When my oldest was six-months old, I hadn’t yet heard of baby-led weaning. Instead, I carefully mixed infant rice cereal with expressed breast milk, sat him in his brand new high chair, and started the video camera to catch every second of his first bites. I followed the guidelines (at the time) to a T, starting with thin purees. He did just fine–we had no problems at all and he’s still a great eater to this day, five years later.
My daughter, on the other hand, grabbed a banana out of my hand and stuck it in her mouth when she was five-and-a-half months old. Although I hadn’t necessarily planned on giving her finger foods right from the get-go, she decided for herself. She wasn’t interested in being spoon-fed and much preferred self-feeding.
With all of the recent hype around baby-led weaning, it’s important to know that it’s not necessarily a “better way” of introducing solids. It’s a different way. Both methods (baby-led weaning and spoon-feeding) can work really well–it just depends on both the baby and the parents as to which method (or perhaps a combo) will work best. In fact, both methods can be “baby-led”, especially if you pay really close attention to your baby’s cues. Doing this puts your baby in charge of whether and how much she eats, allowing her to trust her inner cues when it comes to hunger and fullness from a very early age.
Your baby will tell you fairly quickly whether or not he or she wants to accept food from a spoon or if he’d rather gum at large chunks of solid food without any help. Either way, it’s important that your baby progress to self-feeding soft finger foods by eight or nine months of age.
1. Don’t freak out when your baby gags:
Your baby will likely gag. A lot. Babies have a great natural gag-reflex that will help them move food that has travelled too far to the back of their mouths, back to the front again so that they don’t choke. They may make a funny face and make a gagging sound, but if you wait for a few seconds, you’ll see that your baby is an expert at this and will not choke. Baby’s are developmentally ready to handle soft solid finger foods at six months of age, therefore it is very unlikely that he or she will actually choke on food. But it is still suggest that you take an infant CPR/first aid course just in case (and for peace of mind). If you freak out when your baby gags, your baby will freak out because they will be scared. Try to stay calm (or at least look calm) and let baby do her thing.
2. Plan your family meals to be baby-friendly:
A baby’s kidneys are not mature enough to handle a lot of salt (sodium) or sugar, so it’s important to keep this is mind when you’re preparing and cooking food. Set aside some of your prepared food prior to seasoning it or spicing it up, for your baby. For example, scoop out some of your stir-fried meat and veggies prior to adding your stir-fry sauce, or before adding seasoning to homemade hamburgers, make one patty plain for your baby. Remember that the same guidelines apply to baby-led weaning as with spoon feeding in regards to what to feed your baby. Although there is no set order in which you need to introduce different foods, it’s important that you focus on iron-rich foods first (meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, eggs, iron-fortified grains) first. Here’s more information on when, what and how to introduce solids.
3. Buy an easy-to-clean high chair and plastic bibs:
Baby-led weaning is definitely messier than spoon feeding. Make sure that the high chair is easy-t0-clean (I find plastic is best). Buy a few plastic bibs that you can rinse quickly and that have a pocket that catches food (our daughter will just scoop fallen food out of the pocket). You even might want to think about putting a small tarp down underneath your baby’s highchair so that you don’t have to clean your floors several times a day.
4. Think bigger:
You may be tempted to cut your baby’s food into teeny tiny pieces so that they don’t choke. Unfortunately, babies don’t have the fine motor skills to pick up tiny pieces of food and bring them to their mouths until they are around eight or nine months old (or older). This is why it’s so important that you make baby’s food pieces large enough that they can grab onto them. A homemade potato wedge, a mini egg muffin (whisk an egg with grated vegetables and cheddar cheese and cook in a muffin-tin), or a slice of pear (peeled) are examples of appropriate sized pieces of food. A piece of whole grain toast with some butter on it cut into thick strips would be appropriate too. Your baby should be able to pick up their food, bring it to their mouth, and gnaw on it. It is normal for baby to “miss” their mouth or drop their food, but as long as they can bring it to their mouths, it is likely appropriate in size. Avoid choking hazards such as hard fruits and vegetables (ie. raw carrots), stringy foods (ie. celery), nuts and seeds, whole grapes, a gob of peanut butter (I thinly spread on toast strips), wieners and popcorn.
5. Go with the flow:
Your baby may absolutely LOVE self-feeding right from day one, and she may go through periods where she’d rather be spoon-fed (perhaps when teething). Know that it’s completely normal for your baby to reject a food, spit it out or throw it. It may take up to 20 exposures for a baby to accept a food so keep re-introducing the food pressure-free. Include baby in family meals (this is the beauty of baby-led weaning) and give him/her the food that the rest of the family is having (assuming it is soft enough and unseasoned).
Sarah Remmer is a registered dietitian and mom of three. She writes all about kids nutrition over on her blog Nutrition From Stork to Fork. For free daily advice on nutrition for your little ones, follow Sarah on Facebook.