Starting your baby on solid foods can be both exciting and trying. It’s fun to experience new tastes and textures with your baby. But it can also be a little stressful, especially if it isn’t going well. Eating solid foods is a skill that needs to be learned, and this takes time.
Because of this, parents naturally and understandably may turn to friends, family, books or the internet for help. One popular technique is “baby-led weaning,” which is the process of introducing solid foods to a baby and gradually reducing breast milk or formula. Baby-led weaning is a method that encourages the baby to feed herself. It recommends skipping purees and spoon-feeding and going directly to the solids that the rest of the family is eating.
As a feeding therapist in the division of Occupational and Physical Therapy at Cincinnati Children’s, I believe there are both pros and cons to this approach. There are aspects that are great, and there are some watch-outs to keep babies safe. From my perspective, there is no one right way to feed a baby. If you’d like to skip ahead to read what I recommend, go to the “Consider a Moderate Approach” section below.
Pros and Cons of Baby-Led Weaning
- It gives baby control over what he eats
Giving your baby control over what he eats may teach him to self-regulate hunger. He’ll stop when he’s full, rather than taking those last few bites his caregiver spoon-feeds him.
- It helps to teach new skills, including oral and fine-motor skills
For a baby who might not be sure about a new taste or texture, it can give her control to manipulate it in her mouth and swallow it or not. It also aids in hand-eye coordination.
- It allows your baby to get messy
Getting messy is okay! In fact, I recommend it. It may even help reduce the stress some babies experience when they have things on their hands.
- Your baby may be less likely to become overweight
Some research suggests that a baby who learns how to self-regulate hunger will be less likely to become overweight as they get older.
- Potential safety concerns
Giving babies certain foods before they’ve developed the needed oral motor skills to eat it could lead to gagging, vomiting and potentially choking.
- Potential negative mealtime experience
While gagging and coughing are both mechanisms to help prevent a baby from choking, these reflexes are both uncomfortable and scary for the baby. Learning to eat solid foods takes a lot of practice. We want babies to have a positive eating experience so that they want to keep doing it and trying new things. Mealtime should be fun!
- It’s harder to pinpoint an allergic reaction
If there are allergy concerns in the family, some pediatricians may recommend introducing foods one at a time. This helps to pinpoint which food was the culprit. If many foods are given at once, it’s more difficult to identify.
Consider a Moderate Approach
I recommend to families a moderate approach to introducing solid foods to babies. Specifically, starting babies with single-item purees, but quickly transitioning to easy-to-eat table foods. Additionally, I recommend a little of both approaches – offering tastes from the spoon and allowing the baby to feed himself. So how can parents implement this? Here are a few recommendations:
- Get your doctor’s okay to start solid foods
This typically happens around six months, if the baby was full term, when they have good head and trunk control and are showing an interest in what their parents are eating.
- Utilize a high chair or supportive booster at the table
- Have her eat with the rest of the family
Eating is a social and emotional experience. Make it exciting and fun!
- Take turns
Help your baby feel in control by taking turns with the spoon. You feed him one bite and he feeds himself the next bite. When you decide he’s ready to try chunkier foods, I recommend avoiding choking hazards like grapes and hot dogs. Close supervision is key, no matter what you’re feeding him.
- Expose your baby to as many tastes and textures as possible between 6-12 months of age
This could mean starting with purees and using a spoon. However, it’s important to not stick with purees for too long, because babies need to experience many different tastes and textures to support oral-motor skill development, as well as a diverse palate.
For most families, this can be a helpful approach. However, babies who have poor weight gain or seem hesitant to this approach may need to work with a feeding therapist to design a plan that works well for that child. Further, premature babies may need to follow their adjusted age. Talk to your baby’s doctor about it.
This approach (or any other approach, for that matter) will not work for every child and every family. In general, if feeding isn’t going well, talk to your child’s doctor about it. She may recommend a referral to a feeding therapist to help support both you and your baby. The sooner we can intervene and make feeding a positive experience, the better.