So, you're getting ready to add complementary foods into your little one's diet and wondering what baby-led weaning actually is?
Well, baby-led weaning (BLW) quite simply means letting your child feed themselves. First, they will use their hands, then move onto using cutlery.
The term was originally created in 2001 by Gill Rapley, and describes a relaxed and unstructured approach where babies are offered solid foods and feed themselves. 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.
We know that choosing a weaning style to suit you and your baby can feel daunting, so read on to learn all about baby-led weaning, when to start, and what kind of foods you can offer.
How do you start baby-led weaning?
Instead of spoon-feeding babies, baby-led weaning involves setting out soft food in front of them on a table or highchair and allowing them to take control of feeding.
Food could include 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.
Some handy baby-led weaning tips include…
- Never leave your baby alone with food. Always monitor them at mealtimes.
- If you have a family history of food intolerance, allergies or digestive problems, or any other concerns about your baby’s health or development, you should discuss the introduction of solids with your health advisers.
- Sit your baby upright, facing the table, either on your lap or in a highchair. Make sure they are able to sit steadily and can use their hands and arms freely.
- You can lay a wipe-clean tablecloth under the highchair to catch any mess.
- 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.
- Involve your baby in your mealtimes and if it’s suitable, you can give them the same meal that you're eating at a smaller scale, so they can learn to copy you.
- Set mealtimes when your baby isn't tired or too hungry, so they can concentrate on learning new skills.
- 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.
Remember, try to stay positive. 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. Remember to enjoy it and have a camera ready to capture those first gummy, carroty smiles!
What foods should I offer first during baby-led weaning?
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 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 soft foods you give need to be soft enough to be mashed with the tongue or between your fingers.
- Good first soft foods include be avocado, banana, steamed sweet potato or steamed carrots.
- Your baby's first foods should be baton-shaped like a finger, and easily fit in baby’s hand.
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!
Introducing new types of food
You can try to introduce one new food each day for baby to explore. This way, they have a variety of foods and discover more options they enjoy, and you can see what kind of foods or shapes they prefer.
Follow their lead
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. 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!
When can you start baby-led weaning?
Weaning typically starts at around six months, but it's important to look out for certain cues that will let you know if your baby is ready or not.
- 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.
What are the benefits baby-led weaning?
Yes, it can be a little messier than traditional weaning, but there are tons of benefits too!
The benefits of baby-led weaning include…
- Improved fine motor skills, chewing skills and hand-eye coordination.
- Food preparation is easier because your baby can share the same meals and mealtimes with the rest of the family.
- Your little one enjoys a full sensory experience as they explore, inspect, and taste different food flavours and textures, developing good eating habits and introduction 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 purées.
- Making homemade baby food lets you know exactly what’s in their food.
- It makes picky eating and mealtime battles less likely
Baby-led weaning meal inspiration
Variety is the spice of life, and weaning is no different! There are tons of great websites, books, and blogs you can use for research to inspire your baby-led wean journey. Here are a few to get you started:
Baby-led weaning FAQs
Do I need to be worried about choking?
When it comes to baby-led weaning, the most common concern is choking. But one recent study showed that babies who feed themselves solid foods tend to choke as often as spoon-fed infants, proving baby-led weaning is no more dangerous.
Often, babies are not actually choking when they eat, but gagging. Choking and gagging might look the same 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 natural gag reflex, a safety mechanism that prevents choking. Your little one may also gag on foods they're trying for the first time because it’s something new that their taste buds aren't used to yet.
Gagging is sometimes mistaken for choking, but it’s a normal part of trying new foods. If you recognise the signs of gagging, don’t try to help your baby, or stop them from vomiting, because this can cause them to choke.
Signs of gagging can 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
But, it’s always important for parents to know signs of choking. These include…
- Struggling to cough or breathe
- Having a terrified look
- Making high-pitched sounds while breathing
- Face and lips that turn blue
- Struggling to make a sound
Can I combine baby-led weaning with traditional spoon-fed weaning?
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 isnt 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.
What foods should babies and toddlers not have?
- Salt – Too much salt is not good for their kidneys. Keep this in mind if you are cooking for the whole family.
- Sugar – Babies don’t need sugar, and if you avoid sugary snacks and drinks, you'll help protect their developing teeth.
- Saturated fat – Don’t let your little one have too many foods that're high in saturated fat, such as crisps, biscuits and cakes.
- Honey – Honey can contain bacteria that produces toxins and causes infant botulism, which is a very serious illness. It's recommended that babies don’t have honey until they're over one year old.
- Peanuts and whole nuts – These shouldn't be given to children under five years old, as they can lead to choking. However, babies can have nuts and peanuts from around six months old if they're crushed, ground or 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.
- Some cheeses – Babies and young children shouldn’t eat mould-ripened soft cheeses or cheeses made from unpasteurised milk because of the risk of listeria.
- Raw or lightly cooked eggs – Babies can have eggs from around six months. If the eggs are hens' eggs and they have a red lion stamped on them, or you see a red lion with the words "British Lion Quality" on the box, your baby can have them raw (for example, in homemade mayonnaise) or lightly cooked. Eggs that don’t have the red lion mark should only be eaten if the white and yolk are both fully cooked.
- Rice-based drinks – Children under five years old shouldn’t have rice drinks as a substitute for breast milk or formula (or cows' milk after one year old), 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.
- Raisins and other dried fruits – Don’t give whole raisins or dried fruits to babies under the age of one, and always cut them into small pieces.
- Raw shellfish – Raw or lightly cooked shellfish can increase the risk of food poisoning, so these shouldn’t be given to babies.
- Shark, swordfish, and marlin – Don’t give your baby shark, swordfish, or marlin. The amount of mercury in these types of fish can affect the development of a baby's nervous system.