.
Choking on the other hand is when a piece of food gets lodged into baby's throat or windpipe and stops them from breathing. To reduce the risk of choking, always sit with your baby while they're eating, make sure they're always sitting up straight when eating and avoid giving them foods that are too hard.
It's always useful to know first aid when you have a child. Click here for the first aid skills you need to know to help a choking baby.
Tips to make baby-led weaning a success
1) Don't rush!
It is very important when using baby-led weaning that you don't rush things, because a more immature infant could choke on food. A baby who can only sit reclined may find unwanted food sliding down his throat rather than coming out of his mouth. Waiting until six months is recommended by the NHS in most cases.
Baby-led weaning recipes
Once your baby has mastered single food items such as sliced up fruit and vegetable batons, there are lots of recipes you can use to expand their palates and try out new flavours!
Here are some of our favourite baby-led weaning recipes:
Top Tip: If your child struggles with the ball shape, make the recipe into baton or croquette shapes instead. It will make it easier for them to hold while they're eating.
Baby-led weaning might not work for you and your baby, and that's ok. Choose the weaning approach which matches your needs and your baby’s nature, and weaning will be easier.