What Is Baby-Led Weaning?

Solid food introduction is an exciting time for parents. It’s a turning point in infancy, where you have survived the first few months of parenthood and your child is becoming more independent. But it can also be overwhelming. Like all things in parenting, the internet is loaded with information — good and bad — about the best ways to care for your child.

Just when you think you’ve gotten breast- or bottle-feeding figured out and the nap schedule down, enter solid foods; it’s a new can of worms to figure out. While exciting, introducing solid food can be stressful. Possibly even more stressful if you’re a pediatric registered dietitian! Figuring out my own approach, which combines my knowledge of the science with my intuition as a parent has been an adventure.

Feeding Your Baby

It can be overwhelming trying to decide the best choices for your child. Where can I possibly fit solids into my crazy day? What foods do I introduce first? Am I feeding my kid or do they feed themselves? What kind of spoon do I use? What do I do about eating at daycare?

My baby is nearly a year old, so the past six months of my life have been in full-fledged feeding mode. I think I was first asked about baby-led weaning, sometimes referred to as BLW, by a parent about three or four years ago. I’ll admit that at the time it was new to me as a clinician. Baby-led weaning is not always recognized by all pediatricians, dietitians or feeding specialists, but it is an option for introducing foods to your baby.

Traditional feeding methods recommend starting with rice cereals, followed by pureed fruits and vegetables. Experts recommend adding in finger foods like pieces of fruit or cheerios only when children are older and after have developed their pincer grasp (around nine to 10 months of age) so that they can hold food between their thumb and pointer finger.

BLW flips the switch on the traditional method by offering children finger foods from the start. This method lets your child lead the eating experience. The idea behind BLW is that the child can self-regulate their intake and hunger. In contrast, by spoon-feeding everything, the parents are deciding how much a baby eats. If we allow children to feed themselves, however, they have control.

Online, glamorized BLW shows young children eating a giant chicken bone. This does not need to be the way you go; nor do I recommend this to start. But allowing your child to explore with safe foods and soft solids can be developmentally beneficial and may reduce picky eating and future risk of obesity.

There are many ways you can incorporate different feeding behaviors for your children. However you decide to feed your infant, as long as you are doing so safely, is the right way for you. But if you are interested in letting your infant guide their experience with a BLW approach, here are some of my lessons learned.

[SEE: What to Pack in Your Hospital Bag When You’re Expecting.]

Tips for Introducing Solid Foods to Babies

Wait until your child can sit up on their own, around six months of age.

Before six months old, an infant’s gastrointestinal system is immature. Starting foods too early can also have other negative implications on health. Once babies can sit up on their own, they have improved core strength, which reduces the risk of choking. Prior to six months, babies don’t need anything more than breast milk or formula to meet their nutritional needs.

Purees are ok, but let your child self-feed as much as you can.

There is no evidence that mixing purees and BLW is detrimental. There are tons of nutritious foods that are naturally in pureed form (oatmeal, yogurt, applesauce) and these should be offered along with finger foods. You can pre-load a spoon with the food and help your child learn to guide it into their mouths.

Or if you are also spoon-feeding, wait until your child opens their mouth wide to accept the food. There were so many times I wanted to give one more bite, but my child did not, so we stopped, and the meal was over. It’s okay to offer purees and finger foods in the same meal. The important thing is to let your child lead no matter the texture.

Let kids get messy.

This one is hard for a lot of parents, but it is one of the best things for development, lets kids learn and hopefully reduces picky eating during toddlerhood. Playing with their food is exposure, and all exposures are beneficial. My friends laugh at the amount of clean-up we have after meals, but it works for us. At daycare or a restaurant, we don’t offer the same foods that can make such a mess, but at home I like to let my kiddo explore.

They may not eat much to begin with, and that’s OK.

I’ve learned to let my child lead. Some days they will eat one bite, and some they will eat everything I provide. It takes time.

Offer a variety of foods, flavors and textures.

This is one of the best parts of BLW. We are not waiting the traditional three to five days between each new food. The more flavors and textures a child is exposed to the better! It’s normal to lose some foods to pickiness during toddlerhood, so if they have more foods to start with, you will have more options in the long run.

Include high-iron foods.

This is my one nutrition specific tip — and a necessity. At six months old, your infant has used up their iron stores from pregnancy, and it’s time to add complementary foods. Pay attention to this if your child isn’t eating iron-fortified cereals because you will need to consciously give them other things. Beef (meatballs), lentils, beans and tofu are easy BLW foods high in iron. You could also make muffins or pancakes from iron-fortified oats. I make these in large batches and freeze for the week.

Go with your comfort level.

Letting your kid learn is going to include gagging, and that is scary. A reminder that BLW is not the only way to feed, and it is not for everyone.

Prioritize family meals.

Eat with your baby! It is important that your baby sees you chewing to learn to chew themselves. You can make many of your meals baby friendly by just altering a few things. This also has made mealtime easier for me, as you don’t need to prepare two separate things.

For example, if you’re having taco night, you can give your baby some slices of avocado, smashed refried beans, a strip of soft cooked chicken and a piece of cooked bell pepper (without the peel). Note, if your baby is just starting out they don’t need four things on their plate. If it’s week one, you may just start with the avocado or the bell pepper.

[READ: How Much Protein Does My Child Need?]

How Do I Feed My Child Safely?

Make sure you are up to date on infant CPR. I would advise this for any parent starting solids of any type. Gagging is normal and will likely happen because this is how kids learn; it can happen even on purees. If your child is gagging they may turn red and make sounds. If your child is choking, they will not be able to make sounds. This is why you should always have eyes on your child while eating.

To minimize choking risks, it’s important for your child to be able to sit on their own. They need to be the ones to put the food in their mouths. Never put your hand in your child’s mouth, as this can scare them and actually cause them to suck in, and a gag can turn into a choke. To prepare food safely, you’ll want to cut it the size and length of an adult pinky finger.

Food should be able to be easily smashed between two adult fingers. Do not offer any hard foods, raw fruits or vegetables, nuts or popcorn. And nothing round: grapes, tomatoes, etc. should be cut into at least quarters — and I do smaller. I was personally more comfortable with starting with soft foods.

While you can add meat at any point, I waited until my child mastered some other foods. I did introduce eggs and fish a little earlier. I would suggest doing some reading on this and even watching videos of kids gagging, as this can help you learn what is normal and what’s not.

[READ: Plant-Based Diets for Kids.]

Who Shouldn’t Do Baby-Led Weaning?

If you have a child who has trouble gaining weight, I may recommend more purees to get more calories in. When starting solids, kids are not actually eating much. If there are any issues with weight gain, you want to make sure they are getting enough calories. But, you can still honor the idea of self-feeding by pre-loading a spoon and allowing your baby to put it in their mouth, or feeding them but only putting food in their mouth when they open to accept it (no old-school airplane tricks!).

Talk to your pediatrician if your child has feeding difficulties or a complex medical history. Premature babies should not start any solids (including purees) until six months corrected age.

Are There Any Foods I Shouldn’t Give My Child?

I wouldn’t recommend the chicken leg or T-bone steak you may see babies eating online. Foods like this should not be introduced until kids have teeth and are further into their eating journey. Foods containing sugar and salt should also be avoided.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding all added sugar until age 2, and babies only need a small amount of sodium for their little kidneys. Avoid adding any salt to foods, and limit prepackaged and processed foods as much as you can.

Baby-Led Weaning Foods

While there is no set order to introduce foods, these were what worked as my child’s first foods:

— Avocado, sliced.

— Banana, sliced.

— Eggs, fried like an omelet and cut into strips (*allergen food).

— Ground beef, served as a long meatball about the shape of my pinky finger.

— Oats, served as oatmeal and also made into soft muffins.

— Plain full fat yogurt.

— Pumpkin, pureed.

— Steamed broccoli, whole piece.

— Sweet potato, sliced and roasted in the oven with avocado oil.

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What Is Baby-Led Weaning? originally appeared on usnews.com

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