Baby Led Weaning (Feeding)

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Baby Led Weaning, also known as Baby Led Feeding, is a way to introduce a baby to foods while allowing the baby to feed themselves. The intent is to allow the baby to play and explore food using all five of their senses while learning to put food into their own mouth. It is a natural transition from breastfeeding to eating regular table foods.

Why should I choose Baby Led Weaning?

Baby Led Weaning encourages baby’s curiosity, independence and listening to their own body’s cues which teaches them to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. When an adult spoon feeds the baby, sometimes the cues the baby gives are ignored, and they end up being overfed. This leads the baby to believe they should ignore their own body’s cues.

Other advantages to the Baby Led Weaning approach include:

  • Food variety
  • Develops family relationships
  • There is only one meal for the whole family
  • It may be linked to less likely being overweight as an adult
  • Helps them meet developmental and feeding milestones by working on hand-eye coordination along with their chewing and oral skills

Where did the name come from?

In the United States we think of weaning when you’re trying to remove something. For example, weaning off a bottle. But the official approach called Baby Led Weaning was started in the United Kingdom (UK) by Gill Rapley. In the UK, weaning means moving your baby from milk to solid foods. You may hear it called baby led feeding in the United States to eliminate confusion.

Signs your baby is ready

  • At least 6 months of age
  • Sitting up mostly unassisted
  • Has good control of their head, no bobbing
  • Can move food around in their mouth
  • Leans toward food, grabs for food, mouthing their toys

Why do they need to be 6 months old?

It is recommended to start baby on foods at 6 months of age, not before, because their digestive system is unable to break down solid foods prior to this age. They also have major development in their oral and motor skills between 4 and 6 months of age. Baby is getting all their nutrients and calories from breast milk until 6 months old.

If your baby was born premature (before 40 weeks gestation), you may need to adjust for the weeks they were early. For example, if your baby was born at 37 weeks gestation, they may not be ready to start food until they are 6 months and 3 weeks of age. If your baby was born premature, has special medical needs, or has other development delays, check with your doctor before starting foods.

How to Start

Baby Led Weaning starts with a safe eating space.

  • Your baby should always be in a highchair with their feet on flat, solid surface with their knees at a 90-degree angle
  • Never feed your baby while they are in a bouncer seat, car seat, stroller, or anything other than a highchair
  • Never leave your baby unattended with food
  • Minimize distractions (remove toys, no TV or screens, etc.)

Have baby eat with the family! Mealtimes should always start by washing both your hands and baby’s hands. A successful mealtime will include a positive atmosphere. Eating together with the baby is important for their feeding success as they will mimic what others are doing. They will watch how you chew or spit out large pieces of food and notice the facial expressions you show while eating. Checking the temperature of the food so it is not too hot or too cold, along with appropriate portions will lead the mealtime in a positive direction.

The Foods

Foods that are appropriate for Baby Led Weaning include foods that you can smash between your finger and thumb. This is a test for if baby can mash the food between their gums, roof of their mouth or tongue.

Remember the saying ~ if you can mash it with your fingers, baby can mash it with their gums.

Next, make sure the food is about the size and shape of an adult finger or has a built-in handle. You want to provide baby ‘sticks’ of food rather than small pieces, wedges also work well. At 6 months of age, baby can only use their fist to grab food, they cannot use their fingers to pick up small pieces. Once they grab the stick of food with their fist, they will gnaw on the end that sticks out of their hand. Often, they do not understand that there is still food in their fist so this will get dropped and the baby will move on to something else. We also want to provide sticks of food because they are too large for baby to put the whole thing in their mouth. Bigger pieces are better. No matter the age of your baby, they should never be alone with food.

Begin by offering one new food at a time. Once your baby has shown they do not have an allergic reaction, introduce another food. Once they have tried a few foods, offer 3-4 foods per mealtime but only provide 1 piece of each food. When you put more in front of the baby, they become overwhelmed. You can always add more food if they start to eat it.

Also, check out the page on food safety to avoid any food related illness.

What to avoid:

  • High salt and sugar foods including highly processed foods and fast foods. Feel free to season baby’s food with herbs and spices instead of salt
  • Crispy or crunchy foods
  • Small pieces of food
  • Honey to avoid botulism.
  • Choking hazards like raw apples or carrots and nuts.

Your baby will likely start by either not eating any of the food or very small amounts. That is okay! Baby Lead Weaning is about them learning. They are learning by feeling the texture, smelling the food, and seeing the color. When they discover they can put it in their mouth and it tastes good, baby will begin to understand that they can swallow it. But this takes time! Don’t give up! Offer the same food multiple times.

Be sure to offer foods from all food groups. At 6 months, offering iron rich food is important! Especially for exclusively breastfed babies. Try to include one iron rich food with each meal. See the page on iron for examples of high iron foods.

Here are examples of appropriate Baby Led Weaning foods:

  • Proteins: strip of steak to suck on, meatball, shredded chicken or pork, omelet strips, flaky fish
  • Whole grains: pasta, toast strip, cereal like Cheerios, oatmeal including oatmeal baby cereal
  • Fruits: overly soft/ripe fruits such as a whole large strawberry, strip of banana, ripe melon slices, ripe mango slice (remember if you can mash it with your finger and thumb, they can mash it with their gums)
  • Vegetables: cooked carrot sticks, cooked broccoli stalks, roasted potato/sweet potato wedges, cooked green bean
  • Dairy: yogurt or cottage cheese on a preloaded spoon, grated cheese

Tips

  • Don’t offer solid food when baby is overly hungry or tired
  • Don’t rush baby or try to ‘help’ – this defeats the purpose of allowing baby to feed themselves
  • Keep trying the same food over and over
  • Offer 3-4 foods per mealtime with at least 1 iron rich food and only one new food at a time
  • It is going to get messy! Place something under the highchair for easy clean up, like a shower curtain liner

Allergenic Foods

There are 8 foods that commonly cause allergic reactions. In Baby Led Weaning, we want to introduce these foods early and often. By introducing early in the feeding journey, baby has a lower risk of developing a food allergy. It is important to only introduce one potentially allergenic food at a time. Wait 3-5 days after the first introduction before trying another new food. Keep offering foods you know that baby is not allergic too during these 3-5 days and be offering the potentially allergenic food multiple times in those 3-5 days. Continue exposing your baby to allergens regularly to help develop and maintain their tolerance.

Ways to make allergenic foods appropriate for Baby Led Weaning:

  • Peanuts: unsweetened, unsalted creamy peanut butter thinned by mixing into oatmeal, applesauce, or yogurt (if your baby has been introduced to dairy already). Peanut butter should slide off the spoon if you turn it upside down. Parent puts peanut butter on the spoon and hands to the child to explore. Can also use peanut flour in pancakes or waffles. Peanut powder can be mixed into most foods as well.
  • Tree nuts: unsweetened, unsalted creamy almond or cashew butter mixed into an oatmeal, applesauce, or yogurt (if your baby has been introduced to dairy already).
  • Eggs: scramble an egg and let it cook omelet style. Cut into strips for baby. Try egg muffin cups.
  • Milk: try yogurt or a food with yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese in it
  • Wheat: strips of toast, pancakes with whole wheat flour
  • Shellfish: dice and mix into a potato patty or savory egg muffins
  • Soy: tofu strips

Choking VS. Gagging

When a baby gags on a food it is teaching them how to move the food in their mouth and how to swallow the food. Gagging is a safe part of babies learning to eat. Choking, on the other hand, is incredibly dangerous and can lead to death. It is important that you know the difference and know when to intervene.

While choking, a baby will not be able to breath. They will not be able to make any noises, including a cough. The baby’s face will start to turn blue. In this instance, your baby needs help immediately, call 911!  The best way to be prepared for a choking situation is to learn CPR and the Heimlich maneuver.

While gagging, a baby can still make noises and usually will thrust their tongue forward trying to get the food out. Baby’s face may also turn red. This is the normal process for your baby to learn how to eat foods without choking. DO NOT lunge towards baby as this can startle them causing them to inhale the food. Let baby work it out on their own.

What about baby foods and liquid foods?

Baby pureed food can still be a part of Baby Led Weaning! So can foods like yogurt, oatmeal, and any other food that you need a spoon to eat. You can preload the spoon with the food and then hand baby the spoon to find out what to do with it! It will take time for them to get the hang of it and will likely make a mess but that is okay! They will start to learn that there is something yummy on the spoon. By about 9 months of age, they will start to learn to dip the spoon in a food. By 11-18 months they will learn to scoop with it and feed themselves from a spoon. Forks are not necessary until about 12 months of age.

The type of spoon is important! You want a spoon that is easy for the baby to hold. Think of a short, chunky handle and a shallow scoop. Avoid spoons with long or thin handles or with a deep scoop .

How to Use the WIC Food Package

The WIC food package changes at 6 months to provide baby with solid food. However, at this time we can only provide baby food and infant cereals until age 9 months where we can replace some of the baby foods with a $4 vegetable and fruit voucher. Don’t let this discourage you from doing the Baby Led Weaning approach. Here are some suggestions on how to use the WIC foods for Baby Led Weaning:

  • Mix baby veggies into pasta sauces, soups, meatloaf/balls, muffins
  • Mix baby fruits into yogurt, oatmeal, pancake and waffle mix, muffins
  • Add infant cereal to biscuits or muffins
  • Let baby self-feed from a pre-loaded spoon
  • Add infant cereal to pureed baby foods for a new texture for baby to experience on a pre-loaded spoon

Recipes

Here are a few quick recipes to use both pureed fruits and veggies:

Mini Muffins

Ingredients:

  • 1.25 cup quick oats
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1.5 tsp baking powder
  • 1 ripe banana, mashed
  • 4 oz jar of pureed carrots
  • 4 oz jar of pureed fruit of choice
  • 1 egg

Directions: Whisk all ingredients together. Spray a mini muffin pan with nonstick spray and pour batter into 24 muffin cups. Bake at 350 degrees F for 13-15 minutes.

3-Ingredient Pancakes

Ingredients:

  • 1 mashed banana (or use a baby food fruit)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tbsp whole wheat flour (or use infant cereal)

Directions: Mix together and cook on a preheated skillet.

Sources:

  • http://www.rapleyweaning.com/
  • https://www.fortifiedfam.com/
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, August 24). When, what, and how to introduce Solid Foods. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ​
  • Healthychildren.org. (2021, March 17). Starting solid foods. American Academy of Pediatrics.

This post was last updated on September 1st, 2022 at 3:34 PM

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