When it came to weaning, for years most parents opted to spoon-feed purees to their babies, thinking of fun ways 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 tears 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 introducting solid foods to baby.
Is baby-led weaning best for you and baby? Choose the weaning approach which matches your needs and your baby’s nature, and weaning will be easier.
Baby-led weaning (BLW) is when your baby feeds themselves with suitable chunks of food using their own hands. 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.
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
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.
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 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.
2) Make sure they're sat upright
Make sure your baby is sat upright before you begin and avoid giving any potential choking hazards, like nuts or whole grapes. Remember that babies should never be left alone while eating.
3) Prepare for spillages
An easy-to-clean high chair is a real benefit when baby-led weaning, because your baby is likely to throw, spill, and generally lose most of her meals, rather than eating them! For the same reason, a big wipe-clean mat to place under the chair can be useful, especially if you have carpets rather than hard flooring. Bibs with full arms are also a good idea.
4) You don't have to cook a seperate meal
You can generally give your baby pieces of your ordinary family meals, or things you have in the house already, with baby-led weaning. Just avoid too much sugar and salt. If you are having a roast dinner then bits of potato or vegetables can be put out for your child. If you are eating home-made pizza, that's fine too. Pieces of large pasta are ok, as is toast or soft fruit slices.
5) Take a step back
A hard aspect of this method of weaning can be relinquishing control. You really have to be able to step back and trust your baby to get on with it. Don't help to put any food into his mouth, and you mustn't worry if you think he isn’t eating much. Food is all about experimenting and learning at this stage, he will be getting the nutrition he needs from his milk, whether formula or breast milk.
6) Little is better
Try to offer a variety of foods. Once your baby learns to use a pincer grip (holding things between a finger and thumb) you can introduce berries and raisins, or peas. Don't overwhelm the baby with too many bits of food, two or three items at a time is enough.
7) It's a sensory experience
Remember, ‘food is for fun before they’re one’, so see weaning as a sensory experience and messy play for the first few months. Your baby will play with her food at first, but this is an important part of her development. She will start to eat eventually, so relax and enjoy.
8) It will get messy
Baby-led weaning is messy and your baby will enjoy dropping food to see what happens to it. Put a clean shower curtain or plastic mat under the highchair to make cleaning up afterwards easy.
9) Let them practise
Give your baby a spoon to play with – lots of parents think that baby-led weaning means spoons are banned, but many babies love feeding themselves with one. Letting her play with a spoon helps her practise putting it into her mouth, and you can help her by loading it up with things like yoghurt before you give it to her.
10) Use easy to hold foods
Use food which is easy to pick up, particularly during the first few weeks. Fusilli or conchiglioni pasta is easier to grasp than flatter, smoother varieties. Sticky rice is easier than loose grains, so overcook it slightly or mix it with a bit of sauce.
11) Offer foods in sticks or wedges
Cut food into sticks or wedges, and leave the skin on fruit so it’s less slippery. Halves or quarters work well for apples or pears. Cut bananas in half and leave the bottom bit of peel on as a ‘handle’. Offer meat in small strips that are easy to manage.
12) Make foods easier to hold
Use a crinkle cutter when you’re cutting fruit and veg, as the ridges will make it easier for your baby to grip the food.
13) Use different flavours
Spreading things on fingers of toast is a really quick and easy way of getting your baby to experience new flavours.
14) Use bibs with a scoop
Use wipe-clean bibs with a scoop to catch some of the food your baby drops. She will be able to pick out some of the pieces from the scoop and have another go.
15) Thicken runny foods
Make runny foods like porridge thicker so your baby can scoop it up with her hands. As your baby gets older, she will enjoy using edible dippers like carrot sticks and celery to help her eat runny foods.
16) It will take time
Be patient – your baby might take a while to get the hang of things, but she’ll get there in the end!
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