Baby-led weaning is a feeding method that started in the UK but is now popular with parents across the world who are looking for more natural parenting approaches. With baby-led weaning, some babies skip pureed food altogether. Instead, parents put chunks of soft-cooked food in front of baby to feed himself.
As a well-baby clinic sister introducing solids and dealing with feeding questions and difficulties form a big part of what I do. Below are some perspectives on this method, and how you can make it part of your feeding strategy.
Firstly, although there is not a lot of research done on the topic of baby-led weaning, common sense will make it clear that there are advantages to letting babies feed themselves.
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Advantages of baby-led weaning
It allows babies to self-regulate
Letting babies feed themselves may promote healthy eating and help prevent obesity, as they can determine what and how much they eat. Childhood obesity is a massive problem, and one of the possible contributing factors is overfeeding babies from a very young age.
It encourages adventurous eating
Babies love to explore, and this feeding method offers them this opportunity. Not only can they taste the food, but they can also enjoy the colours and feeling the texture of it. Babies get to participate in mealtimes and may find eating more enjoyable.
Baby-led weaning is good for their development
Babies practise hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills when having to pick food up and bring it to their mouths.
You spend less time preparing and feeding baby
Baby-led weaning is less time-consuming than pureeing food and spoon-feeding. In all honesty, though, the time you save will probably be spent cleaning up the mess after mealtime.
No matter which method you opt for, a good steamer-blender will make it considerably easier.
READ MORE: Benefits of making baby food from scratch
What are the disadvantages of baby-led weaning
It is not all positive though, and there are reasons why many healthcare professionals don’t recommend the method.
They may not eat much
If baby merely plays with the food, there is a chance that baby may not get enough nutrients. A common belief amongst baby-led weaners is that food below one year is more for fun than necessity. But this is not quite true. From six months onwards babies really do need the nutrients and calories from solid foods. While some babies may eat very well and fare excellent on baby-led weaning, others may struggle and their growth can fail.
An (unintentional) lack of variety
One of the ideas of baby-led weaning is to encourage children to choose from a variety of foods. But parents tend to feed mostly fruits and vegetables as these are easy to grasp. However, they don’t contain many calories. Be sure to include protein (essential for iron and for growth) and grains.
Risk of choking
Research is unclear on whether this method holds a bigger risk for choking than spoon-feeding. This will probably differ from baby to baby, and will depend on how well the swallowing reflexes are developed. In smaller babies it has the potential to choke a baby, since baby tends to put big chunks of food in his mouth and small babies cannot yet swallow that well.
At this point I want to make clear that although choking is a risk, one should not be paralyzed by this fear when it comes to feeding. If you wait until your baby is ready to start with solid foods he should be able to manage food in his mouth and to swallow effectively. A good indication of this is head-and neck strength, so if baby is starting to sit on his own he is probably ready to eat as well.
Although many doctors and books recommend starting solids at 4 months, few babies are starting to sit that early, and waiting a few weeks may be beneficial.
Baby-led weaning may not work well for babies with certain special needs
Babies with low muscle tone or premature babies are bound to struggle with this method. Some babies are also more sensitive to texture than others, and may need to get used to it more gradually.
Baby-lead weaning is quite messy
A lot of the food will end up in baby’s hair and on the floor. And this is not a bad thing; it will get better as baby masters the process. Make it easier for yourself by picking a feeding chair that is easy to clean, and by taking baby into the garden for mealtimes, where a mess is less of a problem.
Finding a middle way
I usually recommend following a combined approach. Start off with spoon-feeding your baby to make sure he is eating and to observe the process, but then also offer your baby pieces of food to self-serve at times. Gradually increase the texture of baby’s food. By 9 months you can simply squish food with a fork or cut it in small pieces.
As soon as you can see that baby is actually eating a good amount this way, you can increase the amount of finger foods given, until eventually baby is eating on his own (which should be at around 1 year of age).