All About Baby-Led Weaning

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Published On
14 Feb, 2024
Read Time
8 minutes

Every parent and baby will approach weaning in a way that works best for them, and some choose baby-led weaning. An alternative to spoon-feeding and using purees, it's a popular option that's recommended by paediatric experts and can offer lots of benefits for busy parents and developing babies.

We know that choosing a weaning style to suit you and your baby can feel daunting. So, read on to learn all about the benefits of baby-led weaning, when to start, and what kind of foods you can offer.

What is baby-led weaning?

If you're getting ready to add complementary foods into your little one's diet, you may be wondering what baby-led weaning is.

Well, baby-led weaning (BLW) quite simply means letting your child feed themselves solid foods from around six months old, bypassing more traditional purees and mashed-up foods.

The term was created in 2001 by Gill Rapley. It describes a relaxed, unstructured approach where babies are offered solid foods and feed themselves.

The benefits of baby-led weaning

Although it can be a little messier than traditional weaning, tons of benefits come with choosing to take a baby-led approach to weaning.

These include:

  • Improved fine motor skills, chewing skills and hand-eye coordination.
  • It's easier to prepare meals, as baby can eat the same foods as the whole family.
  • Your little one enjoys a full sensory experience as they explore, inspect, and taste different food flavours and textures. This helps them to develop good eating habits and introduces them to a variety of foods.
  • It allows them to develop independence, as your baby is in control and learns how to stop eating when they're full.
  • It can be cheaper because you don't need to buy purees.
  • Making homemade baby food lets you know exactly what's in their food.
  • It makes picky eating and mealtime battles less likely.
  • Research has found that encouraging babies to choose healthier foods could help protect against childhood obesity. Babies who aren't offered lumpy foods until 10 months or older are more likely to reject them, which can make weaning and introducing new foods trickier.
  • It makes it easier to include baby in family mealtimes, although the portions, seasoning, and shapes of the food should be tailored to suit them.

When to start baby-led weaning

Most parents typically begin weaning and introducing their baby to foods other than breast milk or formula from six months. By this age, most little ones have reached some important developmental milestones and can start feeding themselves certain solid foods.

However, every baby is different, and those who were born prematurely may not be ready to start weaning until a later age.

Signs your baby is ready for led weaning

Because all little ones are different, it's important to look out for certain cues that will let you know if your baby is ready to start baby-led weaning or not. These include...

  • Staying in a sitting position and holding their head steady.
  • Coordinating their eyes, hands, and mouth so they're able to look at food, pick it up and put it in their mouth.
  • Swallowing food (rather than spitting or pushing it out).
  • Making mouthing movements as they watch others eat and showing an interest in food.

How to start baby-led weaning

Baby-led weaning involves setting out soft food in front of your little one on a table or highchair and letting them take control of feeding.

The food is usually served in small, soft pieces that can be held in the baby's hand, rather than being offered on a spoon. First, they will use their hands, then move on to using cutlery.

Perfect baby-led weaning foods to help you get started include things like toast batons, cucumber or carrot sticks, steamed broccoli, chicken, salmon - whatever they're able to hold, squash and sensibly chew, or gum! That's the essence of it.

You should keep on giving your baby feeds of breast milk or formula when you first start weaning. You'll find that as they're gradually able to eat more solids, their number of milk feeds will decrease.

What you'll need for baby-led weaning

Before you start weaning your baby, it's a good idea to get prepared. The following items can help:

Baby-led weaning safety advice

The most common concern around baby-led weaning is safety and choking, and many parents ask if baby-led weaning is safe. The truth is, one recent study found there's no increased choking risk for babies who feed themselves solid foods compared to spoon-fed infants. Therefore, baby-led weaning is no more dangerous.

Often, babies are not choking when they eat, but gagging. Gagging may appear similar to choking at first glance, and can be scary, but they're entirely different. So, it can help to know what to look out for.

Gagging is caused by your baby's gag reflex. This is a natural safety mechanism we have to help prevent choking. Your little one may also gag on foods they're trying for the first time. This is because their taste buds aren't yet used to these new flavours and textures.

Gagging is sometimes mistaken for choking. But don't worry, gagging is a perfectly normal part of tasting new foods. If you recognise the signs of gagging, don't try to help your baby or prevent them from vomiting, as this can cause them to choke.

Signs of gagging include...

  • loudly gurgling, coughing, or sputtering
  • regurgitating swallowed food back into their mouth
  • baby's tongue may be thrust forward
  • possible spitting up or vomiting
  • possible red face.

It's always important for parents to know the signs of choking, just in case. These include...

  • Having difficulty breathing or coughing
  • Having a terrified expression on their face
  • Making high-pitched noises while breathing
  • Face and lips that turn blue
  • Struggling to make a sound.

To keep your baby safe while they're weaning, you should...

Sit them upright, facing the table, either on your lap or in a highchair and make sure they can sit steadily and use their hands and arms freely.

Never leave them alone with food and always monitor them at mealtimes.

Discuss the introduction of solids with your health advisers if your family has a history of food intolerance, digestive problems, allergies or any other concerns about your baby's health or development.

Best BLW first foods

There's no set amount of food that babies should eat during the BLW process. The idea of this method of weaning is that they'll tell you when they've had enough. Plus, since they're still having breast milk or formula feeds until they're at least a year old, they're sure to get all the calories they need.  

  • Start with steamed, sliced food that your baby can chew and swallow easily.
  • Give soft fruits and vegetables at first, and then introduce lightly cooked foods that can be chewed or gummed.
  • All foods you give need to be soft enough to be mashed with the tongue or between your fingers.
  • Good first soft foods include avocado, banana, steamed sweet potato or steamed carrots.
  • Your baby's first foods should be baton-shaped like a finger, and easily fit in their little hand.
  • As your baby weans onto solid foods from the age of six months, it's important to make sure that they're getting enough iron in their diet (as milk feeds alone won't provide enough). You can do this by including iron-rich foods like dark leafy greens and wholegrains in their meals.

At first, it's all about exploring the food and creating a mess more than eating for your baby, but that's part of the process! Then, you can try to introduce one new food each day for your baby to explore as they grow. This way, they have a variety of foods and discover more options they enjoy, and you can see what kind of foods and shapes they prefer.

BLW foods by age

Now that we've covered what baby-led weaning is, let's run through some recommendations for the best foods for baby-led weaning by age.

BLW foods: 6 months

  • Soft, mashed, or blended vegetables and fruit, such as broccoli, carrot, sweet potato, parsnip, apple, and pear.
  • Baby rice mixed with breast or formula milk.
  • Toast strips.
  • Unflavoured Greek yoghurt.
  • Soft cheese, like ricotta or mozzarella.
  • Steamed strips of tofu.
  • Unflavoured pureed meat, such as chicken, turkey, or beef, that's shaped into sticks or strips.
  • Very small amounts of foods that may trigger an allergic reaction (these should be introduced one at a time). These can include cow's milk that has been mixed with food, cooked eggs, crushed nuts and seeds, soya, cooked shellfish, and fish.

BLW foods: 7-9 months

As well as the foods listed above, from seven months, you can start to introduce:

  • Thinly sliced or halved fruits, like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries
  • Harder cheese, like Swiss or cheddar, that's cubed or grated.
  • Cooked whole-wheat pasta
  • Cooked pulses and beans
  • Whole grain cereal O-s
  • Minced meat and halved meatballs

BLW foods: 10-12 months+

By the age of 10 months, little ones should be having three meals a day - with lunch and dinner including a main course and dessert of fruit or plain yoghurt.

BLW foods to avoid

There are certain foods that it's best for your baby or toddler to avoid altogether when weaning. These include:

  • Salt and sugar: Babies don't need sugar and too much salt isn't good for their kidneys.
  • Saturated fats: Babies shouldn't eat too many fatty foods such as crisps, biscuits, and cakes.
  • Honey: Honey can cause a very serious illness called infant botulism, so babies shouldn't have honey until they're over one year old.
  • Peanuts and whole nuts: Whole nuts can be choking hazards and should be avoided. But babies can have nuts and peanuts from around six months old if they're smoothed into a butter. If there's a history of allergies in your family, you should talk to your doctor before introducing nuts into your baby's diet.
  • Mould-ripened or unpasteurised cheese: Babies and young children shouldn't eat these because of the risk of listeria.
  • Raw or lightly cooked eggs: Babies can have eggs from around six months if the white and yolk are both fully cooked.
  • Rice-based drinks: Children under five years old shouldn't have rice drinks as they can contain too much arsenic.
  • Popcorn, raw jelly cubes, boiled or sticky sweets and ice cubes: These can be a choking hazard for babies and young children.
  • Fresh and dried fruits, such as raisins: If your baby is under one years old, always cut fruits into small pieces and never give them whole, as they can pose a choking hazard.
  • Raw shellfish, shark, swordfish, and marlin: Raw or lightly cooked shellfish can increase the risk of food poisoning. Plus, the amount of mercury in shark, swordfish, or marlin can affect the development of a baby's nervous system.

Top baby-led weaning tips

  1. Lay a wipe-clean tablecloth under the highchair to catch any mess.
  2. Offer your baby food, rather than giving it to them. Put it in front of them or let them take it from your hand so that the decision is theirs.
  3. Involve baby in your mealtimes. If it’s suitable, you can give them the same meal that you're eating in a smaller portion, so they can learn to copy you.
  4. Set mealtimes when your baby isn't tired or too hungry, so they can concentrate on learning new skills.
  5. You can also offer water in small amounts during mealtime in an open cup as early as six months to help baby develop their oral motor skills.
  6. Many babies eat only small amounts for the first few months of baby-led weaning. For them, these early mealtimes are about discovering and learning rather than eating, so remember to be patient. You'll know when your baby is finished eating if they turn their head away and shut their mouth. If they show these signs, don’t keep feeding them and trust their cues. They'll let you know when they're feeling peckish again!
  7. Remember, to keep smiling, enjoying, and paying attention. If you keep it enjoyable, your baby will be keen to try new foods and look forward to mealtimes. Weaning is a very short time in your child’s life, so enjoy it and have a camera ready to capture those first gummy, carroty smiles!

Do babies actually eat with baby-led weaning?

Yes, they do. But while babies do get nutritional value from the food they eat while baby-led weaning, most will come from their breast milk or formula feeds. These should continue through the weaning process.

At around six months old, a baby should be eating a small amount of solid food around once a day - at a time that suits both of you. Then, from seven to nine months, this should gradually increase to three meals a day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), in addition to their milk feeds.

A baby's appetite can vary from one day to the next, so it's best to take cues from your baby, as they'll know when they're full. And remember that it can take 10 or more attempts for a baby to accept a new food - so be patient and don't give up if they don't seem to love a certain food or ingredient right away.

Absolutely! Some parents love baby-led weaning and prefer it to traditional spoon feeding, while others use a bit of both.

As with most parenting topics, there isn't one right or perfect way, just what feels right for you and your baby. The main thing is that your baby has a healthy, varied diet, and gets all the important nutrients they need to grow and develop.